Dressing Down

Glass is a difficult medium in which to work. I am often left feeling envious after watching my neighbouring makers at trade shows who seem to set up their stands in about a quarter of the time I do and with a lot less hassle. Glass is heavy, bulky and fragile and frustratingly it requires pale surfaces and good light to make it looks its best, so displaying glass well often involved bringing one’s own plinths and lighting.

So I thought it would be interesting to learn a bit more about display and I attended a two day course at Craft Central with Diana Furlong who was as a Senior Window Dresser at Harrods for many years and has worked extensively as a lighting technician in West End theatre. She has a wealth of experience in devising and installing eye catching, effective displays.

And yet once again I found myself wishing I had been drawn to a different medium! I watched as Diana did what she knows best and came up with a multitude of different ideas of displaying and styling the products that the other participants had brought. We all learnt a lot about placement of objects, the use of colour backdrops, creating little scenes with props and how to make stories through all these techniques to help sell the product. There was so much possibility for different styling with the jewellery, scarves and cushions that the other particpants

However when it came to my products, it became clear to me that there wasn’t much I could add to style these in a similar way without it becoming a distraction. Diana did not give up, however, and she created various lighting schemes for my Sapphire Bejewelled Bowl, illuminating the bowl from underneath and behind and creating colour washes with lighting gels to see how to display it best.


Much as I would have liked to have to be able to style and accessorise my products in the same way that everyone else had, I realised that when it comes to my glass, keeping it simple is probably the way to go.

Competitive Spirit

I took the train up to London Bridge on a lovely sunny Monday morning this week to do my judging duties for the Stevens Competition. Glaziers Hall was unavailable so we had a lovely room in Southwark Cathedral Conference Centre with lots of windows to view the sample glass panels. Ironically the site where the finalist’s panels are to be installed is in a corridor with substantially less light, so this was a critical consideration from the beginning.

However as a first time judge, I had a lot of other criteria to get my head round before anything else. The four judges were given a short introduction and then we worked in half hour segments, viewing and marking 6 panels at a time. There were six criteria to assess each panel against, but before I got down to the sticky business of handing out marks or reading artists’ statements, I wanted to give each panel at least a few minutes of my undivided attention. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was entering the Stevens Competition as a student, and I remember how much thought and effort and work went into my entries, so I really wanted to just appreciate the glass pieces on display and connect on a sensory level with the artist’s intention.

Little did I know how much time would elapse while I was being all touchy-feely and when we were given our ten minute notice, I was in a slight panic noticing that the other judges had already allotted their marks and I hadn’t even started! Needless to say I managed my time a little better with each subsequent group of entries, so by the end I had the timing down to a tee.

We judges struggled with the decision beyond the first round of judging. We were to choose a prize for craftmanship and for presentation and the debate that ensued assured me that the Glaziers Guild, who run the competition, had chosen the group of judges well – we all brought different skills and areas of interest to the table, and we had a lively discussion for both categories.

After lunch, we proceeded to the second stage of judging which had a selection of the twelve strongest panels, again shown in two groups of six. This time we discussed each panel before remarking against the same criteria, and although I am pretty sure that my marking was consistent and a second viewing merely strengthened my convictions about most of the panels, we were told that overall our second round marks showed quite some variation to the first round marking…. the group discussions had obviously engendered a lot of thought.

What was interesting was how some panels which had seemed very strong contenders to start with, did not hold the emotional connection upon further scrutiny, whereas other panels which seemed obvious on first viewing, somehow acquired more depth the longer we considered them. Inevitably at this stage we were beginning to think about the panels in situ in a long, busy corridor and these aspects started to come into play in our decision-making. The final decision was deliberated upon for quite some time, going back and forth between pairs of panels, comparing them against each other to see how they fared when either viewed up close or at a distance.

The final marks were totted up and announced to us and, despite the worry that sometimes intricate marking systems can skew the results and favour submissions that don’t inspire that gut-feeling ‘rightness’, we were all satisfied that the marking had produced the right overall decision. It was a learning curve for me for my own practice to realise that the order of importance in submitting a competition proposal is to communicate:

1. simply
2. efficiently
3. professionally
4. emotionally
5. deeply

These are the chronological stages one goes through as a judge from first viewing to decision-making, though interestingly this does not match the chronology of viewing an artwork as a spectator, for which an emotional link with the artwork is of primary importance. However, as judges, we had to consider that the final panel chosen will be made and installed in an actual site (Swansea School of Glass), and thus it was critical that we had confidence in the winner’s professionalism as well as integrity of their work.

This was one thing on which I felt many of the entries fell down. I am a terrible perfectionist so I was aware that I was applying my own high standards and expectations to a group of student work, but I left feeling rather peeved that the easiest part (by a long way) of assembling a complete competition submission – such as checking for spelling mistakes or mounting a printed piece of paper on backing card rather than shoving in a dog-eared printout – were not done. I know one is meant to look past these things, but it immediately undermines one’s confidence that the entrant will have attention to detail in the final installation if the most basic of tweaks are not made in the submission in the first place.

However this aspect will provoke a lot of discussion at the prizegiving in May when the prizewinning students are announced. It will serve well as an educational experience for those that didn’t quite make the grade this time to improve for the next time they enter a competition such as this.

Swansea Sojourn

I was delighted to have been asked to be a judge for the Stevens Competition this year and so I had a much needed day away from the studio yesterday with an invitation to make my way to the University of Wales. The commission attached to this year’s competition is to be offered at the newly renovated School of Glass in Swansea.


Having read about the building on the train journey from Paddington,  I was looking forward to see how the architects had integrated a modern glass extension onto the original building which was contructed in 1887. I had been told the campus was five or ten minutes from the station, and so taking directions from customer services in the station and following the map on my phone I was slightly bemused when, twenty minutes later, I found myself still walking up an interminable hill looking for the open campus I had imagined from looking at the architect’s image (above).

When my mobile told me I was at my destination, I knew I had been misdirected. It was the wrong building! It turned out that the School of Glass was at the bottom of the hill right in the middle of the town centre – I had been directed to the School of Art surrounded by space at the top of the hill. Don’t you just love those architects’ drawings which blank out the hustle bustle of the surroundings?! I must have walked right past it staring at my mobile!

Anyway I finally joined the other judges on the tour around the building led by Dr Vanessa Cutler who runs the degree and PHD courses in glass at the University. Our group was later described as “kids in a candy store” looking at the facilities, and it’s not surprising – I was wildly envious going from room to well-equipped room full of what looked like brand new equipment! It was like being taken into a stained glass treasury when we descended into the basement store, packed to the gills with racks of sample glass panels from previous Stevens Competitions. We joked that somewhere within the warren of rooms would be hidden an original Johannes Schreiter panel, but in fact we only had to look up to see a Schreiter panel installed in the staircase to the Glass department, a legacy of the time in the 1970’s -90’s that German Masters came and worked with the students in the School.

Reading Room

Image: www.southwales-eveningpost.co.uk

The last room we visited in the beautiful grade II listed building was a stunning circular reading room, once the Swansea Central Library, temporarily used as a Doctor Who set and, after the building was acquired by the University, briefly used as a leading room for the Stained Glass courses. The architects had applied a light touch when renovating this splendid Victorian interior, though they had managed to shift the entire entrance porch a metre forward into the space to allow for disabled access.

After a jolly lunch in the Dragon Hotel down the road, we disbanded again embarking on our various train and car journeys back to our respective homes around the country, and agreeing to meet again in Southwark Cathedral in April for the judging of the compettion.


Image: www.b4ed.com

On the train on the way back, I looked at further online images of the lovely building and realised with some irony that there had been a big clue calling out to me to announce the location of Alexandra Road campus…. I managed to walk straight past an enormous sign with letters four feet high saying “Alex”.



Blind Faith

I had booked into a seminar held by The Design Trust at the British Library yesterday morning and so I tubed it up to Euston. Making my way through the station, I saw a blind woman heading straight towards a wall which, thankfully, her white stick stopped her crashing into. I went over to offer my help and she said she had got confused and lost her bearings. I guided her back towards the escalator and once we were ascending she thanked me and said she was ok from there.

However that little encounter stayed in my head, particularly as she was the second blind person I’ve helped in a busy tube station in the last fortnight. The London tube network is confusing enough for a sighted person, but trying to navigate the swirling crowds and warren-like tunnels and escalators without sight must be nerve-wracking.

I arrived at the British Library ready to learn…. the seminar was on PR for small businesses, something at which I have proved to be consistently poor! Talks were given by Barbara Chandler (the Design writer for the Evening Standard), Lara Watson (the editor of Mollie Makes magazine), and Paula Gardner of DoYourOwnPr.

The Design Trust speakers

As the experts spoke, I rather resignedly realised there really is no getting away from social media. Forget formal press releases; these days it’s all about Twitter, Linked In, blogging, pinning and posting on Instagram.

Well… great.

I feel like I’ve spent years avoiding all of that social media stuff for a good reason, namely the huge black hole of time you fall into when you start doing it. I finally relented last year and reluctantly became a fully paid up member of the social media generation, and since then I feel like all I’ve done is (virtually) talk rather than (actually) doing. I just want to be making, but instead I have been led down what feels like a relentless labyrinth of online chatter, where somehow you have to make your voice heard… a vast, unending tangle of online imagery which you need to engage with in the most shallow and fleeting manner.

I want to be in the world of objects, where touch and feel invokes memory, not a flickering instant in the stream of images that we imbibe on a daily basis through social media.

I want to be in a world where, if three experts are talking, the audience in the room are respectfully paying attention to what they say rather than snapping images of them to tweet to their thousands of followers.

From Twitter @Sunnyholt

The irony was not lost on me that during one of the exercises we were set to write a press launch in 140 characters to tweet, my neighbour showed me her twitter feed where a photo had just appeared of herself looking at her twitter which had just been taken and tweeted by Barbara Chandler whom she follows!

Was I the only person in the room who found the glorious self-reflexivity of the situation totally ludicrous?!

And suddenly it struck me. I am like that blind woman in the tube…. clumsily trying to orient myself in a swirling, ever-changing torrent of information, looking for the way up and out, but heading the wrong way towards a dead end, and everyone else can see my fate but me!

As the seminar came to an end and my moment of metaphorical clarity was complete, I bumped into Sarah Young, one of the artists we invited to our Designed Crafted Christmas show. She was a welcome voice of assent and we had a little rant about the awfulness of social media, but I reflected that she and her partner Jon – with whom she runs Made London and Made Brighton – have managed to successfully navigate the labyrinth of social media (4000 twitter followers and counting!) without losing their integrity or sense of direction.


It had been a thought-provoking three hours, and as I emerged from the building and through the beautifully lettered portico of the British Library entrance, I was gobsmacked to see the blind lady from earlier, walking confidently along the congested Euston Road and back towards the tube.


Christmas Baubles

Last weekend we put up our Christmas tree. I thought I’d leave my family with some festive frivolity before heading off to West Dean for the week, so I booked them a session to blow glass Christmas baubles with Michael Ruh, our neighbour and local glass blower.

Michael’s studio is a lovely space in a warren of studios down a little blink-and-you’d-miss-it alley between an Indian takeaway and a bookies in Tulse Hill. We were welcomed by Michael’s wife Natascha who showed us the three options for the glass baubles – a spiral, a speckled or a colour field bauble. They would be blown from glass that had been rolled in granular glass frit which would give them their colour. My son chose a silvery yellow and blue for a spiral bauble and my husband chose an reddish orange and white frit for what I realised, resignedly, was going to be an Arsenal-themed bauble.

Then Michael demonstrated how he gathered the glass from the furnace, trimming it with shears, shaping it with a block and beginning to blow air into it to trap a bubble inside the glass. More heating in the furnace and then the hot gather of glass was rolled in the frit before being heated again to melt it in.

Isaac blowing glassThen came the fun part where Michael got each of them to stand on a raised platform ready to blow down the blowpipe while Michael’s assistant shaped the growing bubble of glass in a mold.The bubble was tapped off and a hanging loop was fashioned from a blob of viscous glass placed on top. The finished bauble was marked up with an identifying number and placed in a kiln for annealing over the next 24 hours.

I left my son with instructions to pick up the baubles from Natascha while I was away and I loved seeing the results.



Two places going!

Every now and then I teach glass from my own studio in West Dulwich. One of my private courses is The Glass Class, which is a one day workshop for previous students of mine who wish to carry on making glass in a more ad hoc way.

If you have already learnt the basics from me – either on one of my West Dean courses or my Fuseability course at The Glass Studio – then you’ll be able to join us on the 12th October as I have two places left. Our day will be determined by what you want to do. Most students come with ideas of what they want to make and we usually spend a bit of time at the beginning of the day discussing these ideas as a group and working out what is possible in the time.

From there on in, you have access to lots of materials and equipment and of course expert guidance from me to help you realise your ideas. I am there if you need a few pointers on technique or a reminder of how to use equipment, but there is no formal teaching per se which will allow you maximum time to get on with your work.

Reasonably priced at £85, the cost of the workshop includes the kiln firing at the end of the day and the packaging and delivery of your pieces by courier within a few days of the course.

The day runs from 10.30am-6pm and most people bring their own packed lunch so as to leave as much time for glassmaking as possible.

If you’d like to join us on the 12th October, contact me here.



An i-Lumen-ating experience

I had an odd experience last Friday. I had spent the day at a Business Club run by The Design Trust in a lovely sunny conference centre in Bloomsbury. We had been in the main meeting room all morning, then served lunch in the garden courtyard and attended a seminar in another side room, with the gentle sounds of the general public in the cafe at the front of the building.

Walking back towards the exit at the end of the day, I noticed some small stained glass windows dotted down the corridor. “That’s odd!” I thought… the stained glass was backwards, so I was looking at it the wrong way from the corridor, which meant that the front view was on the other side of the wall. As I followed the corridor down to investigate what was on the other side I was envisioning another meeting space. And then I turned the corner to discover that the cafe was in fact just the front end of a chapel! A chapel within a contemporary conference building? Surprising.

On speaking to the cafe manager, the penny dropped. Lumen was in fact a Church which had been redesigned in 2009 with dwindling congregation numbers in mind and thus rebuilt with the religious space being only one relatively small part of a larger multiple use centre.

Quite apart from being a beautifully designed space, it struck me that if I could spend a day in the building without actually realising it was a church, then the Lumen brand offers a challenging model for religious architecture in the 21st century.


New skills

I am dedicating this summer to new beginnings… finally getting myself on social media (which I’ve been resolving to do for years, without ever having even dipped my toe in Facebook!) and making a new website including an online shop. This involves acquiring some serious new photographic skills and finally learning how to use the studio lights I bought years ago. So with this in mind, I signed myself up to a photographic course with Maythem Ridha, a documentary photographer and filmmaker in south west London.

It was a dazzlingly sunny day so coming into a cool dark photographic studio was rather nice, but those studio lights heated up quickly and we got down to some serious work getting our work looking good in the photos. My fellow students were mainly jewellery-makers who have the same issues as me when photographing work, namely those pesky reflections! We used diffuser tents to create a white space around the object in order to get rid of every possible reflection, but the black rim of the lens poking through the tent was still reflected in some of the larger silver pieces. After years of frustration photographing my glass, I was suddenly counting my blessings that I don’t have to deal with the mirror-like surface of jewellery.

I came away with a much better idea of how to use my equipment to make good photographs, thanks to Maythem and Paul. Looking forward to trying out my new skills…