10 Things I've learnt after 10 years as a full-time glass artist

May 11, 2020

glass artist Helga Stassen combing fused glass art in a kiln in her studio in Sedgefield, South Africa

It's a very interesting time on our planet at the moment. During Lockdown, it's time for stock-taking on many levels, not just in the pantry. So I look back on the past 10 years and ponder the lessons learnt as a full time kilnglass artist.

1. Not all glass is created equal

Glass is really not simply glass and here are so many different types of glass. Mostly customers think glass is just glass, almost like people are just people. (I suppose that is what it should be like!) But the truth is, each type of glass and colour of glass has its own unique recipe of ingredients to give it the qualities needed. Window glass, or float glass, is much harder than coloured art glass and contains iron that gives it that slight green tint. The different types of coloured glass available are most certainly not created equal and as the norm, one cannot melt mixed glass from different suppliers together. During the heating and cooling, incompatible expansion and contraction results in most unwanted cracks and this can be a big danger when working with a variety of types of glass in the same studio. Most coloured glass created specifically for stained glass or mosaic projects cannot be fused at all and will be ruined by heat. One question I probably get most often, even if it is the most intricate of Italian millefiori, is 'is this recycled glass?' The question of recycled glass is a whole other blog, but in essence - if the glass is beautiful vivid transparent colours, the answer is probably no. An even quicker and more resounding No! is often uttered when I get the question 'Is this resin?' No blog required for this one!

2. The process of kilnformed glass or fusing is not well known.

Most people are familiar with the much admired art form of blown glass and knows a bit about stained glass from cathedrals and perhaps a bit of Tiffany. Some ladies then also have a bit of a love affair going on with glass beads like Pandora or Troll beads. When it comes to descriptions such as kilnformed glass, fused glass or even warm glass most draw a blank. This has created quite a few longer than anticipated sales pitches where one first have to explain the process of this type of technique before the product or artwork can be understood and then valued. There are many advantages to kilnwork when it comes to the graphic quality of designs, creating glass powder paintings, castings and so on. As with all artforms, each presenting their own unique possibilities and limitations and the art is to learn to create with them.

3. You are bound to have extreme catastrophes in the studio at some time.

This is probably the most exciting one of the them all! There has been drama, there have been tears, there have been dumbstruck silence, an outburst of hysterical laughter and my latest one - me stomping the  ground in anger like a tantrum toddler! These always involves a loss of sorts - if your are lucky it will only be the loss of time and a bit of glass, and if you are not so lucky it will be the loss of very valuable glass, hours and hours of time, or not being able to finish pieces for an important show, and then the big ones - severely damaging or even losing a kiln. I've had all of these and survived them all. The battle scars are all over the studio as memorials, except for the dead kiln.

4. So many people love glass and dream of Venice

I've come to believe that humanity shares a communal love for glass and have thought about this a lot over the years. Maybe it is because we are all dust to dust or is it the magical light that is held in this weird fluid-that-is-not-a-fluid? There has been one lady that did express a fear of glass but she probably needs therapy. Coupled with a love for this ancient material is the wonder of Venice, the city of glass. Venice is like a Disneyland for adults and each time I go there to buy some materials, I am enchanted all over again. A blog will follow on my adventures there.

5. Patience will serve you well

This is true of most things in life, but glass is demanding when it comes to this aspect. It often feels like my emotions is reflected back by the glass and if I am not in the right frame of mind, glass has a tendency to be more difficult to handle. Then again, when one patiently sits with a piece to get it right, redo things if needs be and put all the love and thus time in, the piece will reward you with delight. Many processes in glass requires time - grinding glass to be perfectly round, placing piece of hard, rigid glass in a space a bit too small for that, making 120% sure angles are perfectly perpendicular and setting up balancing acts over and over again when slumping requires something extra. Shortcuts are few and seem to present themselves only when you have put in hours of patience.

6. Making a viable business with glass is possible, but very challenging

Being an entrepreneur is up my alley. I love the freedom that comes with it but it is no walk in the park. Taking a challenging and relatively expensive art medium such as glass and making a living from it does put some pressure on production. Making glass things is extremely time-consuming and finding the right balancing act between what sells, what it sells for, how long it takes to make and where the profits come in, is something one has to be quite scientific about. Certain products might be popular but not relate to the expense in glass and time and thus become something I only make for myself to get the bee out of my bonnet. I've also learnt that saying no is okay and often better for your business than saying yes and having a little nightmare on our hands. As with most artist-entrepreneurs, time allocation between being artist and being manager is a skill best to cultivate as quickly as possible!

7. People of all walks of life respond to the rainbow colours in glass.

I'm always amazed that by far, people respond the most to products where all the colours in the rainbow are presented together. I can have shops filled with all types of glass products, marvels in sophistication, but whether it is a 4-year old or a 84-year old, they are always drawn to the rainbow ranges first. Fascinating! At some point I was in a bit of denial about this, the architect in me preferring clean lines and monochrome tones, but now, after many years of observing this, I'm trying my best to roll with it, my way. Now after 10 years of processing this, it has presented me with many ideas and ideologies that is busy making its way into a wider variety of products and even a little movie! Watch this space!

8. Glass amplifies your craftsmanship

Glass is slow to forgive and quick to teach. Thinking 'it will be okay, it will disappear when it melts in the kiln' can sometimes become a giant flaw making a piece unsell-able or very time-consuming to fix. Best not to tempt fate. If, however, you have gained lots of experience over the years in techniques, personal tricks of the trade and a steady hand in what you do,then glass will sing your praises making your pieces stand out in the crowd. Sometimes it feels like the 10 000 hours needed to become great at something is more likely to be 20 000 hours with glass! Perhaps the age-old guilds of Venetian glass artisans and maestros who kept their crafting secrets for centuries, will agree!

9. You live with your glass

When you acquire a special piece of glass to display in your home, build it into a window or door or even wear it around your neck, your will build up a relationship with it. I will love how it catches the light certain times of the day or how the reflections shift seasonally, you will sometimes find yourself staring at it mesmerized and you will love the compliments you get when you wear it! Essentially you fall in love with it and it becomes part of your story, your travels and your home. Many glass pieces are inherited and cared for long after the original owners are gone and so glass connects us in a magical way.

To me glass became a someone, it is not a something any more. I have learnt to respect its qualities and moods and love it for its flaws and grandeur all the same. Many times I have felt a certain loss when selling an item that I really liked having around or if I have not had enough time with it before it goes. Some items I hold onto until a day when someone shows that they will be able to love and enjoy it more than I perhaps could. Then it is a joy to let it go and know who it went to. There has been an instance where I refused to sell a piece because of the 'money can buy everything' attitude of a guy and I enjoyed proving him wrong with my unwillingness to sell the special piece. 

10. Everyday I am more fascinated by this incredible medium of Light.

So many times I have made sounds of delight when opening the kiln after its secret firing. I can plan and cut and place the glass, I can pray to the mercy of the kiln gods when I switch the kiln on, but when the glass does its thing in the kiln, it is normally in the early morning hours when I cannot touch it. We are co-creators and sometimes the glass takes over a bit. The glass generously offers another pleasure when photographed and if it is in sunlight presents entirely new dimensions of itself. I often think it is this aspect that thrills me most - the gifts of the glass in light. It becomes more than itself and the coloured light beyond the piece is more beautiful and pure regardless of craftsmanship, type of glass and finishing. Here it simply inspires. This gift or purpose of the glass is ethereal and mystical and perhaps this is what we as humans with all our cracks and colours should be too. Be in the Light and be more beyond yourself!

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