Creative Capital: Learn the art of glassblowing with this Singapore glass artist
Inspired by Netflix's Blown Away to take up glassblowing? Look for Barbara Jane Cowie, a Sydney-born, Singapore-based glass artist, whose works can be seen at Changi Airport and Ocean Financial Centre.
I am, like many of you, I suspect, a bit of a Netflix junkie. One of my favourite recent series is Blown Away, whose second season dropped in January.
The art of glassblowing looks incredible. The results, when done well, can be magical. But glassblowing – or working with hot glass, in general – also looks dangerous, exhausting and nerve-racking.
In Singapore, you have Barbara Jane Cowie, a respected Australian professional glass artist and teacher, who moved here to teach. That was 18 years ago. Given the popularity of Blown Away, I thought I would check in with her.
WHAT DREW YOU TO GLASS ORIGINALLY?
I was first introduced to glass at the Sydney College of the Arts in the early 1980s. Glass was then a newly introduced art material and a new area of creative practice in Australia. I majored in glass and sculpture, and graduated with a degree in 1983.
In my early 20s, I travelled to England and Europe. It was there that I saw hot glass for the first time and I immediately fell in love with this molten material. Glass has a beauty and intensity like no other material. Symbolic of the fragility and beauty of life, it offers colour, texture, light and flowing form. Mesmerised by the glowing liquid and fascinated by how glass can be formed, I knew instantly I wanted to be a glassmaker for the rest of my life.
YOU ALSO HAVE A MASTER’S DEGREE FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA. WHAT OTHER EXPERIENCES DO YOU HAVE?
I spent two of the four years abroad working with various glass artists and in different glassmaking studios in Europe and England. Hours were spent watching the glassmakers to learn about how the glass is formed. I returned to Australia via Russia, Japan and Indonesia in the late 1980s.
While in England, I heard about a glassmaking training centre in the JamFactory, a craft and design centre in Adelaide. Determined to learn more and develop my own practice as an artist and glassmaker, I moved there in 1989 to work as a trainee.
I was also curious to learn more about Japan. I knew there were many glassmaking studios there, so in 1991, I set off to work at the Fujigawa Craft Park for a few months. I also worked in a production glass factory in Yamanashi Ken, and at the Unga Kogakan Glass Studio in Hokkaido. I spent a year travelling and living in Japan, working in various factories and studios, and used my time to stage four solo exhibitions in Tokyo and Sapporo.
Returning to Adelaide, I opened my own hot glass studio. During this time, I travelled to the US to undertake various hot glass courses at the renowned Pilchuck Glass School, where I learned from prominent American glass artists alongside other students from around the world.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO MASTER GLASSWORK?
The studio glassmaking community has expanded and grown exponentially, providing more opportunities to work alongside other glass artists. Rather than travel to overseas glassmaking studios, we are now able to watch glassmaking videos on YouTube and Netflix to see the different approaches used in the making techniques. Thus, the time taken to learn may be reduced as information is more readily available.
However, to develop the required knowledge and know-how to move with the glass and understand how the glass moves, still takes time and lots of practice.
I HAVE TO ADMIT, I KNOW LITTLE ABOUT GLASS, OTHER THAN FROM WATCHING NETFLIX'S BLOWN AWAY AND GALLERY VISITS IN MURANO, ITALY. TELL ME ABOUT THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF PRODUCTION.
Glass is one of the first "manmade" materials that has been used and fashioned in a plethora of ways. It is difficult for me to describe the many kinds of glass-making production as there are so many. There are machine-made, mould-blown vessels (bottles and jars for packaging); float glass for windows and doors; borosilicate glass for science and heat-proof cookware; tempered glass for car windscreens; and art glass created through hot glassworking, using kilns, glass casting, flameworking, coldworking and painting.
Art glass encompasses what you saw in Murano and in the Blown Away series. It started in Murano in the 17th century when it was a trading port, a little like what Singapore is today. Art glass was an art form for Venetian merchants keen to display their wealth through ornate art glass – a most beautiful, expensive and difficult craft to master. They also established a glassmaking centre on one of the Venetian islands.
During the early 20th century, before the early 1960s, contemporary glass was mass-manufactured in factories to create mainly functional containers. This form of glass art was pioneered in the early 1900s by Tiffany, Steuben, Galle, Hoya Crystal, Royal Leerdam Crystal, Orrefors and Kosta Boda.
Creative glass design emerged from the factories during the mid-1900s in Europe, where designers and artists were introduced to glassmakers. This combination of designer and maker led to the production of new products and artworks that had a marketing advantage over "inexpensive production" items.
Studio glass followed as a new use for glass. It became an artist’s medium to produce artworks and sculptures. This is a relatively new phenomenon that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. These days, art glassworks, made in Murano and as seen on Blown Away, are intended as artistic statements as well as for sculptural and/or decorative purposes.
Studio glass pieces tend to exemplify a creative concept or as a show of mastery of the difficult technical skills that require time-consuming processes. The price of studio glass is, therefore, high. It can range from a few hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars – and even a few million dollars.
WHICH STYLE OF GLASSMAKING DO YOU MOST ENJOY?
My first love is hot glass. Picking up hot glass practice again for the 30-day challenge with Refind – a Singapore company that focuses on recycling glass – has been a wonderful return to the physical, exhausting and embodied act of hot glassmaking.
BLOWN AWAY SHOWED HOW DIFFICULT AND PHYSICALLY TAXING GLASSBLOWING IS. IS IT REALLY THAT TOUGH? AND ARE ACCIDENTAL BREAKAGES THAT COMMON?
Yes, it is really that tough, and yes, accidental breakages are really that common! Glassblowing is hot, very hot. You are standing in front of a reheating chamber that is radiating heat at 1,000 degrees Celsius. You sweat a lot, you need to drink a lot of water, eat a lot to maintain your energy and sleep a lot to rejuvenate your body.
Accidents and breakages occur a lot when you are learning or trying something new. The timing is super critical. If one part of the piece is too cold and you accidently knock the piece, the whole thing will come unstuck and fall to the floor.
THROUGH YOUR COMPANY, ART GLASS SOLUTIONS, YOU HAVE PRODUCED SOME IMPRESSIVE GLASS ART INSTALLATIONS. WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS WHEN A CLIENT APPROACHES YOU WITH A BRIEF?
It starts with the gathering of information. Firstly, the basics – location, size, budget and timeline. Then, I develop some initial ideas or concepts suitable for the space and the activity that occurs within it. I also do considerable visual research to find out what is already in existence, so I may create something new, unexpected and different.
Once I have a bit of an idea, I ask more questions to ascertain harmony with the space: What is the purpose of the artwork? Who will be using the space? How will viewers first see the artwork and from what angle of approach? Then, I ask questions about what the client does, what the people do in that space, what inspiration and/or conceptual ideas they prefer.
I usually offer up three different ideas and styles for the client's feedback. Once the client shows preference for a certain direction, I will develop it further with more visual research and the beginnings of three-dimensional renderings to better illustrate and represent my ideas. Once the concept and design are confirmed, I go from 2D designs to 3D maquettes and back again to check on the feasibly and aesthetics of the design within the space.
Sampling is a critically important part of the creative process as I develop the first paper mock-ups to illustrate to the makers how the samples can be made and how they should look. Samples ensure that what I have visualised is possible to fabricate. And as the samples get larger and more sophisticated, we get closer and closer to the final aesthetics of the artwork.
This design development process takes the longest as I develop new ways of working, challenging existing modes of production, and shifting the normal ways of doing things. A big part of my practice is to be very involved in the making process. Certainly, I have a vision but I also like to be involved in the making process, so as to make unexpected decisions about colour and form while making.
Once the client has signed off on the design and the samples are developed, production can begin. During this period, I get to, figurately speaking, "step into" the artwork. I am no longer looking at an image or a computer screen, but working inside the artwork, surrounded by structures and samples, and fully immersed in the process of making.
Even during this making process, I am repeatedly experimenting with different components, placements and making visuals of the completed artwork within the space to ensure everything will materialise the way I have envisioned.
Once all the components are complete, we can begin the on-site installation. I have realised that we should always do a pre-installation off-site to ensure it looks the way I expected it to look, and to avoid difficult and costly changes required on-site.
This also lets the installers learn how to handle the glass, fix attachments and position the artwork. If there is no chance to do an off-site installation, I usually install a sample piece – a life-size version in a different material perhaps – to check position, size and layout.
WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING INSTALLATION YOU HAVE DONE?
The most challenging installation I have completed, and one of the largest to date, is Complex Simplicity at the Ocean Financial Centre in 2013. It was so big, it was necessary for me to design and develop a structure to support the wall, the sculptural wall finish and the 999 glass fish.
It was important that the artwork flowed as its focus was on the "movement" of the fish swimming. The exact angle and distance from the wall for each fish were decided during installation, but the brackets that held each fish needed to be confirmed before installation.
In addition, I wanted the fish and brackets to be a seamless fit – and for the brackets to be part of the design aesthetics. Furthermore, the brackets needed to be easy to remove for maintenance. That task alone took a year of design development, sampling, moulding and prototyping.
Another year was spent developing the layout and installation planning, and yet another was spent on developing the fish shape, colour combinates and the bracket attachment details. Finally, shipping and installation took up the best part of six months. The structure, sculptured wall backing, and finally, the fish, were installed layer by layer.
TELL ME ABOUT THE WORKSHOPS AND CLASSES YOU OFFER.
I am passionate about teaching glassblowing. I have been an educator since the late 1990s in Australia, Europe, the USA and now, Singapore. Sharing my love of this amazing material is an important part of my practice as an artist and glassmaker.
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I have been teaching beginner hot glass classes since I can remember. I love the process and I love teaching. Over the years, I have developed and refined the way I teach so students can learn a lot within a short time. Nonetheless, to understand what they have learnt takes time and practice.
Teaching small classes allows me to provide one-on-one instruction so beginners learn quickly. The Blown Away show has increased interest in glassmaking and many of my students have been excited to experience hot glassmaking for themselves.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO BE A GLASS ARTIST IN SINGAPORE?
Glassblowing is not easy. It takes years to learn and even longer to master. I came to Singapore to teach but, unlike Australia, there was little interest in the applied arts then. The focus at the time was the development of the IT industry. Making, labouring, sweating and toiling are usually the occupations of others.
The art of hot glassmaking is far from an occupation that allows you to sit down. It is far from clean and neat clothing, and a long way from air-conditioned comfort. And most students preferred to work at a computer in a comfortable chair, and under the cooling breeze of the air-conditioner.
HAVE THINGS CHANGED? ARE THERE ART SCHOOLS IN SINGAPORE OFFERING COURSES IN GLASSMAKING TODAY?
To my knowledge, there are no other formal educational facilities offering glassmaking courses in Singapore right now. Lasalle, before moving its campus, began to refocus away from the applied arts, shifting Jewellery into Design, Ceramics into Sculpture, and closing down Glass altogether.
The crafts and glass departments in higher educational institutions worldwide are closing, too. It is the trend as IT, web design, programming and computer designing courses become increasingly popular. New technology naturally offers more career options for graduates. Applied arts courses require extensive materials and equipment to run, thus, they are expensive, especially if there are only a few students interested to learn.
Over the past 15 years, I have continued to teach in studios and glass schools in Europe and Australia. And as I see more university courses close, I notice an increase in private studios opening up for classes and opportunities for hobbyists.
ARE YOU MORE FOCUSED ON STUDIO PRACTICE AND TEACHING, OR DO YOU STILL TAKE ON COMMERCIAL PROJECTS?
Currently, my focus is on teaching and opening a new hot glass studio for the public in Singapore. Training others with a similar passion for art making and glassmaking is my current goal, so that others may take on the role of the teacher or trainer. Offering a diverse selection of courses that allow novices to learn new skills, and use a different side of their brains is the essence of my current focus on enrichment and experience.
Nevertheless, my passion remains for art glass installation work. I design small-scale artworks for the home as well as seek out large-scale projects from developers and large corporations. Art making is something I will never stop doing, no matter how much teaching I do. Art making is fundamental to who I am.
DID THE PANDEMIC DISRUPT YOUR PLANS FOR 2020? HOW WAS THE YEAR FOR YOU?
I was in the process of attending a creative writing course in Tasmania when travel restrictions were enforced. We were forced to pivot and hold our sessions online.
I had also planned to travel to meet old friends and do a workshop or exhibition with them. Instead, I created a mini project called #getincontact, and connected with past colleagues and friends via Facebook, Zoom and Skype.
This creative project also provided me with a wonderful connection to an extended international community of glass artists, one I did not previously make time for. Also, I've decided to make my personal spaces public as no one can visit me in Singapore. I will be taking photos of my home and work space, and posting these images online.
The biggest benefit of the circuit breaker period was making the decision to take the time to extend myself with yoga classes every day, and undertake an online business development course for a few weeks.
During one of these classes, the idea for Refind's #30daychallenge emerged. So, as I conveniently have a home studio, I decided to blow glass with a different bottle glass for three hours every day for 30 days. This provided me with a great motivation to get up and work every day.
Posting the results online at #refindGS gave me the opportunity to think and write about the experiences of making. I also began to think more about what it is to recycle glass. How much glass is imported into Singapore every day, and how we might find new ways to use and re-use glass in innovative ways.
ANY EXCITING PLANS FOR 2021?
The most exciting project in 2021 is to build a hot glass school in Singapore, where teaching, learning and enrichment are the aim. As we look closer to home during this new normal, offering the opportunity to learn something new such as hot glass is an interesting and exciting opportunity for many. The sense of wonder about this hot liquid material, doing a magical dance with it, and gaining the skills to create functional and decorative art out of glass are exciting.
Whether it be making a bracelet of beads, a tumbler to drink a favourite beverage from, or a glass dish to bring a little colour into the home, offering others the opportunity to work with glass is a big part of my next new adventure – and my ongoing journey and development as a glass artist, educator and creator.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said Barbara Jane Cowie is Singapore's sole glass artist, which is incorrect. We apologise for the error.