Monday, 17 June 2013

Keith Mahy - one of the pioneers

Photo: Stephen Robinson
I have been saddened to learn of the death in Whangarei of Keith Mahy, on Friday 14 June 2013. Keith was the first New Zealand born studio glass artist (I think only English Reg Kempton and American Tony Kuepfer predate him in New Zealand). But Keith's involvement with glass began well before he set up his studio in that former cow shed at Otonga, between Hikurangi and Whakapara in Northland in 1976.  

Keith was born in Whakatane in 1947 and studied sculpture and design at the Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University, graduating with a Diploma in Fine Arts in 1969. He won the New Zealand Manufacturers Association Student Design award in 1967, and on completing his studies worked in packaging design in Auckland. In 1970 he was appointed Design Director at Crown Crystal Glass in Christchurch. Keith designed many of the successful ranges of glassware produced by Crown Crystal Glass, including Anker which won a Designmark award in 1970 and Aragon, Designmark 1971.

But designing glass for others to make wasn't enough for Keith, so in 1975 he left Crown Crystal to set up his own studio at Otonga. He built his own wood burning gas kiln, and made his own moulds out of pear wood.


I don't think Keith signed any of his early work, so identifying pieces is not easy, but I think these are examples of his glass from that time. The manaia-like handle terminals were a distinctive feature of his work.

In 1982, the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council provided Keith with a grant to equip his new studio at Paparoa, and this enabled him to improve the quality of his glass. He exhibited in the Philips Studio Glass Award exhibitions at Auckland Museum in 1984, when he received a Merit Award (highly commended), and in 1985 and 1986.
Merit Award 1984 Philips Studio Glass
1985 Philips Studio Glass
In the 1986 Philips

catalogue, he wrote: "Living in the country on a historic Maori Pa site on the Pahi Peninsula which juts into the North Kaipara harbour, has prompted me to install my own wood gas plant to utilise local resources and to cope with the high energy demands of melting glass in a furnace. 

1986 Philips Studio Glass
This, combined with working in an environment surrounded by trees, farmland, and ever changing tidal inlets, as well as the exciting properties of hot glass, like transparency, reflection, refraction, colour and its particular spontaneity, are the main influences on my work at present."

In 1986, in the developing environment of craft education in New Zealand, Keith became a part time tutor in Glass and Design at Northland Polytechnic in Whāngārei. A QEII grant was made in 1988 to extend the studio at the Polytech, and Keith taught glass there for a number of years, until the facility became a casualty of the reforms in craft education which undid the previous good work. Quite a number of present day glass artists learned or enhanced their skills under Keith's guidance.
An exhibition piece from the late 1980s

One of those was glass caster Shona Firman with whom Keith established both a life partnership and from 1995 'Burning Issues' studio and gallery in the Whangarei Town basin, to which they were able to relocate completely once the Polytechnic closed.

2001 example of Keith's 'shard' vases
In 1997, Keith and others developed the Beachcomber Glass Studio in Rarotonga, followed in 1999 by a training course there for young potential Rarotongan glass artists

2002 cage glass perfume bottle
2003 feathered perfume bottle

One of Keith's most recent colleagues, Rebecca Heap, posted this photo on Facebook on 16 June, with the note: "This afternoon we emptied the pot and turned off the heart beat at Mahy Glass amidst lots of fire and steam. With family and friends present it was the saddest shut down I have ever done.

Keith Mahy was one of the pioneers of studio glass in New Zealand.  His passion for glass, his teaching and mentoring of others, his creativity in his own glass work and above all his friendly nature will be sadly missed.


  1. Very sad indeed. He leaves some beautiful work.

  2. viesnik9@gmail.com17 June 2013 at 21:57

    Keith was one of my first introductions to studio glass in 1979 and I was impressed with his friendliness, helpfulness and enthusiasm.

  3. R.I.P. Keith. "Friendly nature" says it all.

  4. Gone too soon. But what a life well lived and what fantastic glass! Over the years I have enjoyed visiting the Burning Issues Gallery and watching glass artists work their magic. Keith will be sorely missed.

  5. Keith will be sadly missed over the years he has inspired many artworks and artists, and it was a pleasure to handle Keith's and Shona's glass works. They were alwaysunique and some of the most popular in my gallery.

    Alex McPherson
    Gallery Artisans