Saturday, 27 February 2010

Catching the light

Catching the Light: Contemporary Glass

Despite the snow, and several aborted attempts during December I found myself driving in the shadows of Helvellyn the day before this exhibition ended determined to see what was on offer before it was taken down. Blackwell The Arts and Crafts House is an inspirational place to visit, particularly for those of us who are involved in art, craft and design. Wherever you look craftsmanship and beauty shine out, from the window latches to the fireplaces, artisans have had a hand in both the contents and the fabric of this building. I arrived wondering if the glass in this exhibition would or could reflect such perfection.

Blackwell was designed by the architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott (1865 – 1945) and it offered him an opportunity to explore his ideas on space, light and texture. It is fitting then that Alison Kinnaird MBE, who co-curated this exhibition with Dr Kathy Haslam, the curator at Blackwell, chose to focus this selection of work based on the artist’s response to light.

The three rooms in which the exhibition was staged were flooded with natural light, and the glass cabinets that the majority of the work was displayed in were spacious. In two of the rooms the cabinets were flat against the walls, reducing the transmitted light through the pieces and therefore their impact. However, in the third room the cabinets were coming out at right angles from the walls. This enabled people to examine the work more closely, there was more light play on, through and with the pieces, and the layout created more of a journey, forcing people to stop, linger and engage with the work.

There was little information about the how the work was made, and whilst absorbing the work and making notes I found myself drawn in to becoming an unofficial guide to glass making techniques as I overheard people asking ‘I wonder how they made that?’. I believe that as makers it is our responsibility to create opportunities to educate our audience, as it is only then that our work will become valued for what it is. It is paramount that we start sharing more information about our design and making process when we exhibit whether that be by literature, audio or visual.

In the main I thought that the selection of work was successful when appraised against it’s interaction with light. However, I had a personal struggle with one or two pieces. Vanessa Cutler’s Cartwheel discs felt flat and vapid against the other work on show, even displayed in a cabinet with light coming from both sides, and Alison Kinnaird’s linen fold series of opaque cameo glass possessed limited light play, although I would have been very happy to take them home and hang them on my wall.

The work that provided me with the most pleasant surprise was that of Annica Sandstrom and David Kaplan of Lindean Mill Glass. I have seen images of their work on invites and the web, but to be honest, these images didn’t succeed in gaining my interest. However, as I walked into the second room of the exhibition I was faced by two large panels of glass set on plinths, placed in the centre of the room and back lit by the natural light from the large windows behind. The work was radiant; it brought a smile to my face and reminded me of the reason I fell in love with glass. Once in a while I see something that moves me and gives me inspiration to explore new ways of working. This work provided that inspiration. Disappointingly, there were some further pieces displayed in glass cases against the wall, and these just looked drab and lifeless in comparison. Once again it reinforced to me the importance of where and how glass is displayed and photographed.

Yoshiko Okada’s cast pieces looked slightly lost low down in the large cabinets, and I felt that all that enclosed but empty space around them took away from their powerful solidity. However, when the sun shone in through the windows and onto the pieces it created a wonderful play of light and shadow on the wall that was a beautiful work of art in its own right. In contrast, the smaller works by Alison Kinnaird and Anthony Scala had been grouped together and displayed on Perspex blocks to raise them up into the space in the cabinets and these were far more successful.

Despite these financially precarious times it was reassuring to see that many pieces between £350 and £500 had sold. However, whilst I was making notes I heard one or two ‘disgusted’ comments about the price of a piece of Anthony Scala’s work, which at £450 they felt was ‘ridiculous’. If only they could understand the hours that go into making, finishing and polishing our work, and realise that many pieces don’t even make the grade. If they could be made aware that the gallery will take their cut and the makers can receive as little as half the price on the ticket, perhaps then they would be more understanding of the prices we have to charge just to scrape a living.

I always make a beeline for the comments book at an exhibition, and amidst the many positive comments there were only three that mentioned price. Two people ‘wished they could afford it’ and one man said ‘lovely exhibition, cannot work out how the items on display are priced though!’ And indeed, if we don’t tell them, or provide information to explain the techniques, the time and the materials needed to make our work, how will they ever know? And how, as makers will we begin to get the public to understand that we can justify what we charge for our art?

The work displayed in the Catching the Light exhibition held its own in the context of Blackwell. There was the same sense of passion about the making process that came across from the selected artists that you see in each of the rooms in the rest of the house. I’m glad I risked the snowy journey to get there, and thoroughly recommend a visit to Blackwell The Arts & Crafts house at any time of the year.


  1. Ten out of ten. I would have liked to have seen it in the flesh, but you brought me the next best thing.

  2. Dear Jude,

    I'm from BBC Radio Cumbria. I run a feature on the Ian Timms Show called Little Cumbria...

    Each week I ask three different people to keep a dairy for five consecutive days, to tell the story of their lives.

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    Once the diary is written, we then arrange a time to record it... And then I mix the three different diaries together with a narrator and theme music, and make a mini Cumbrian soap.

    It runs Monday to Friday at 1745, and is now entering it's 35th week.

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    I search local blogs because it is a great place to find people who enjoy being in the spotlight, and have talent for writing.

    Would you willing to have a bash?

    Here are my contact details... I look forward to hearing from you,


    Steven Greaves | BBC Radio Cumbria
    Annetwell Street, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA3 8BB
    tel: 01228 592444