Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Keith Mahy's Otonga Glass Studio 1970s

Keith Mahy was one of the pioneer glass artists in New Zealand, and one with a long career. In June 2013, I wrote about Keith's death (http://newzealandglass.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/keith-mahy-one-of-pioneers.html), and explored some of his early work on 18 October 2014 (http://newzealandglass.blogspot.co.nz/2014/10/are-these-early-pieces-by-keith-mahy.html). More recently, I showed a range of examples of his work, based on my growing understanding following an opportunity to see examples of his work in the collection of his partner Shona (http://newzealandglass.blogspot.co.nz/2014/12/more-mahy-mahi.html). Shona loaned me a number of archival items, including two fascinating newspaper accounts of visits to Keith's studio at Otonga, near Hikurangi North of Whāngārei, in 1976 and 1979.

In the 1970s, New Zealanders had very few opportunities to see studio glass blowing, with only Keith, Tony Kuepfer in Taranaki and Reg Kempton in Marlborough operating studios. It would seem that for both these reporters this was a new experience, and so they give very detailed accounts, and thus included a great deal of fascinating detail that a more blasé reporter would have omitted. Neither newspaper is currently available on-line, and so it seems useful to repeat them here, obviously with acknowledgements to the reporters and to the newspapers.

Sue Miller, Women's Editor of the Northern Advocate from Whāngārei, visited Keith quite soon after he had begun work in his studio ot Otonga. On 3 December 1976, she wrote:

'Working in the heat of a Northland summer beside a furnace which is roaring away at over 1200C may not be everyone’s idea of the perfect job. But for Keith Mahy, who is living several kilometres north of Hikurangi, it is just what he wants. In fact it is what he gave up a senior position as a designer at Crown Crystal in Christchurch about two years ago to do. And so, while everyone else in Northland is trying to find a way to cool down, Keith will be stoking up the furnace, heating up the kiln nearby and getting down to work.

For Keith has taken up the age-old, traditional job of glass-blowing, but without the usual six year apprenticeship and transforming it into a modern art form. Until three months ago he had never physically worked with glass, although he had spent five years preparing designs for others to translate into finished articles. During that time he has watched and studied the craftsmen at the Christchurch factory – union regulations forbid him to actually try it himself. But through his designs and awareness of glass as a material he felt he had become sensitive enough to try it for himself. 

Two years ago, with his wife and family, Keith left Christchurch and came to Northland, searching for land where they could live, grow vegetables all year round and make a clean break from their previous existence. After finding a farm cottage out of Hikurangi, they settled down and he’s prepared all the necessary equipment and took time to find out as much as he could about the total process. To ensure some income he took up some other crafts – leatherwork and furniture making. 

About three months ago he began his work as a glassblower stop since then he has worked conscientiously, experimenting, improving, building up stocks and finding outlets for his work. He works regular hours, tries to achieve a set target each day, and approaches his work in a very practical way. Every aspect was thought out, the costs involved were investigated and as many details as possible we worked out in advance. This is because glass is one of the more expensive crafts to become involved in. Keith purchases off-cuts and broken glass from Crown Crystal in Christchurch by the drumful. This simplifies the process considerably, as instead of having to start the complicated glass-making process from scratch, he only needs to heat the glass and liquefy it.

Because of the intense heat needed to melt the glass, and the time taken to reach this heat, the furnace is left burning 24 hours a day. Oil-fired, the furnace burns its way through about 90 litres of oil a day. And the kiln has to be left heated day and night to call the finished product at the specified temperatures to prevent shattering. The glass off-cuts Keith receives are clear and to these he adds various metal oxides to achieve different colours.'

[The original caption to these two photographs was: 

'With the furnace on one side and the kiln on the other it does not take very long to become very hot in the three sided shed north of Hikurangi which Keith Mahy uses as a studio for his glass-blowing. Pictured left and right is Keith concentrating on shaping the molten glass to a bubble and then a jar. He tends to follow the shape developed by the material, preferring to let the material work for itself. Very intense process which requires a great deal of concentration, he finds the peacefulness and solitude of a farm in Northland the right atmosphere for this sort of work.']
'In the furnace he keeps two pots of the liquid glass, one clear and one coloured. And armed with a long hollow metal rod he “gathers” the glass on the end of the rod to start the process. Blowing gently; returning it to the heat of the furnace; blowing; swinging the pipe and growing bubble; dimpling the pliable material to obtain large air pockets; pulling with pliers to obtain peaks and shapes on the outside of the glass; suddenly immersing it in cold water to crack the glass.  Constantly returning the growing form to the furnace and then eventually putting it completed into the kiln to cool. It is a fascinating process to watch as the craftsman concentrates on his work. And it is an extremely satisfying one for him.

Originally interested as a young man at art school in sculpture, Keith regards his work as a glass-blower a continuation of this. He feels his work to be a type of glass sculpture, but by making jars, bowls, vases, cups and jugs, ashtrays and similar practical objects, he feels he has achieved a happy compromise between making a living and concentrating purely on an art form. Still very new to the process, he is more interested in developing the form in his work than in achieving perfection and the quality of his glass. However, he does hope that as he eventually becomes more experienced he will reach a balance between form and glass quality. He feels the possibilities which can be obtained through the combinations of form and colour to be immense, and is constantly experimenting with oxides and temperatures to achieve different colours. Until now it has been largely through chance rather than intention that he has obtained the colours he has. Intensity of colour can be obtained by increasing the number of “gathers” in the coloured liquid glass or reduced by a combination of coloured and clear “gathers”.

In the short time he has been glass-blowing, Keith is found quite a considerable amount of interest in his work. Several shops in the fun array area stock his glass, and on visits to Auckland with van-loads of his work he has only had to visit two shops before the van is empty. There are others in New Zealand doing this type of work, but they are scattered around the country fairly sparsely.'

The second article, written by Liz Bulleid, appeared two years later in the New Zealand Herald on 10 January 1979, not long before Keith's move from Otonga to Pahi:

'Anyone wandering past Keith Mahy’s place, north of Hikurangi, could not be blamed for thinking he was taking the odd pot shot at them. After all, he has the reputation in the area of being someone who gets very heated at times. However, 31-year-old Keith, who for the past two years has spent most of his time in a derelict milking shed in the middle of a paddock, is far from hostile.

He is a full-time glassblower, probably one of only three in the country. From the road his “studio” would never be noticed if it were not for the odd explosion and the halo of yellow light surrounding it at nightfall. Keith Mahy is making a living from blowing glass but is still feeling his way and trying out new ideas to satisfy his own curiosity about the substance that fascinates him so much. To do this he has had to face some shattering experiments. Minutes after coaxing a red-hot blob of glass into the shape of an elegant vase, his prize piece can shatter into hundreds of pieces, only to be swept up and recycled.

But Keith is unperturbed when this happens. “You didn’t want to buy that one did you?” He grins as another disappears into the night. Normally this need not happen. When he is working seriously and intends selling the finished product, he puts them in his kiln to cool slowly. “I’ve just had a good day today and the kiln is already full of finished work, so I am just playing around tonight”, he says. “Putting them out in the cold night air cools them too quickly. I don’t think we’ll end up with anything this time.”

As he pulls the door of his home-made furnace open the glare from the sea of white-hot glass inside makes him reel slightly. He wipes the beads of sweat off his forehead and wriggles into his favourite blowing shoes – a pair of semi-detached sneakers, ripped around the seams for “good ventilation”. For the past 24 hours Keith Mahy has been feeding his furnace with bottles he has collected around the neighbourhood, subjecting them to temperatures of up to 1500°C. He puts in a metal blowpipe and gathers a blob of glowing glass like treacle on a spoon. With all the sensitivity of a musician playing a wind instrument, though he says he has never played one, he blows through the pipe and the bubble on the end turns into a light bulb.

With all the precision of a drum major as he twirls the pipe in his hands and goes through carefully rehearsed steps, keeping the glass moving while it is still hot. He rolls it sitting in his special wooden armchair, thrusts it back into the furnace, allows the fat blob to grow to twice its length and patterns it with a few carefully aimed prods. If the result does not reach expectations then it is thrown back into the furnace to be born again. Turning out a different piece every ten minutes makes Keith’s job appear deceptively easy. But if he does not act quickly once he has the glass out of the furnace it can turn into an uncontrollable mess. His skill lies in the way he can coax it according to a whim without it ever eluding him.

In spite of the idyllic setting, Keith admits that like most people the job sometimes gets him down. “It gets so hot in here I get very short tempered at times. To counteract that I prime myself up beforehand on plenty of water and glucose”. Then when he decides he has done his dash for the day he has to give his body time to adjust to the change in temperature before setting out across the paddocks in the cool night air to his home. If he does not he is likely to catch a chill.

But this might not be a problem for too much longer. Keith is planning to move to land he has bought on the Kaipara Harbour where he is building an underground studio and kiln.'

Keith Mahy grew up in Whakatane, and he made use of his contacts there to hold exhibitions of his work in 1977 and 1982.These two cuttings are from the Whakatane Beacon in 1977:

An unattributed 1982 cutting in the Mahy scrapbook, probably from the Northern Advocate, was written after he had moved to Pahi.  

It reads:

'Glass forms born of leaf shapes 

Each piece of Keith Mahy’s hand blown glass is unique. Patterns of native foliage framed by the semi-circular barn in which he works have inspired most of the shapes – from the strong, plain lines of his goblets and bowls to the fantastical swirls and flow featured in his vases and decanters – but the fluid medium in which he creates has led to a ‘chance effect’ in the end product.

‘What I produce could be called mass-produced because I turn out a lot of the same things,’ he says, ‘but because I free-blow, everything comes out totally individual.’ Mr Mahy often does not know what is he is going to create until just before he starts to blow. The spontaneity shows in his work: many pieces appear to have grown, and frozen in place, naturally, rather than having been made from a static design. Even his rejects are eye-catching. At one shop in Christchurch display of his ‘failures’ – a stand of saggy wine goblets – could have been sold several times over. Mr Mahy has been blowing glass for a living for six years, two of these on his 10-acre block overlooking a Kaipara inlet off the Pahi road, but he maintains he still has only relative control of the medium in which he works.

Keith Mahy in his Pahi studio in 1982 (photographer unknown)
He loves working with glass. He talks about its ‘human vitality’ – and is constantly experimenting. ‘Lots of things I do I have seen somewhere but I am not totally influenced by that. I try to get a fresh approach.’ Many of his ideas are taken from the native Bush outside his studio, he says.

A graduate from Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland, Mr Mahy considered glass as a ‘sculptural (three-dimensional) medium’ only after designing for Crown Crystal in Christchurch. He had no models to emulate when he went out on his own. He welded his own blowing irons (ponteils, or puntys as they are called in New Zealand), carved his own shaping tools (‘pear-wood is the best’) and accumulated and adapted conventional tools for cutting and working the hot glass. Friends and neighbours supply him with ‘empties’: he prefers to use recycled glass to making his own. He claims that enthusiasm (‘I get a kick from the physical properties of the material’) and hard work have carried him to the stage where he really enjoys what he does.
He blows entirely ‘by eye’. Pulling out a small molten lump of glass from his oil-fired furnace (which runs 24 hours a day) on his punty he puffs, cradles and rolls until the desired shape is formed stop the finished article is then called or ‘relaxed’ in the annealing kiln. Up to 15 minutes is spent on each piece, although many take a lot less time.'

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