Australian Glass pioneers: the paper…

22 03 2009

A wander down memory lane with Stephen Skillitzi.

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Stephen with Elaine Miles and her percussion show…

 

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…and the set up of his 1975 glass exhibition (opened by the legendary Don Dunstan) in the same space…

 

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[That Playhouse Gallery has stood the test of time well - amazing really. n(Ed)]

While the Gang was in Adelaide we had the opportunity to have a natter with Stephen Skillitzi about things of a glassy nature and bemoaned the fact that we’d missed the Aussglass Conference in Hobart this year (Megsie,  in the throes of her new job, had been up to her neck in gallery renovations with the next hang and opening bearing down on her – so getting away simply wasn’t an option.) Anyhoo Stephen, after giving us a quick rundown on the conference, kindly offered to send through the paper he gave - and he’s included a number of snaps of early performances (check ‘em out at the end of the tract.). It’s rather long, but it’s worth taking the time to read…and there are more pics at the end…

 

Australian Glass Pioneers ….S.Skillitzi   16-1-09

 

 

 

…Some might say: ”Don’t we glass workers have bona-fide historians without a personal ‘ax to grind’ and who are above career-long ‘empire building’ like some latter-day Ghengis Kahn. Incidentally, I observed no Studio Glass in Outer Mongolia, the ‘last frontier’ to resist international Glass incursions. “Surely they, those reliable historians, can give us the unbiased truth. So why does this panel dealing with this historical topic consist of 4 practitioners only and no pure academics or theorists?” 

A simple answer is: we need to hear from those practitioners who have done the hard yards by planting the actual ‘glass seeds’ and seeing to their sprouting above ground before they were visible to those historians who got involved later on. Indeed we pioneers can mentally relive in 3D what those historians attempt to do via inferior 2D research. Sadly, I have observed often the neglect of open and useful dialogue between authors and practitioners before and after publication. 

That perhaps belligerent perspective is what motivated the Danish pioneer glass artist Finn Lynggaard to regain control by compiling in 1988 his practitioner-written book on the development of International Studio Glass. In my opinion Finn correctly highlighted Harvey Littleton’s famous 1962 glass blowing workshop which was the major spark for the modern Glass Movement. For me the irritation by both Lynggaard and Littleton with some under-informed historians is justified. 

But for serious history students of contemporary Australian glass the survey texts by the authoritative Dr. Noris Ioannou and Grace Cochrane are hard to beat. We should respectfully reread them!   Another more individualized source of glass history is the so-called “Eminent Persons Program”, archived by the Canberra National Library. To balance the contributions of Nick Mount and myself, some more old-timers in Ausglass should have their histories preserved there.

Speaking personally, it seems my Glass got progressively better in reverse ratio to the ongoing unkind aging process I experienced. Pioneers by definition make mistakes, such as my sometimes lousy furnace designs, so those that follow need not repeat them. For example, my first solo show of clay with glass, at Sydney’s Grace Brothers store when aged only 18, was in January 1966. That was just before decimal currency started. I snobbishly overpriced my student items in guineas and half guineas because I saw mature artists doing just that. Of course a guinea was one pound and one shilling. In hindsight I’m thankful nothing sold. My point is that all us gray-headed pioneers have histories of individually-experienced steep learning curves and the taking of naive risks before we ‘learned the ropes’. 

An ancient proverb states : “As the sapling is bent, so the tree grows”.  I hereby pay a belated tribute to the Glass ‘old-timers’, the often underrated pioneers, who shaped our Glass tree by their risk-taking examples.  

I and only two others, namely Brian Hirst and Richard Clements, have been to all 15 Ausglass conferences. We three can confirm that about half the names on this list have never been mentioned at a conference before.  Incidentally in 1970 I observed Clements doing pyrex lampwork glass at Sydney’s Argyle Art Centre, using skills developed in England.

The narrow criteria for inclusion in my likely-incomplete pre-Ausglass list of in-Australia glass-artists are as follows:  “Those who had a full-time Glass career, or who had a solo glass exhibition, or who had completed a major glass commission in living memory before Ausglass started in December 1978”.  

These 38 Australians can be likened to ‘glass dinosaurs’, or ‘vitrified tribal elders’, or ‘father/mother figureheads’, — (whatever label you prefer)   they all occupied the glass scene before Ausglass was formed a mere 30 years ago. The 38 names alphabetically are: ……..

Douglas Annand, Les Blakebrough, Bill Boysen,  Maureen Cahill,  Richard Clements,,  Peter Dockerty,  Anne Dybka, John Elsegood, Mike Esson, Leonard French, Bill Gleeson, Peter Goss, Paul Hayworth,  Sam Herman, Helmut Hiebl, Regina Jaugietis, Gerry King, Rob Knottenbelt, Les Kossatz, Warren Langley,  Dick Marquis, Stan Melis, Peter Minson, Stephen Moore, Nick Mount, Dennis O’Conner, Tom Persson, Cedar Prest, Con Rhee, David Saunders, Julio Santos, Stephen Skillitzi, Ron Street, John Walsh, Jimmy Whitman, Don Wreford, David Wright, Klaus Zimmer.  

It’s important to note that six of those names were better known in other art spheres than Glass. Five or more have died but nineteen are still active glass practitioners, including a dozen Ausglass members. 

Others not on this list, but actively engaged in glass-related activities in various ways by December ‘78, quickly outshone many included in this ‘old-timers’ list. Those others include Jan Aspinall, Gizelle Courtney, Peter Crisp, Marc Elliot, Shar Feil, Marc Grunseit, Jeff Hamilton, Tony Hanning, Brian Hirst, Ede Horton, Kirstie Rhea, Neil Roberts, Graham Stone. But to the dozens of ‘rising stars’ I say: “Don’t get too impatient with us gray-headed ‘old-timers’. We are well aware of the stiff competition and dedication you present us. We dinosaurs will go extinct or get pensioned off someday, thus leaving the field wide open for all your fresh talent.

Beyond the scope of this analysis are non-contemporary stained glass workers, and mature, influential Glass artists, such as Moje and Proctor and Varga, who arrived after 1978. 

When in China recently I observed the Beijing Olympics’ mindset with its intense national rivalry.  I see a parallel to our Glass career-long competition for sales and status, but without me ignoring our altruistic desire for the betterment of the wider Glass fraternity, evident from the very beginning in the 1960’s. Because I see that parallel perhaps I have become a little more cynically ‘cuckoo’ than most. 

Ausglass was at first designated “People in Glass”, P.I.G. or “PIGs”, for a very short time, thankfully. “Ausglass” is a much more ‘kosher’ title!  

So at this juncture, on behalf of this very loosely associated group of pioneering glass artists, I “welcome”  Ausglass to the already-existing Australian Glass scene. Never forget, we ruggedly independent 38 glassworkers on that list were alive ‘n kicking glass ‘footballs’ around our studio workshops first!  

To use a telling analogy: In 1788 the first white settlers of Sydney-town arrogantly assumed Australia was uncivilized, therefore ‘up for grabs’ without needing any formal treaty with quote: ‘those primitive savages.’  In hindsight the ‘whitefellas’ were generally wrong, arrogant and exploitive of land and natives!   

Similarly, this ‘glass land’ of ours was not “TERRA NULLIUS”, (that is unoccupied or unexplored) before the 1978 ‘first fleet’ Ausglass conference arrived, also in Sydney.  So let’s not be ignorant or arrogant about our origins, like the 1788 First Fleet was! 

 

On screen is our first “Oz glass” T-shirt.  A star performer Warren Langley (or Wazza, for short) was elected founding president, That first conference was a stellar event, in that it shed light on the need for networking and education. Likewise the 2005 American conference in Adelaide highlighted our international credentials         

I confess to having some mischievous fun with our committee’s highly-published notion that “the Ausglass conference of ‘78 was the birth of Australian Studio or Art Glass”. Does that notion make those original 50 conferees “midwives”? And who was the “Mom ‘n Dad” of this ‘squalling babe-in-arms’? Obviously all this is a ‘figure of speech’, therefore a non-literal, unprovable but colourful analogy. 

So, going along with our committee’s imaginative Surrealistic flow, I hereby nominate four contenders for the “Mommy”-figure.  Firstly the Australian Potters’ Society based in Sydney. That society’s mag. nurtured, so to speak ‘embryonically’, the pre-Ausglass network. For instance it published five glass-centred articles (by myself and Con Rhee and Marquis). Plus various photos of Glass items (by American-trained artists including myself, Dick Marquis, Con Rhee and Ron Street) and also promoted sundry glass-workers’ shows and demonstrations. 

It even provided 2 years of womb-like protection to one Potters’ Society member who blew furnace glass in their Woolloomoolloo gallery/school premises until 1973. 

The 2nd. contender is Crown Crystal Factory in Waterloo, Sydney. They cranked out huge volumes of mould-blown glass until the mid-sixties. I had permission to take any of their literally tons of steel molds before they were shipped off to a sister factory in New Zealand. I still use a few at the Jam Factory. They gave me unprecedented free access to the management, to cold-shop facilities and lead-glass batch for 3 years.

 I intentionally provoked a reaction from the factory’s management by displaying my unconventional blown glass in the manager’s office just before he went to America on business, whereupon he checked out this odd-ball U.S.A. Studio Glass Movement that I had been promoting to him.

On his return the Australian Craft Board’s president and ceramic artist Maria Gazzard readily secured from him the $12000 sponsorship needed to fund the technically more sophisticated Bill Boysen Trailer. Bill’s trailer successfully toured eight eastern states’ venues in ’74, thus greatly enhancing the credibility of hand crafted glass.

The third ‘Mommy’ option is a ‘hot female’ named Leonora in Newcastle. Indeed, the new-born Ausglass conferees were delivered in and out of Leonora by excursion bus from Sydney. 

Since the early ‘60’s the public was allowed to watch Leonora Glass Factory’s 12 gaffers blow light shades in high volume production. 

 Three of their employees blew glass in their own backyard studios starting around mid ‘72 or later. They were Paul Hayworth, Jimmy Wittman and Julio Santos. I visited their studios and bought examples of their pre-’74 blown glass but of the three, by far the most significant is the quintessential ‘quiet achiever’, Julio Santos.

He was apprenticed to a Portugal glass factory from age 12 in 1947, the year I was born. Julio remains an active full-time craftsman after 61 years of uninterrupted glassblowing involvement. Too few of us realize that that fact probably makes the underrated Santos the most senior person currently in our Glass Movement. 

Without even applying for any government funds, Julio, for forty  years in Australia, has churned out his consummately-skilled glass for production and exhibition. For me, he bridges the gulf between factory and studio paradigms more convincingly than any other.

A fourth  contender is the original Crafts Board, within the Federally-funded Australia Council. Before 1971 no government support for the Crafts existed. Since then it has faithfully doled out serious parental-support money enabling our ‘cradle-to-the-grave’ Glass initiatives. My successful 1971 grant application was sloppily hand-written in pencil, since at first there were no published guidelines. Back then, the Crafts Board was desperately seeking to suckle even primitive applications to justify its own recent Parliamentary mandate granted only months beforehand. How things have changed! You could say, from ‘mother’s milk to tough gristle’!  Successful grant applications are now a highly sophisticated, hard to digest, art form

All four ‘Motherhood’ contenders patronized Glass Pioneers and had de facto public educational outreaches. That is the Potters’ Society, Crown Crystal, Leonora Glass, and the Crafts Board. Not considered for ‘Motherhood’ status are other nurturing institutions that were started later that 1973, such as the Jam Factory and the Meat Market Glass workshops and the various university glass degrees. Such as Caulfield, now Monash Uni., which started furnace glass within their four year degree course from 1976, with Julio Santos as its tutor from ‘79. Not forgetting the involvememnt of Richard Morrell and Dennis O’conner.

So maybe to settle the matter we should take an officially-binding vote between the nominated four contenders.

The hypothetical “Daddy” figure for Ausglass is an equally ambiguous analogy. Indeed ‘furtively, even funnily fishily so’! That’s typical of disputed paternity without DNA testing. Who’s glass-coated seed actually swam up the channel against the tide of public expectations to ‘do the dirty deed between the sheets of glass’? 

In my research nothing resembling an ‘insemination act’ (either natural or artificial) occurred nine months before Ausglass’ birth, which is so central to this conference.

But suspiciously, nine years beforehand in 1969, there was an unprecedented intrusive brazen operation involving the unsuspecting Potters’ Society magazine. That’s illustrated on screen by this 1969 ‘Pottery in Australia’ cover photo and related article, which was the very first time “Studio Glass” was injected into the naively-trusting virginal Australian Crafts scene.  

This glass/clay object on screen was in-part made in ‘grandaddy’ Dale Chihuly’s 1968 class. Therefore it has an excellent genetic pedigree, doesn’t it?  Also it seems ideally shaped for the indelicate procedure.  

Enough of my mischief, I promise! Back to reality!  Let’s leave the American/ Australian glass gene pool as muddied waters, shall we?

My original Glass mentor in High School, Douglas Annand,who recently was honoured with a retrospective at Canberra’s National Art Gallery, and indeed all of my fellow pioneers, deserve much more detailed acknowledgement here of their early efforts if this talk were to achieve a balanced survey.

 Many Australian glass workers owed nothing directly to this American influence that I have emphasized. They include Richard Clements, Anne Dybka, Peter Minson, Julio Santos and Klaus Zimmer. Indeed quite legitimately, some resisted America’s often-unprincipled ‘anything-goes’ ‘can-do’ mindset that invades vulnerable cultures without any apparent shame.  Instead more dignified European glass cultures are their heritages. Of course I deeply respect those glass alternatives.

Very loosely, I view that 1stAmerican generation as being Labino, Littleton, Myers, Bellici, with Fred Carder of Steuben Glass preceding them all.  Carder, was a visionary factory glass designer for 60 years and, after his retirement, a lost-wax figurative glass-caster at Corning New York, till his death at age 100 years old in 1963. 

The 2nd. generation could be represented by Lipofsky, Schulman, Driesbach, Chihuly, Herman, etc. As students turn into teachers these overlapping ‘generations’ spread out and interacted with non-American glass traditions. That process gave rise to our current highly-divers international style, now ironically dominated by the team-working Venetian paradigm which was initially so alien to the ruggedly-individualistic Americans that inspired me in the 60’s.

In that Potters’ Society magazine article of 1969, I stated: “So for me glass pots are a natural progression both technically and aesthetically from pottery. Here in U.S.A. most glass men of the new ‘studio school’ have been, or still are, potters—me included of course.” [end quote]

Regrettably today there is a wide chasm between clay and glass workers, in part bridged by Les Blakebrough’s involvement here. A narrower chasm exists between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ glass, such as Stained Glass or Engraving. Perhaps this emphasis on ‘hot’ glass is part of the reason non-blowing and non-casting Glass artists tend to avoid Ausglass conferences. 

Now for some personal background. From age 13 in 1960 I melted glass into clay ashtrays, back when smoking was allegedly “not addictive”. For me the separation of Glass from Clay came 8 years later in 1968.

After high school, at age 17, in December ’64, I toured with my family England and America in preparation for my future ceramics career.  My delight in free spirits such as the Beatles was linked to my abhorrence of army-style control over my creativity. 

Politically-speaking, 1964 was only one year since the assassination of J.F.K., at the height of the ‘Cold War’.  But the only hand-crafted blown or sculptural glass I encountered was in N.Y.C. X  in a Steuben Crystal shop, and I knew I had no hope of matching Steuben’s superb crystal quality.   Lots of inspiring, and for me do-able, studio clay work of course but no “studio glass”. Why? Well, unknown to me at the time, it was only two years after the 1st. Harvey Littleton/ Dominic Labino glass blowing summer school in Toledo, Ohio, that reputedly kick-started the modern “Studio Glass Movement” essentially through the tertiary education sector. The Littleton/Labino ‘seeds’ of Studio Glass had been sown and ‘roots’ were growing in 1964 but nothing visible yet ‘above ground’ on the American gallery field.

 I have been told by a glass researcher that at that time only one recognized art gallery in all of U.S.A. held some studio glass, (ie. paperweights by Labino and some kiln-slumped plates).

But how things had changed when I returned to America three years later!  I visited the architecturally-innovative Expo ’67 in Montreal. Then a year of New York City’s galleries whilst doing Mixed Media Ceramic Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum Art School! The Vietnam war was in full swing under Nixon’s arrogantly escalating policy.

 Hippies staged’ love-ins’, LSD was the drug of choice. The legendary August ‘69 Woodstock Rock Festival became a cultural icon for my generation.  Glass courses were leaping out of ceramics departments. Glass exhibitions and private studios dotted the art landscape.

Pop artist Roy Lichenstein, whose studio I visited, seemed to rule New York’s counter-culture with Andy Warhol, who famously said: “Everyone is entitled to 15 minutes of fame!”. That certainly would include our 38 Glass pioneers. I last saw Andy at a 1968 gallery opening about a week before he was wounded by some crazed gun-totting female fan. In retrospect 1968 was the key year to absorb the N.Y.C. Art scene.

Fellow New York artist-radicals and I staged a satirical pantomime titled: “Through the looking glass”, which has set my agenda for 40 years of costumed street theatrical performances, such as the one at the opening of the Wagga Glass Museum Ausglass conference in 1999 . Some here will recall it. 

 What followed starting in September ‘68 was a two year Master of Fine Art Degree in Ceramics at the University of Massachusetts,. There the ceramics professor, Dr. Lyle Perkins, jumped on the Hot Glass bandwagon by starting up his own Glass course using as the catalyst my fresh glass experience.

Only months before I had briefly met Dale Chihuly (half asleep after his all-night blowing session), and saw his first glass installation at the Rhode Island School of Design when he was still a student there. Then weeks later in August ‘68 I got turned on to blowing via Dale’s very first class at Haystack School of Crafts. That’s three years before Dale started Pilchuck, and eight years before Dale’s car accident in England that cost him his left eye on his way to visiting Peter Tysoe, who later headed the Jam Factory glass.

 And about 15 years before the paparazzi dogged Chihuly’s every move. Recently Chihuly was surprised when I told him that I was the only glass-making survivor of his first teaching class.

Professor Perkins was an art school colleague and buddy of Harvey Littleton. Both did doctorates in Ceramics in the early ‘50’s. Littleton sold me blow pipes at $15 each and his glass cullet (in the form of marbles for the fiber glass industry) was a mere 17 cents a pound.  Some Massachusetts newspaper articles of 1970 featured my campus glass contribution. In them my ceramics professor Perkins noted : “ This glass course would still be years in the future were it not for Stephen’s involvement.” 

After my professor and I initiated in 1969 these new glassblowing facilities at Massachusetts University some of America’s glass leaders, including Ricky Bernstein, were trained there for the next 13 years until Perkins retired in ’83.

Whilst there my glass activities included two local glass solo exhibitions and a T.V. show ‘n tell explanation of the Studio Glass Movement, plus a 15 minute film documentary of my blowing techniques that I showed dozens of times. Firstly to a New Zealand potters group in August ‘70, which may have been the first lecture on the Hot Glass Studio Movement in the Southern Hemisphere. Then the film was shown around Australia for three full years before the next American-trained glass artist, Ron Street,  arrived on our shores. 

On my Massachusetts University campus, as my personal protest against Nixon’s April 1970 bombing of neutral Cambodia, I staged a public glass blowing performance.  I advertised my event as a “non-violent campus demonstration”.

 A blowing mold inscribed with the hippy slogan: “ make love not war” was used because as glass historians will know, a few of us 1960’s glass workers contributed to a subversive, anti-Vietnam War theme, known as “Blow Glass For Peace”. 

 Tragically more than 500 young Australians died in that futile conflict, and another 1000 veterans have committed suicide since enduring Vietnam’s mental or physical traumas. My point is that everyone’s history shapes his/her ongoing mindset. 

Because of my pre-1970 initiatives in Glass education, I was, at age 22, for a brief time one of the junior 3rd. generation pioneer teachers of America’s Studio Glass Movement.  After three years in the U.S.A., I returned to Sydney in August 1970 so I’m sure my obviously-minor impact on American glass was quickly forgotten. 

A similar fading senareo awaited Ron Street, who trained at the same Californian glass school as Dick Marquis. Ron was resident glass artist at the Perth Institute for 18 months until mid ‘74.  Ron departed Australia without trace a few months after he and I shared a day glassblowing for the public there. 

The Tasmanian Con Rhee first learnt glassblowing in America in 1971. His technically-innovative, fastidiously-blown vessels melted glass in his own handmade clay crucibles, using silica sand he mined personally, from 1978 to ’83.  Now that’s a pioneering spirit!  Because History enriches lives, both Ron and Con should be preserved in our collective memory as we also preserve the memory of the late Vicki Torr.  

Vicki’s outstanding abilities were self-evident to all during her South Australian College Glass Degree that was at that time, in ‘83, under my guidance. In 1979 that accredited course had followed the educational lead of Maureen Cahill in Sydney and  the late Klaus Zimmer, who started teaching stained Glass at Caulfield in Melbourne from 1971. I view Zimmer’s mastery of Stained Glass, both autonomous panels and ecclesiastical commissions, as Australia’s prime example of that discipline. 

 The American-trained glass pioneer Gerry King from 1987 modified Adelaide’s glass course which is headed now by the fresh energies of Gabby Bisetto. The all-rounder Gerry King is a globe-trotting advocate of Aussie Glass and a seasoned exhibitor of refined cast and blown glass for about 33 years. King is a former president and chairman of Ausglass, with a keen interest in matters historical. 

All of us visionary practitioners were keen to see the Hot Glass Movement go further and faster. Hence in a Potters’ Society Magazine article I predicted the year 1974 would be a quote: “watershed year for Aussie glass as a result of the tours planned for the three American-trained blowers Herman, Boysen, and Marquis.” 

 For good reason, much more media attention was given in ‘74 to the fresh trio than to the ongoing demonstrating activities of Ron Street and Stephen Skillitzi. 

Illinois University Professor, Bill Boysen, wowed his audience in his important eight-venue ‘whistle-stop’ ‘Blown Glass’ demonstrating tour. Assisting him was Peter Dockerty, (a designer for Crown Crystal Factory) and Denis O’Connor, (from Newcastle Art College). Both set up their own back yard blowing studios afterwards. 

Concurrently, ‘Old Lucky’, Nick Mount, started a lasting working relationship with the touring American glass maestro, Dick Marquis, whose blowing skill levels were always way above my own. Nowadays Nick does annual American teaching tours and shows his flamboyant ‘Scent Bottle” sculptures as “the roving ambassador for the Jam Factory” which he headed for some years,

After Dick Marquis’s nine venue Aussie tour, which included one demonstration using Sam Herman’s Jam Factory Adelaide furnace, he showed his Australian-made technically-superb murrini teapots at Realities Gallery, Melbourne in November ’74. 

 I regret not buying one of at a mere $275 a piece. What are they priced at now, Nick? $1000’s no doubt! But us pioneers have a long list of missed opportunities and unfulfilled plans. As John Lennon famously said : ”Life is what happens when you are making other plans”. 

The 3rd. U.S.A. trained import, Sam Herman, set up Adelaide’s Jam Factory Glass studio via his March ‘74 workshop, which three decades later still sets the Australian standard. Four ‘glass dinosaurs’ attended: myself, and my fellow ceramics lecturer Regina Jaugietis, and Cedar Prest who has earned the Order of Australia for her services to the Glass Movement, and the versatile heavy-weight glass artist, Rob Knottenbelt. 

The next year Sam apprenticed other pioneers as well as Knottenbelt. Namely, John Walsh, Peter Goss, both now independent blowers, and Tom Persson, who is still employed by the Jam Factory.  

Also Stan Melis, (who helped make some blown glass from the Novi Bor glass school that I remember admiring in the Czech. Pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67. That’s 4 decades ago). 

Three years later in ‘78, Sam, (who had just finished with the Jam Factory) gave a glassblowing workshop to Alan Peascod’s enthusiastic clay students at Canberra’s School of Art. Alan, a fellow Ceramics student with me in ‘65, died two years ago.  His students built a furnace in the ceramics kiln yard to Sam’s design. I saw that now-forgotten solid-brick furnace before it was demolished by Alan’s successor. 

Canberra’s Glass course is now headed by a pillar of our Glass movement, Richard Whiteley, a former student of its founder, the irreplaceable  Klaus Moje. 

Recently I reacquainted myself with the ever-green Sam Herman in London, who still exhibits his blown glass and more recently his paintings. He sends his greetings to the Aussie glass fraternity. I first saw Sam’s blown glass in early 1967 at the Royal College of Art in London soon after his appointment as head of their Glass department.

 Both of us old-timers after 4 decades still maintain the habit of ruggedly-individualistic furnace blowing without habitually employing assistants. 

However the ‘tide’ has definitely turned away from the one-man-band glass maker of the 60’s. Why??, Glass today benefits from an amalgamation of different specialized skills and shared expenses.  An example of early-1970’s co-production of lampwork and furnace blowing was the energetic Peter Minson and Mark Elliot. Mark blew glass with me but for only one day in 1973. 

Warren Langley, whose international profile is the stuff of legends, had early productive sessions with Tony Hanning, Brian Hirst and Nick Mount. All this and more before it became fashionable for glass artists to share projects. A much later example is Julio Santos and myself. Both of us had entrenched histories of fierce independence, perhaps to the point of belligerence. Yet we also co-signed and exhibited about 100 sculptures or vessels, but only since 1993.  

Back to my focus of getting the Studio Glass paradigm out to the Australian Craft world . At Sydney’s National Art School in August 1970, I gave Australia’s first public slide and film lecture on this new 8 year old U.S.A. Glass Movement.    

In my 1969 open letter from America I predicted the American-led international glass craft revival would be exported to Australia within the next decade. On screen is what I had in mind. The 2009 Glass smorgasbord was not yet in view, of course. 

Peter Rushforth, reputedly the ‘grandad’ of Australian Pottery and the co-founder and then president of the Potters’ Society in 1971, suggested that I set up a glassblowing furnace within his Ceramics Certificate Course at Darlinghurst in Sydney. But lack of space prevented that unprecedented teaching initiative. 

Instead I exhibited at Kim Bonython’s Paddington gallery some glass items I had blown in America plus locally made organic clay sculptures.  That show was seen by, for me, Australia’s most inspiring potter, Les Blakebrough.  

Importantly, Blakebrough,  helped shape the pioneering glass landscape later on. Of course that is not to say that I inspired him to do so. Like others I have mentioned, Les had his own independent road to travel.

By September ’71, at age 24, I finally fired up the new furnace with L.P.Gas at merely $5.40c a bottle back then. Now is is about $75. Importantly, all of the four candidates for Ausglass’ “Motherhood” were vitally involved in my first Australian glass studio. For instance, my studio was within the Potter’s Society Sydney workshop and sponsored by the first-ever Australian Craft Board grant for Glass. Newcastle’s Leonora and Crown Crystal Glassworks supplied me with  coloured glass off-cuts and lead batch for my crude blown objects. Crude by today’s refined standards, that is, but inspired by Littleton/Lipofsy/Chihuly. It is recognized that Australia’s first-of-many public demonstrations of non-factory furnace glassblowing occurred there on the 27th. of February 1972. 

Incidentally, I used Pre-World War 2 glassblowing tools that were purchased from a retired Crown Crystal factory glassblower in 1970 . I still use them 38 years later.  According to Nick Mount they should be donated to a museum. Ok, fair comment Nick, but not just yet!  

Finally, after blowing about 500 different items,(which is a small number compared to Peter Minson’s production volume in that same three year period), I relocated to Adelaide in early ’74. 

My other early 70’s blowing venues were one-day-wonders, firstly in Gippsland as observed by Mount and Hanning in October ‘73. Then here at Hobart, Fremantle, Perth, and around Sydney, with many overlapping shows and lectures elsewhere.

As a personal summary of this time period, I traversed the continent like some itinerant gospel preacher with that America-inspired Message about a ”Glass World To Come”. I did not focus on training glass practitioners, but rather I dealt with the educational goal of introducing a broad spectrum of Australians, including craft educators, to ‘molten glass’ via open-air temporary-furnace demonstrations. My style was to shout explanations of the shaping process above the roar of the burners as I make very basic glass items.  Virtually nobody back then had witnessed furnace blowing before, so it was indeed virgin territory that was being plowed for us pioneers to seed in the years to come. Art school lectures, gallery exhibitions, and the media flowed freely much more then than now in today’s highly-competitive, “seen-it-all-before” sophisticated scene.

As the famous film comedian Woody Allen once said: “70% of life is just showing up on time!” So for impacting Contemporary Glass,1970 to ’74 was a really good time for me to simply “show up and do my thing”.

 But because every person can be inventive and thus foreshadow a new direction for 2009 and beyond, each could say of their own efforts today: “First in, best dressed!”  I think the pioneering spirit lives on in 2009, but on another level.

In the big picture, Studio Glass is probably a mere footnote on a page of civilization’s Art achievements. And overshadowed by the Ages of Technology and Terror.    

In this pragmatic world we should ask: “Can Ausglass, and its U.S.A. and U.K equivalents, champion our inspiring idealistic pioneer values?   

 Consider this! It is said the Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, de Kooning and their cronies, all had initial high aesthetic ideals in the early 1950’s. Soon followed by greedy schemes of career-hyping via the gallery system and Art magazines. 

Nearing my conclusion, do you remember the hilarious 1965 movie: “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines”? All those crazy doomed-to-failure newfangled airplanes of the early 1900’s attempting the English Channel.  

A mere 60 years later on 20th. July 1969, the world stopped to hear an American moon-walker utter: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for Mankind.” With similar gusto a 45 year leaning curve has been undertaken by “Those Magnificent Men in their Glass Studios’.

(Of course nowadays, a host of females have equal Glass accomplishments to males.  At the time of writing, Lifetime Membership of Ausglass has been given to three females out of a total of four, namely Maureen Cahill, Judy Le Lievre and Anne Dybka. And from today we add Kirsie Rhea. All three ‘dinosaurs’ were ‘movers ‘n shakers of our prehistoric Glass fraternity. Cahill is still a major force, particularly via her Sydney galleries.)  Understandably the primitive foundations the 38 pioneeers laid are now totally buried or largely forgotten.

Likewise buried is this trivial incident on screen, perhaps similar to your childhood memories.  Here is Stephen Skillitzi at age 5 in 1953 modelling plasticine animals and human heads whilst recovering in bed from an illness. Since I often model much the same subject matter now in clay or wax, perhaps I am still in recovery mode 55 years later, but without feeling the need nowadays for my faithful teddy-bear’s supervision. 

 The world’s previously-respectable Economic system melted down because of hidden fatal bank-lending deceptions . Our overblown high-end Glass World seems to have forgotten its pioneering values. So why not  follow that scary route into an unprecedented catastrophic price collapse

 One deception by some celebrated glass artists is excessive production of almost identical items often made by employees, but marketed and priced as uniquely conceived personally-signed sculptures. With an evaporating pool of collectors, that’s basically unsustainable, isn’t it??   

In 1969 I was the first to predict publicly the future arrival in Australia of an American-led international Studio Glass Movement, but I am not the first to predict a future Art Market collapse.                   

This 1968 photo depicts the multi-channelled world system that, after much arrogant complexity and confusion, dissipates all its energy onto the floor.   Can I/we stand back far enough to see ourselves as manipulated puppets merely fulfilling a non-threatening role assigned to us by our latter-day ‘idol’ the “Art Game”?

For me it’s an old, old struggle. My mistrust of the world’s conflict-prone systems balanced by the daily requirement for me to politely conform to it.

Generally I mask my darker cynical thoughts.  But in that open letter from America to Aussie potters of 40 years ago, I stated: “..Politicking in artistic circles is rampant. The successful artist becomes a pseudo-idol. Vanity and self exaltation permeate much of today’s avant garde Art. Thankfully pottery and crafts escape much of this.” [end quote]. 

Before Ausglass was born I devised a savagely-worded satirical mixed-media game titled: “The Art Community Rat Race Game”, which laid bare the ethical compromises that tempt every ambitious artist. Such as, how to get your Glass creations into public collections. One message from the 1960’s is: “Let creative idealism rule, not moneyed status, OK?”

However, returning to my beginning wisdom about “bending trees”. What is most relevant now is: “How will those who shape Australia’s future Glass activities, ‘prune’ our matured tree and so make it yield better fruit? Trying times lie just ahead!”               

No doubt the three remaining speakers will give difference views.

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1976 glass percussion instruments performance with dancers on the plaza for the Adelaide Festival.

 

 

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1984 Adelaide Festival Centre plaza performance, costumed Skillitzi and 2 female dancers.

 

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1999 Ausglass Conference S.Skillitzi’s 10 minute pool-centred costumed performance at launch of the new Wagga Glass Museum with Phillip Glass’ sound track, lighting, some percussion.  Audience: 150-200.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skillitzi’s statement about Wagga event, dated 2000:

statement

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5 responses

31 10 2010
carol richburg

You people never cease to amaze me! I lifted 55lb bags for 91/2 yrs and ended up with back surgery 2xs,and disabled.During that time there was a 9 month period when I couldnt walk.I promised myself if I ever got in that shape again I would have something beautiful to look at,well it just so happens Im up for knee Replacement here shortly so ive been picking up some new Shine here and there.Im also fasinated with your stories as well,and I try to find every piece in a book or here.Today I found I guess maybe one of the footballs you mentenioned throwing around when you all were learning in the day.Its 13″ tall and about 11″s round,its amber in color and it resembles bart simpson with glasses on? Or maybe a glass artist with his eye gear on? It has a rough pontil on one end and a hole on the other end,not sure what he was making that day,But one thing is for sure between you sharing your knowledge and him blowing what ever this is its made this day very enjoyable for me! Anyway its signed “King” 1974 how cool is that? I purchased my prize piece from a flea market on hwy 76/378 in Sumter S.C. if you ever come through this way I sure would love to meet and shake the hand of one glass maker before I die. Ive been doing this for some time now on and off. When ever I can get around and have a few dollars.God bless you and yours.

13 01 2012
Gerry King

Do you have a photo? It doesn’t sound familiar but then 1974 was a while ago.

“King”

31 10 2010
carol richburg USA

Forgot to mention U.S.A With the where abouts of my find,I sure wish I could find one of yours someday who knows,Maybe I will. Carol Richburg, Some people love gold and diamonds! I love Glass!

7 06 2012
PETER BLACK

HEY I HAVE A WALL MADE BY DAVID SAUNDERS-BUT CANNOT TRACK HIM DOWN TO GET MORE INFORMATION -IT WAS FROM A CHAPEL APROX 10FT BY 10 FT
IF ANY ONE CAN HELP –THANK PETER BLACK

20 10 2013
Grant.r.saunders4@bigpond.com

Hi David Saunders is my father he lives in QLD Australia you can contact him via grant.r.saunders4@bigpond.com

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