Saturday, 8 December 2012

Avalon Glass Should Not Be Forgotten

One trap when you try to write a short history of something is that you leave somebody out. When I wrote my essay The beginnings of New Zealand glass in New Zealand Glass Art (Bateman 2010), I made just that mistake. I tried to describe all the glass studios that were in existence in the 1970s and 1980s, but sadly I left out a small but important example, Avalon Glass which was set up in 1985 near Fox River on the West Coast of the South Island. Although I didn’t know a great deal about it, I was aware of it and I should have included it - I simply overlooked it. I must apologise to all those involved, especially Greg Smith who had told me about it.

This small bowl, a recent TradeMe purchase, is signed G Smith 88

But I know a lot more about Avalon Glass now, because, through the kindness of Evelyn Dunstan, I have been able to read the remarkably frank and revealing paper that Greg Smith gave on the history of Avalon Glass at the 2003 conference of the Glass Art Society in Seattle, USA. Entitled “The Blood, the Drugs and the Fear: The Founding of Avalon Glass”, it has been helpful in providing background to the history of Avalon that follows.

Bowl above signed G.Smith 90, vase at right signed G.Smith Te Miko 1990

Avalon Glass was set up by a group of people with no experience of glassmaking in a place that had no electricity and had no fuel for making glass. In 1985 a group of hippies at the Fox River commune decided, for whatever reason, to set up a glass studio. In order to provide enough light to be able to see, a small creek in the hills behind the commune was dammed. A pipe from the dam brought water, and sometimes mud and all sorts of other things, down the hillside to drive a Pelton wheel connected to an inverter and a bank of truck batteries. Greg says there was sufficient power for two dim lights.

The closest source of gas was a supplier of bottled LPG 300 miles away. The distance and the cost suggested they make their own gas. They bought a wood gasifier from Auckland. Although the local timber mills could provide a ready supply of fuel, the wood had to be trucked 30 miles, it had to be cut into small enough pieces for the gasifier, and because of the climate it was often much too wet to burn. Eventually, after a lot of effort and going through a large number of chainsaws, they managed to produce a very variable supply of gas. Building a furnace was the next task, one which fell to Greg’s lot, and not one in
This paperweight is signed R.Reedy 1994 NZ

which he experienced immediate success. When it was finished they needed glass. They spent days at the local rubbish dump collecting bottles which they took back to Avalon to wash, break up and throw into the furnace. The avid drinking habits of much of the local population also provided a source of bottles, in exchange for supplies of coffee or cannabis.


Greg summarises all of this by saying “So there we were, a full-fledged alternative glassblowing studio perched on the side of an unstable cliff overlooking the sea, and we were the source of heat and light for a community of hippies, eccentrics, and burn-outs. There was always someone hanging out in the kitchen, coffee in the pot, pot on the table, and wild stories and reminiscences being recounted”.

In spite of what might seem an unpromising setting, good pieces were produced at Avalon, of which there are a few examples here. The quality of the glass is often very good, with no bubbles or inclusions.

There were a number of people involved in the Avalon co-operative over the years. The founders were Greg Smith, Ross Smith and Lawson Bracewell.  Robert Reedy joined after six months, and Roger Thompson after two years. I don't have examples to show of all of their work from the Avalon period.

 One of Greg Smith's 'anemone' series, this piece is signed 'G.Smith Te Miko 96'

I’ve not seen the name ‘Avalon’ on any glass, though I haven’t seen very much glass from there.  In 1990 Greg Smith set up Te Miko Glass with Carolyn Hewlett, Te Miko being the name of the locality.  At least some of that glass is marked Te Miko, like the anemone bottle shown here, marked Te Miko 96. Commenting on a photograph of it, Greg Smith confirmed he made it. “It was one of our anemone series and in fact one of the last of that period as from 95 on we no longer worked at Avalon and Ross Smith and Lynda Braid changed its name to Seal Island.”  After the first version of this blog appeared, Greg Smith offered me a few corrections (which I have made) and told me that "Ross Smith and Lynda Braid set up Seal island Studios after Ross called time on Avalon Glass, as he owned the building and was the only commune member - the rest of us were locals living elsewhere."

Greg also said he set up Te Miko in 1995 with his then wife Carolyn Hewlett. “As well as blown glass work we made glass jewellery. Carolyn worked as my hot glass assistant. We disbanded Te Miko in 1999.” However, the piece signed G.Smith Te Miko 1990, shows the name was being used before 1995. 

In about 1993 Ross Smith owned the studio and leased it to Greg Smith and Robert Reedy who were making glass there.

Lynda Braid joined Avalon in 1993, and then in 1996 with her partner Ross Smith set up Seal Island Studio, named for Seal Island off the coast a few kilometres north of Te Miko.  Ross Smith, with Greg Smith, had been one of the founders of Avalon.

There is no doubt a great deal more to be told about Avalon Glass, its creation and its operation. What I have tried to do here is correct its unfortunate omission from New Zealand Glass Art and perhaps stimulate those involved to tell their own stories.