Sunday, 28 June 2015

Helmut Hiebl of Murringo NSW

Murringo is a small village on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range about 300km WSW of Sydney.  At the 2006 Census the population of Murringo and the surrounding district was 322 souls. It boasts a couple of substantial churches (ambitions for population growth in the early days), a school, a village hall and a store – and that’s about it for physical infrastructure. For 30 years, the major tourist attraction was the studio and shop of glass artist Helmut Hiebl.

Helmut Hiebl was born in a small rural town in Austria in 1943. When he left school, he intended to work in ceramics but instead found a job in a local glass factory where he learnt the skill of glass blowing. From there he was recommended to a prestigious glass school in the Tyrol and learnt to engrave and decorate glass. After working in Germany as a designer and decorator for a few years, he returned to Austria where he had his own shop, engraving and decorating glass. His work came to the attention of the designers from the famous Steuben Glass works in Corning NY, and in 1972 he was offered a position as a glass engraver there, where he stayed for three years.

First studio of Helmut Hiebl, Murringo 1977-1982*

He migrated to Australia in 1976 with his wife and young son. They stayed at first with his brother, who had come to Australia in the 1950s and was then located in the inland NSW town of Young. Helmut and family moved shortly afterwards to Murringo, about 20km away, where he set up the engraving lathe that he had brought with him. Unable to source glass objects to decorate, he set upon building his own furnace to melt the raw materials, fashioning his own tools for blowing and shaping the molten glass, and employing his wife as the glassblower’s assistant. This first workshop was in a disused blacksmith’s shop made from vertical timber slab sides with corrugated iron gables and roof (see photo). Only the gleaming white gas tank brings this image into the 20th Century. This picturesque but ancient accommodation lasted until 1982, when he moved across the road to a more modern workshop attached to their house.

Helmut Hiebl at his engraving lathe*
The “new” glass blowing workshop, post 1982*

The glass works of Helmut Hiebl were sold mostly to tourists visiting the area, including those who came to the workshop to view the exciting spectacle of glassblowing, and to locals and visitors alike through a craft shop in Young. Some of his customers even sought him out in his rural hideaway to purchase his glass. His works tend to be smaller and less ambitious in scale than the output of artisans based in the big cities and the international tourist destinations of coastal Australia. But the integrity of their decoration sets them apart from the usual run of tourist ware.

The first items below come from the early days of the old workshop in the slab hut. Unusually for most of Hiebl’s output, two of them are marked with a year inscribed along with his usual signature of “H. Hiebl” with its characteristic leading serifs at the top of both capital Hs. The bottle has the fizz of tiny random bubbles common from rudimentary glass furnaces, although the coloured spots using powdered enamels are sophisticated. Remarkably the apple and small bird figures are both clear of the soda pop of bubbles seen in the bottle, suggesting either that control of the fizz was obtained fairly quickly or, possibly, that its presence in the bottle is deliberate.

Helmut Hiebl 1978, 14.5cm high
Helmut Hiebl 1979, 9.5cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 10cm long

Many works of Helmut Hiebl have an Old World charm about them, echoing the heyday of Bohemian decorated glass of the late 19th Century. Three such examples are the blue vessel with clear handles, the transparent green beer stein and the small but heavy vase with its sparse coloured spots. Note that these last two, as well as being immensely practical, are lightly engraved to add to their decoration. The stein unites the artist’s mid-European heritage with his reputed fondness for beer!

Helmut Hiebl, 17cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 11cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 12.5cm high

Once he established himself in deeply rural Australia, Helmut Hiebl never again travelled overseas and seldom ventured into the city. His identification with Australian life and his adventurous spirit in glass can be seen in the next two items. The large bowl is decorated mainly by acid etching the design in relief, a messy and dangerous process. The design incorporates the emblem flowers of three Australian states (red Waratah of NSW, Sturt’s Desert Pea of SA and the Cooktown orchid of Qld). There must be another matching bowl somewhere with the flowers of the other three states – please attach a reply if you know where.

Helmut Hiebl, 20cm diameter

The small panels below are engraved with three of the more emblematic of Australian creatures (after the kangaroo and emu of the Commonwealth coat of arms). The detail in the engraved images is amazing for such tiny working spaces.

Helmut Hiebl, three engraved panels 13cm high

Murringo lost its favourite adopted son when Helmut Hiebl died in early 2013 after a long illness that had prevented him from working for years. The regard in which he was held locally can be judged from the obituary in the village newsletter Our Murringo Matters (see pages 8). Murringo might be a small place physically, but a glance through that newsletter reveals a flourishing rural community, which for more than three decades hosted one of the most interesting characters in Australian glass.

* Thanks to Helmut Hiebl’s family for permission to use these three photographs.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Thanks for all the fish

Nature presents such an amazing range of shapes and colours (to say nothing of behaviours) that it is impossible for a curious person not to be attracted. The challenge of capturing some part of that brilliance and storing it in a painting or sculpture must be hard to resist for those with the talent to do so. At the same time, the artist has to live – however meagerly – and nothing will separate the punters from their money better than some new kitsch for the pool room.

The world of glass animals is amazingly diverse and ranges from high art to dull mass production (and we are not talking here of an English indie rock band). The form is as old as the earliest discoveries of ancient glass, and as new as the hundreds of cheap Chinese knock-offs that grace the pages of ebay. There are at least two serious books, hardcover and large-format, on the subject of animals made in glass.

Australia’s populace clings close to the coastline, so it is not surprising that many artists in glass are similarly located. And it is not surprising that when they take inspiration from nature, they often turn to the sea and the creatures within it. The glass fish on this page are made by identifiable professional artists. Some are famous (including a couple of multiple finalists in the Ranamok Glass Prize), while others have enjoyed long careers in glass without much publicity or recognition from the critics. Still others started in glass artistry, only to move on fairly soon to other ways of making a living.

We start with a magnificent specimen of the artist’s imagination by John Lloyd and Geoff Murray. After working at Colin Heaney’s operation in Byron Bay, for a time from 1995 they operated a studio called “Lloyd Murray Glass” at Talofa on the road between Byron and Bangalow in northern NSW.

John Lloyd and Geoff Murray (NSW), undated

To head off any pedantry, I should note in advance that a dolphin is a mammal not a fish. But that is no excuse for excluding a work by the master of taking inspiration from the ocean, Colin Heaney.

Colin Heaney (NSW), 1993

The Sunshine Coast area north of Brisbane has housed a cluster of glass artists, at different times working in various business models and at various locations. These two specimens by Lucas Salton owe more to the Siamese fighting fish than anything living in the ocean nearby. Items such as these were regularly sold at the burgeoning Eumundi markets in the hinterland of Noosa Heads.

Lucas Salton (Qld), undated

Some glass artists have located themselves well away from major population centres. I suspect that decision reduced their turnover even more than it economised on the rent (or the distractions, or whatever induced the decision), but here are two outlying artists represented by their fish. Moshe Pleshette set up a glass blowing studio at Wyaldra near Mudgee in NSW in 1979 and made this specimen a year later. John Anthony was located near Airlie Beach in Queensland, although little more is known about him.

Moshe Pleshette (NSW), 1980
John Anthony (Qld), undated

South Australia has at least its share of makers of glass fish. Eamonn Vereker is perhaps the state’s best-known exponent of glass animals including fish, although we have not represented his output here.

With an impeccable artistic education in glass and considerable attention from the critics, Tim Shaw must regard his transplantation from the UK to the Adelaide Hills a success. Along the way, he made the gaping piscatorial specimen below.

Meg Caslake and David Pedler also operate a studio in the Adelaide Hills. I don’t know for sure that the clear glass starfish is theirs, but it seems of a kind with their other cast glass objects, including sea creatures. It was probably marked with a cellophane sticker that has since washed off in the ocean.

Bernard Stonor of Kangaroo Island spent 20 years making colourful objects from hot furnace glass before moving to lampwork in recent years. This flat-sided fish looks positively happy and clearly dates from the earlier part of his career.

Tim Shaw (SA), undated
Meg Caslake and David Pedler (SA), undated
Bernard Stonor (SA), undated

Another exponent of small animals in glass is James Dodson of Tasmania. His birds are particularly colourful, but here are two of his fish, looking angelic.

James Dodson (Tas), undated

To all these glass artists, we say: So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Stephen Skillitzi - Sculptor in glass

I’ve always had the motivation of a sculptor, rather than a vessel maker. I think that’s a fair statement, three dimensional, rather than utility. (Stephen Skillitzi, 2009)

Stephen Skillitzi (b. 1947) started his artistic life as a potter and discovered glass as an art form while at graduate school in the USA in the late 1960s. A training in ceramics was not an unusual background for those embracing the exciting new world of studio glass – the founder of the studio glass movement Harvey Littleton was a college professor in ceramics. When Skillitzi returned to Australia in 1970 and set about building himself a furnace and hot glass studio in Woolloomooloo, producing his first blown glass works in 1972, he was on the threshold of a new movement in this country.

Of course there was glass blowing in industry, which in places such as Leonora Lighting in Newcastle and Crown Corning in Sydney ventured into the decorative arts as they produced household items by hand and machine. There was also scientific glassware being made on a smaller scale, including one-off products for special purposes. Occasionally, workers from these industrial occupations would amuse themselves and others with unauthorised creations using the factory equipment and materials. But the new vision being imported from the USA was of a single artist working alone or with minimal assistance in a studio making items for the primary purpose of decoration or even artistic expression.

Stephen Skillitzi has had a long and productive career in glass. Starting out blowing bubbles of hot glass melted in a furnace, he has experimented and navigated his way through kiln work and casting, often combining parts made by different techniques into sculptural assemblages with overt political messages. He has also practiced street theatre in combination with his glass making, thus giving his political messages another dimension in which his work is closer to art than to decoration. His career is well documented, in a long interview in the National Library’s Eminent Australians program, in a more intimate interview by Wayne Pearson as part of PhD research, and in a long speech and essay by Skillitzi himself published in several forms including here.

Despite all these records in words, there is little accessible to document visually Skillitzi’s early works. Mostly these were made by blowing a bubble of furnace glass, and (in the examples on this page at least) can be described by their relation to a standard vessel shape such as the vase, bowl or platter. These items date from the 1970s, the first decade of Skillitzi’s four-and-a-half decades of engagement with studio glass in Australia.

The first example in vase form is 21.5cm high and has been described by one viewer as a “gothic rosebud”. It dates from the very earliest of Skillitzi’s glass making in Australia in 1972. Unusually, it glows under ultra-violet light, indicating a small content of radioactive minerals.

The next item is a bowl from 1978, which is 21cm at its widest. Despite its slightly irregular shape and decoration, it must be one of the more straightforward (and perhaps even potentially useful) vessels that Skillitzi has made.

Contrast the previous bowl with the following two pieces from 1977. The small bowl with its many ‘feet’ is 14cm at its widest. I’m not sure how it is made, although I suspect the feet are cut segments of a strap that are applied hot in a manner similar to the handle on a jug. This item shows Skillitzi as an assembler of sculpture in glass, in which he has not strayed far from his beginnings in ceramics. It also illustrates his self-description as a member of the “adder” sub-species of sculptors. (For the other kind, think of Michelangelo hacking away at a block of Carrara marble.)

The next item is a large open bowl or distorted platter from 1977 up to 37cm long. Its heaving irregularity in green and blue, with folds and foaming bubbles, has more than a little of the roiling ocean about it. That shape is not to be mistaken for a piece of utility glassware.

The example below from 1976 is another somewhat irregular blown vessel with applied feet, this time with thick partial casing around the bowl. This one is hefty, around 22cm high and weighing 2.5kg. Similar to a previous example in green, this one shows the artist working in glass while thinking like a potter. The possibilities for giving this one utility are the same as almost every “pot” produced in ceramics.

Another contrast is the vessel below from 1978, in which the lower section is a hexagonal star made in an open mold to achieve the shape. The top rim, however, clearly echoes the similar part of the preceding free-blown and assembled item. It could be used as a flower vase if the owner was so inclined.

After the 1970s, Skillitzi moved away from blown glass with its natural form of a vessel created when the bubble is opened out. He became a leading exponent of casting in glass, using the often figurative cast objects as components in assembled sculptures. Usually these sculptural works contained or were accompanied by a political message. In something of a return to the early days, in recent years he has been making large sculptures from blown glass elements, which nicely avoids the question of what kind of vessel shape is intended. The Adelaide gallery Art Logic has many of his recent works for sale.

He has also been political in a narrower sense, standing as the Climate Sceptics candidate in the 2010 federal general election in the division of Boothby, attracting 0.37% of the primary vote.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Chuck Simpson - Glass artist and personality

Chuck Simpson was a larger-than-life character with an enormous talent. He was born in 1944 in the USA and educated there. He worked in Australia as a high school teacher for many years before turning to glass. The studio of Colin Heaney at Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW was a hothouse of glass artistry in the mid-1980s, having started only a few years earlier. Chuck Simpson was one of the many who found their talents there.

The bottle in the first image is perhaps the earliest of his works we have for show. It is heavy-walled with green and gold in layers and with noticeable iridizing on the surface, and simply signed “Chuck”. (A possibly earlier item in the form of a simple spherical bowl signed “C. Simpson” was seen but not captured.)

Chuck Simpson, undated 16.5cm high

Other items he made at Byron Bay in the mid-to-late 1980s include a frizzy paperweight from 1986, a gourd flask in crimson and gold with surface iridizing from 1987, and a highly iridized silvery blue perfume bottle (with loose stopper) also from 1987. All three of these items are signed and dated, although only the gourd flask (a distinguished piece of ‘exhibition’ quality) is graced with his second name.

Chuck Simpson, 1986 9.5cm high
Chuck Simpson, 1987 17cm high
Chuck Simpson, 1987 11.5cm high

Two themes of Simpson’s work are already emerging in these early items. One is the extensive application of heavy metal salts to the hot glass to impart an oily iridescent sheen in likeness of ancient glass retrieved in archaeological digs. The other is the strongly indented sides on the stoppered bottle. More on both features later.

Chuck Simpson moved to New Zealand in 1987 and took over Tony Kuepfer’s studio at Inglewood, together with others including Lesley Justin (later to become Chuck’s wife), Andrew Williams and Joan O’Leary. This was perhaps the time his art developed most strongly and he was enormously productive, both individually and in works made jointly with Lesley. Even today, at any time on the NZ auction site TradeMe there is usually at least one Simpson piece for sale.

The examples below are typical of the simpler items they made at Inglewood in the period 1988-1990.  The first bowl is signed “Glass Art NZ” in what looks like Chuck’s school-teacher-ish handwriting. The second is signed “C+L Simpson” (again in Chuck’s writing), while the holey paperweight has “Chuck + Lesley Simpson” in what I think is Lesley’s hand. Note the generous iridizing and the development of indentations into holes.

The best accounts of the Simpsons in these NZ times are found on Stuart Park’s New Zealand Glass blog. In particular, don’t miss the blog item “Chuck Simpson Liked Perforated Glass".

Glass Art NZ, undated 12cm dia
Chuck and Lesley Simpson, undated 9.5cm dia
Chuck and Lesley Simpson, undated 8cm long

Chuck and Lesley moved back to Australia in 1990 and set up in the Sunshine Coast area north of Brisbane. Their two main locations were in the craft centre established by the Queensland Government in the old Ginger Factory at Buderim (mentioned also in the item about Peter Goss on this blog) and later in the space at the back of the Imperial Hotel in the main street of Eumundi that had earlier housed a brewery. At some stage along this journey, Lesley transformed herself into Indiah, although she continued to work as a glass artist jointly with Chuck. Their output was highly varied as can be seen in these examples. The large hot formed sculpture of mother and child from 1993 is characteristic of Chuck’s exhibition quality pieces of this time, while the decanter with stopper and the sculptural bowl on a duplex stem (both from the later 1990s and both signed “Chuck & Indiah Simpson”) are characteristic of the higher end of their production wares. The paperweight is fascinating, both for being large and heavy and for its inclusion of lampworked flowers. It is also signed as a joint work. Note again the perforations in both of the sculptural pieces.

Chuck Simpson, 1993 36cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, 1999 34cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, 1998 19cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, undated 10.5cm high

A major feature of Chuck Simpson’s practice was his contribution to the community of glass artists, especially in fostering his workplace as an access studio where others could share the facilities to create their own works and the camaraderie of joint endeavour. The access studio is especially helpful in hot glass artistry where the equipment is expensive to buy and expensive to run. Even in the early days in Inglewood, other artists used the facilities for their own practice. The studio in the Buderim craft center was organized as a cooperative, another form of shared access. His business at Eumundi was known as Vesta Hot Glass, but he also operated as Queensland Glass Artists Association Inc. Under this latter banner he fostered other local artists such as Tina Cooper and Lucas Salton. He also organized a series of workshops at Eumundi, drawing the leading glass artists from around Australia and NZ, and reported the results widely through the Ausglass newsletters.

Sadly, Chuck Simpson died in 2001 of a condition almost certainly caused by his long-term exposure to hot glass and especially to the metal salts used in creating the iridized finish so characteristic of his work. Many other hot glass artists have suffered ill consequences of their working environment, including Indiah, formerly known as Lesley, who quit the business citing its poisonous effects.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Perfume bottles as decorative arts

The history of glass perfume bottles is as old as the history of glass itself. Four thousand years ago or more, the Egyptians used unguents and potions for various religious and earthly purposes. The earliest known containers were made from wood, stone and metal, but soon the advantages of glass became apparent. Not only is it impervious to most fluids, this material is easily shaped when hot and it can be brightly coloured as decoration.

The retail packaging of perfumes today is intricate and attractive, as befits a high-value product that is consumed over time and usually kept handy in full view. But commercial bottles are mostly machine-made in mass production of thousands of identical items. We are interested instead in hand-made examples of the decorative arts where the practical purpose may be largely lost. (How many people would have bought a vase from Gallé or Tiffany, intending to fill it with flowers and water?) Many Australian glass artists have made decorative perfume bottles. Here are a few:

Alan Fox, Keith Rowe, Lucas Salton, Ann Hand, Martini Glass (Tina Cooper and Mark Galton).

Ian Johnstone, Gerry Reilly, Ann Clifton, Pauline Delaney, Stephen Morris.

In case it might be thought that making decorated perfume bottles is girly business, note that seven of the eleven artists represented in these pictures are blokes. There is more evidence on that score below. 

It is perhaps fitting that the two leading makers of decorative perfume bottles in Australia today are based in a part of the country that is itself small and beautiful – Tasmania. Tony Trivett and Richard Clements make their creations by lampwork, using borosilicate (Pyrex) tubing and rods, and formed in a burner and coloured with metal oxides. By contrast, all of the items in the above two pictures are made by taking a gather of hot molten glass from a pot or tank in a furnace and blowing a bubble.

Tony Trivett, 6 bottles.

Richard Clements, 7 small bottles mostly from the 1980s and 1990s.

Observe again, both of these artists are men – as is another prolific maker, Michael Hook.

For those who collect older bottles from second hand markets, there is always the risk that stoppers will be chipped, broken or missing. The glass-to-glass action of inserting the stopper brings particular risks of damage, as does the transport of bottles with the stoppers in. Stoppers can be dropped to the floor or jammed in too tight, and the extra leverage due to an elongated stopper makes the whole package vulnerable to breakage. The other risk is the seller who describes the item as a ‘bud vase’. Look for an opening that is precisely round with grinding down the throat where it has been bored out to fit a stopper. It is no surprise then that most collections will include bottles that are missing their matching stoppers, like these:

Tricia Allen, Greg Royer, Matt Bryce and Kent LeGrand, Peter Goss, Ryu?, anon.

Australians produce hand made bottles in an amazing array of sizes, styles and colours. Here are a few by female artists:

Kath Sinkora, Kylie Neilson, Cathy Jordan, Maureen Williams, Eileen Gordon and Jemma Clements.

Perfume bottles are readily collectable because they are small and elegant, and they don’t take up much space. But don’t think these are trivial objects in the world of decorative arts. In February 2009, Christies of London sold a 1927 bottle by the Frenchman Maurice Marinot for a cool 51,400 Euros – that’s about $65,000!