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.