Monday, 2 December 2013

Nic Robb an Early Student in Glass

There have been a lot of students of glass in New Zealand since the first tertiary course was established in Whanganui in 1989. While some have gone on to make sustainable careers as professional glass artists, many others stop their glass-making once they finish their studies, or after a few years in the 'real world'.  A collector of glass like me is always delighted to buy a piece by an 'emerging artist' since that person may go on to a significant career. I have a number of pieces in my collection which are early examples by some of today's 'names' in glass - perhaps that might be the subject for a future blog. But equally, I also have pieces that are one of only a few made by a particular person, who did not carry on in glass. I treasure those as well.

I first came across the name Nic (for Nicola) Robb in June 2006 when I bought a piece on TradeMe signed 'Nic Robb Feb 89'. Just over 8cm high, it's hardly the greatest piece of glass ever made, though a competent piece for a beginner, with its iridised light brown body and the brown spiral that rises from the base.  Because I knew Tony Kuepfer was teaching glass in Whanganui in 1989, I asked him if he recalled the maker. Tony, who is ever helpful in responding to my many enquiries of him, responded saying:

"Nic Robb was in the first group of students for the Certificate in Craft Design Programme at the old Wanganui Regional Community College (UCOL). That was about the time I was getting involved with them and before they had any studio.  They sent their glass majors up [to Tony's studio at Inglewood] to get a taste of glass. Nic was in the first graduating class late 80s.

"Her piece is a nice bit of the history for your collection perhaps…"

In 2007, another piece of Nic's was offered on Trademe, but I was not successful in acquiring it - the photo at right from the TradeMe site is my only record of it.  22cm in diameter, it was also signed 'Nic Robb Feb 89'.

In February 2010, I was successful in bidding for another piece, this time signed 'Nic Robb May 89'. It's 10cm high.  One might guess the first two were made at the beginning of the academic year, and this one in the May holidays after the first term.

None of these pieces is more than a competent student product, and looking at them alone one might understand why Nicola didn't continue as a glass artist. So imagine my surprise and delight to see another piece listed on TradeMe in November 2013. 

This is a much more accomplished piece, simple yet elegant in form and very attractive in its use of two layers of coloured chip. The pontil has come away cleanly, and there are no tool marks.  It is signed 'N.Robb Mar 89', so presumably made during term time - Easter perhaps? It's 13cm high.

Nic apparently didn't continue her career in glass - I've not seen any pieces later than 1989. But she did pursue a career in arts administration, serving as PA to Dowse Art Museum Director Tim Walker in Lower Hutt from 1998 to 2003. I have not been successful in my efforts to contact Nic, though I understand she is probably still based in Wellington.

As Tony Kuepfer indicated, Nic Robb was part of the first intake of students in glass at the Wanganui Regional Community College, which had been established in 1984. The glass course began in 1989, leading Tony Kuepfer away from his Inglewood studio, to move eventually to take up full-time teaching at Whanganui. The College became Wanganui Regional Polytechnic during the reorganisation of Polytechnic education in the 1990s, before becoming part of the Universal College of Learning (UCOL) in 2002. In 2007 UCOL and the Wanganui District Council entered into a partnership agreement to secure the future of the school, and in 2008, the District Council established a Private Training Establishment, the Wanganui Educational Institute, which now manages the operational activities of the Glass School facility. But that of course was long after Nic Robb had left.

Monday, 11 November 2013

A Glass Mini Road trip - Part 3 Whāngārei

Recently I had a chance to combine a non-glass related visit to Auckland with seeing several glass exhibitions and activities. Nothing particularly links these things except my participation, but they did provide some acquisitions for my collection. I have divided them up so they don't make too big a blog - this is the third of the series of three.
On my way back north, I called in (as I frequently do) at Burning Issues in Whāngārei. I was keen to see the new gaffer, Keith Grinter, who has taken over following the death of Keith Mahy (see my blog of 17 June 2013).  On his website, Keith describes his excitement over his venture:
'On 16th September 2013 I started work in my own glass blowing studio in Whangarei. I had been discussing moving to Whangarei and working with Keith Mahy when he died unexpectedly. A few weeks later I was offered the opportunity of purchasing the studio by Shona Firman. With the help of Garry Nash I started the furnace on Tuesday and spent the next two days warming it up slowly until it was ready to add batch to make glass. During the week I made my first glass batch from the raw chemicals following Keith Mahy's old recipe. On Saturday 21st September I spent from 8am to 3.30 blowing glass in my own studio. Thanks to Shona Firman and Garry Nash for their kind support.'
Keith Grinter's art practice until now has had a painterly emphasis; he is a painter both on canvas and on glass.  Whilst I am sure that will continue, he has recognised the need to vary what he does, and he is currently working to develop his glass blowing skills. Not that he is any slouch; at left is a piece in my collection that was exhibited at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wellington in November 2007. 
But being totally responsible for a studio is quite a different matter, and Keith's current production is much more exploratory. I was delighted to purchase one of his 'trial' pieces, to document this new phase of his work. Getting rid of the bubbles is a current challenge. 

Another issue is the blue tinge in what is batched as clear glass. Rebecca Heap is continuing to blow her work in Whāngārei, as she was doing when Keith Mahy was there, and it was great to find she was there too when I visited.
Rebecca had been working with Keith Mahy on a new furnace, and Keith had made its first batch just before he died.  With help from Garry Nash, Rebecca got that first melt going, and blew some pieces from it, one of which she very kindly gave me. 
Rebecca said ''Keith and I shared an interest in hand blown industrial glass so it seemed fitting to use an old factory mould to make these little cups out of the last batch he melted. They look especially nice when used as votives as the cold graphite thumb prints make the candle light dance. The glass is blue because it was the first melt in a new furnace and we bought the pot second hand from Gaffer Glass where it had last been used for cobalt colour bars".
The reference to industrial glass relates to Keith Mahy's work at Crown Crystal Glass, and Rebecca's experience working in Sweden at Pukeberg and Orrefors between 2006 and 2011, after she graduated from Whanganui.
I'm delighted that my 'local' glass studio continues, under new management, and I'll certainly be calling in to see Keith Grinter, and Rebecca Heap on her working days there, as I pass through Whāngārei.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Glass Mini Road trip - Part 2 'Whispers'

Recently I had a chance to combine a non-glass related visit to Auckland with seeing several glass exhibitions and activities. Nothing particularly links these things except my participation, but they did provide some acquisitions for my collection. I have divided them up so they don't make too big a blog - this is the second of what will probably be a series of three.
Living in the North, I don't get to attend gallery exhibition openings very often. so I was delighted to realise that my being in Auckland would coincide with the opening of the exhibition Whispers at Masterworks Gallery in Ponsonby.  The exhibition (on until 17 November) comprises five stunning chandeliers made by 'The Crystal Chain Gang' from Masterton, being Jim Dennison and Leanne Williams. Sadly, the 'Gang' was not present (I guess it's a long way from Masterton to Ponsonby), but they certainly had a presence.

Jim and Leanne made their first chandelier in 2006. Because they are so labour intensive, the chandeliers are usually made as 'bespoke' items, made for a client on commission. Although by their nature chandeliers are made to be highly visible, they are not often able to be seen publicly, and especially not as a group.  Fortunately for us, the current Master of Masterworks Eloise Kitson worked with Jim and Leanne to bring together a group of these chandeliers together in an exhibition, five splendid Masterworks. Eloise kindly approved my photographing these so here they are. No photo has all five, but above are four of them.

Jim and Leanne often reference birds and feathers in their glass art, and these chandeliers are very feathery items indeed. 

But while some of the individual components are whole birds and some are individual feathers, as seen at left, very effective use was also made of elements comprising just the spine of the feather, as in the example at  the right.  A wonderful video running in the gallery showed how these were 'mass-produced' (something of an overstatement for these individually crafted pieces) by the Chain Gang.

This is the fifth chandelier, and is probably my personal favourite, though sadly the architecture of both my house and my budget mean I'm not likely to be able to add this to my collection. But I was delighted to have the opportunity to see this wonderful group of works. Thanks, Jim and Leanne (and Eloise).

Two footnotes. Jim and Leanne have a great website which documents their work, both chandeliers and other amazing creations. It's well worth exploring at

Secondly, for northerners, the Crystal Chain Gang's current touring exhibition Fancy Fool's Flight opens at Piece Gallery, Matakana on 23 November until 16 December. I saw this remarkable show when it was at Objectspace in Auckland. It's amazing, and I'll certainly be calling in to have a second look while it is in Matakana.

Monday, 4 November 2013

A Glass Mini Road Trip - Part 1 'Off the Main Road'

Recently I had a chance to combine a non-glass related visit to Auckland with seeing several glass exhibitions and activities. Nothing particularly links these things except my participation, but they did provide some acquisitions for my collection. I'll divide them up so they don't make too big a blog - there'll likely be three in this series.

Off the Main Road III at the Red Barn Gallery
First up, I went to see Off the Main Road III at Graeme Hitchcock's Red Barn Gallery at Churchill (west of Te Kauwhata, if like me you didn't know where Churchill is). This was an exhibition of glass by Graeme and colleagues Karin Barr, Judi Hadfield and Michelle Judge, with stone sculpture by Jonathan Bowman and bronzes by Todd Butterworth and Phil Neary. It was great to meet Michelle who was on exhibition-minding duty, but otherwise I was the only one there (a mid-week afternoon not being peak exhibition viewing time). There had been good numbers the previous weekend, and on the subsequent Labour weekend as well, I understand. 

There was a great range of Graeme's distinctive glass sculptures, which enabled me to select a 'Man Looking' for my collection, something I have been meaning to do for a while.  Graeme's ability to create almost cartoon like figures in glass is quite remarkable. 

'Man Looking' makes me wonder what he is looking at

I loved Karin Barr's quarry scree installation in Re:Fraction - the Outdoor Glass Exhibition at the Waitakaruru Sculpture Park and Arboretum in October 2012. Karin has been a sculptor in stone, and her affinity for rocks shows through in her glass.



This 'Rock' by Karin Barr looks beautiful in the sunshine
I was delighted to see a range of Karin's colourful 'rocks' in Off the Main Road III - another purchase.


In 2012 I also saw Graeme Hitchcock's installation at Waitakaruru, where he used a pond very evocatively to speak to the plight of boat people.

Sadly, the glass exhibition scheduled for Waitakaruru this year had to be cancelled.  It's a great shame that the Trust that runs the park struck difficulties - it's no longer open to casual visitors, but only to pre-arranged group visits.  It is greatly to be hoped that things can be resurrected. 

See for more information. If you drill down on that site to you can see all the works in the exhibition, including Graeme's and Karin's. I referred to Lou Pendergrast-Mathieson's tamarillos I acquired there in an earlier blog in March 2013.

And so on to Auckland, for the next step in this saga...

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Early Glass by Peter Viesnik

Recently a piece was offered on TradeMe that seemed on first indications to be one of the first pieces of glass made by Peter Viesnik at Albany in 1978. 

Discussion with Peter, and his inspection of the piece indicated that it was not an Albany piece, but was probably made by him about 1982, in the second year of his working with Peter Raos at the Hot Glass Company at Devonport. There, unlike Albany, the glass was batched but at that early stage they were batching one colour at a time, like this blue, rather than clear. The pattern on each face is the chill mark from the marver, used to slightly 'square' the round form.

Peter Viesnik c. 1982 - Park collection
This discussion led to an interview with Peter about his beginnings in glass. He gave me a great morning, during which I learnt a lot, and also got to see two pieces that were made at Albany in 1978, which Peter still has.   

Peter was born in the UK, and as a young man travelled quite a bit, both on his National Service in the Royal Air Force, working on ski fields in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, and a stint in Sydney in property management. He also spent three years in India studying Vedanta and Buddhist philosophy. Back in the UK teaching yoga, in 1974 he met a New Zealander, Helen, and they came to her home town of Tauranga together to have their first daughter. Peter opened and ran a natural foods restaurant in Tauranga for three years. However, he was keen to pursue a creative occupation. A Swiss friend in Auckland suggested glass-blowing, so he went to see Mel Simpson at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. Mel was dismissive of Peter as being too old to start - Peter was then about 40.  

Reg Kempton blowing glass 1978 - Bruce Given photo
Not one to be easily put off, Peter decided to sell the restaurant and tour New Zealand looking for ideas and information. Peter and Helen and their two girls set off in their VW bus. In Havelock they went to see Reg Kempton. Like Mel, Reg told Peter he was too old to begin a career in glass, which was something you needed to begin in your youth. Undaunted they went on to Hokitika, where he saw Ove Janson blowing glass and immediately decided “yes, that’s what I want to do!”  So Peter went back to Auckland to set up a glass studio. He visited Mel Simpson for guidance, and also went to see Tony Kuepfer, with a tape measure to measure up Tony’s facilities. 

Once Mel realised that Peter was serious about glass he suggested he go and visit Keith Mahy. Peter visited Keith in his cowshed at Otonga, north of Whāngārei, where he saw him blowing. Keith wanted to go off and have some breakfast, so he said to Peter “have a go”, which Peter did, his first hot glass experience. Peter found Keith inspiring and saw that he clearly enjoyed what he was doing very much. Peter located a place in Albany, with a shed at the back. There in 1979 he spent a year of what he calls painful effort, learning to build glass blowing equipment, with the skillful engineering assistance of his Swiss friend, Greg Abbott, an immensely practical person who could turn his hand to engineering anything, though he had no knowledge of glass. Peter did the research into what was needed and employed Abbott to help build the furnace etc.

One invaluable source, his Bible Peter said, was Frank Kulasiewicz’s book ‘Glassblowing’ (1974). Peter thought that all the early glass makers New Zealand made considerable use of this book. Indeed, it must have sold very many copies world wide, since I had no trouble buying one quite cheaply on the Internet - it's fascinating to see what was being made in the 1970s, some of which clearly served as inspiration to several new Zealand artists.

Peter Viesnik glass, Albany 1978 - Viesnik collection
At Albany Peter was fluxing bottle glass, rather than batching glass from sand. He had a couple of sessions but ran out of money – he described it as being the absolute Viesnik folly, a glass studio which he had built but couldn’t even afford to run.  

However, he did make a number of pieces, and even sold a few at a craft fair in Albany, after the woman who was organising the fair said she liked his work and would like to be able to sell it. Peter was very surprised that somebody would want to buy his pieces.

Peter Viesnik glass, Albany 1978 - Viesnik collection

At this stage Peter Raos got in contact, having been put in touch by Mel Simpson. Mel would organise a grant from AHI to establish a glass studio if they could find premises. Peter Raos didn’t want to move to Albany, so Peter Viesnik undertook to try to find premises in Auckland. Driving around, he saw that the building on the corner of Church St and King Edward Parade in Devonport was for lease.

Peter Viesnik worked as a wine waiter while he and Peter Raos were setting up the studio. They had to line the space with Gib board, which neither of them had done before, but their rather amateur efforts were assisted by the council building inspector choosing not to look too closely. Given that the adjacent space, occupied by a craft furniture maker, was partitioned off with recycled wooden doors meant they were very lucky that the heat of the kiln and the sawdust laden atmosphere next door didn’t lead to a fire.

However, once they were set up the two Peters established ‘The Hot Glass Company’, and the rest is history.

With thanks to Peter Viesnik for sharing his story so willingly.