The Gaffer: Annette Blair (photo: Wendy Dawes)
Glass making has fascinated both the craftsman and lay person since its inception some 4000 years ago; even at that earliest rudimentary bead and core vessel stage it was(is) highly desirable. Originally the intent had been to imitate valued semi-precious stones such as agate, lapis lazuli and malachite, etcetera, using simple casting and core forming methods. But once the evolutionary step to blowing glass had been taken (during the first century BC of the Roman Empire) those earlier techniques were, in the main, eclipsed ‒ and the hero master blower was in the ascendancy.
From there until the Middle Ages, Renaissance and beyond little has changed in terms of methodology and equipment. Indeed (until the very recent introduction of 3-D printing in glass, gawd save us) the craft has remained, to all intents and purposes, charmingly medieval in nature. The marver, the bench, the pipe, the punty, the paddles, the blocks ‒ all remain essentially unchanged; an aspect that makes the process all the more fascinating to watch.
Above all, glassblowing at its most up-scaled and accomplished requires an assembled team, at centre stage of which sits the gaffer – and it’s the gaffer who calls the shots; setting the timing and tempo and directing the movement of each team member. An honoured and highly respected position – indicative of the nth degree of experience and master craftsmanship – it’s the apogee for the committed glass blower.
photo: Adam McGrath
When the Studio Glass Movement kicked off in the early 1960’s, there was a shift away from the factory floor into the garages/studios/workshops of individual artists. And it would be fair to say that – regardless of the skill and exquisite nature of the work made by artists specialising in casting, fusing, stained glass and the various cold-working techniques – the glassblowers still retain the position of top gun. They are the jocks, the ‘glitterati’ of the glass world, providing the glamour and pulling the crowds – if for no other reason than the other techniques are protracted in process and slow (sans the thrill of fire and performance, sans the theatre.)
Gaffing at Pilchuck for Artists in Residence Lily Maya and James Rouvelle, 2014
Scratching patiently away at the surface of a vessel with a dremel for hours on end or spending the day buried up to the elbow in plaster-silica mould material doesn’t carry quite the élan of commanding the hot-shop floor, nor capture the thrall of an audience. Blowing is often fast and furious and invariably on the edge of dangerous; in the vast arena of contemporary glass practice, it’s the ultimate spectator sport and the most extreme and immediate test of an artist’s physical skill.
Before the advent of Studio Glass, the modern ‘art glass’ we all know best ‒ Tiffany, Lalique, Gallé, etc ‒ were eponymous wares designed by their famous namesakes but executed, in the main, by employed (usually faceless) master craftsmen. This – the boutique factory ‒ was the model of European glass making and so it continues to this day; Kosta Boda, Orrefors, and the entire island of Murano to name but a few (though, to be fair, following the rise of Studio Glass, high profile masters have been engaged to design/make accredited limited edition lines for many of these companies.)
Promotional image from a Murano Glass factory website…gaffer has been literally obscured(!)
In contrast, the excitement of individual artists finally having the wherewithal to actually design and make their own work from conception to gallery was the impetus behind the mid-20th century Studio Glass phenomenon. And some even saw it as the potential coming of age of the craft; at long last, the gateway to an elevation to contemporary art (if not fine art) status.
But along with the establishment of the arts cred of the medium (and the accompanying escalation in profile, success and production) comes an ironic return to artist-as-auteur; along the lines of Warhol, Hirst and Koons. It’s become acceptable once more for artists to have their work made by uncredited others. And the gaffer stands at the epicentre of all that; always undeniably The Talent, but often morphing back (from artist) into the role of lead actor/principal dancer or, even worse, relegated to the glass equivalent of a ghost writer.
This last professional anomaly strikes a peculiarly unmannerly chord. Is it really acceptable for artists to foster the impression, even if only by omission, that they’ve made super-sized work of the highest technical proficiency, and/or advanced Venetian artistry, that could only have come from the hands of a highly accomplished and seasoned master blower? Is it really kosher to present this work to the unsuspecting, ingenuous public (including collectors and even some gallerists) who are bowled over with admiration for the quality of the work and the flourishing reputation of said artist-auteur; never once imagining the need to ask ‘yeah but did you actually make this?’
Many established artists do acknowledge their gaffers; Klaus Moje always did, and the back pages of a Chihuly catalogue used to read more like the closing credits of a movie. Not that this is necessarily something that gaffers seek or demand per se. Some artists supposedly figure that paying a gaffer by the hour is sufficient recompense. But might it not be a matter of common courtesy on the part of the commissioning/hiring artist to acknowledge that additional professional input? It would be unthinkable not to credit photographers, for instance, or not to properly attribute collaborative work. Yet the relationship between an artist-auteur and the gaffer is, one might surmise, the quintessential creative collaboration – particularly when we’re talking about a large body of (often ongoing) ‘signature’ work. And besides, if you are having your work blown by an acclaimed and highly esteemed master blower, would not the addition of that factor lend greater kudos to the piece?
So, having set the scene/had the obligatory renegade rant, perhaps it’s time to introduce the subject of this article(!)…
Featured artist: Annette Blair
For her Year 12 (HSC) work experience, a reserved Queanbeyan schoolgirl elected to do the structured placement of the program at the Canberra (ANU) School of Art Glass Workshop; art at school was a favourite subject and she’d initially seen the hot shop in action at the annual SoA Open Day. Like many before her, Annette Blair had fallen immediately under the spell of that amorphous, beguiling material ‒ and from that moment on wanted nothing more to do in life than blow glass. She’d had some previous experience with ceramics but, attracted by the heat and the pervasive sense of creative tension, she was instantly drawn to the more challenging aspects of (molten) glass as a medium.
Hard on the heels of that HSC year she applied for, and gained a place in the ANU program; signing up for a four year Bachelor of Visual Art (Honours) degree. The curriculum at Canberra was/is intense, though broad; with instruction in the full gamut of glass-making techniques (a classic suck-it-and-see menu.) By the end of the 3rd year undergraduate degree juncture, students will have nutted out their ‘fit’/preferred modus operandi and thereafter spend the Honours year further honing the chosen speciality. During 3rd year Netty spent a semester in the Student Exchange Program at the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary, Canada and in 4th Year won the Partner Scholarship for Pilchuck; affording her a summer school course with acclaimed Australian gaffer Ben Edols and a serious initiation into Venetian technique (something she continues to value as a perpetual technical exercise – somewhat akin to practicing the scales!)
Keith (2003), blown glass and oil paint (photo: Stuart Hay)
For Netty Blair there was never any question of exploring other techniques, apart from those that were a natural extension/value-add to the blowing process itself; the hot sculpting, enamelling, cold-working/finishing, etc, of her own pieces. The ultimate dream, right from the get-go, was to be a gaffer; entailing an odyssean journey involving years of dedicated practice and travel (in her case returning regularly to Pilchuck, most specifically.)
Immediately following graduation from the ANU she applied and was selected for one of the highly sought-after places on the hot glass traineeship program at the Jam Factory in Adelaide. The Associate Program at the Jam being at the time the only facility in Australia that approximated the European small glass factory model ‒ here, after two full years of constant/relentless production blowing, associates became exceedingly proficient. And following the traineeship she remained in Adelaide for a further year (she had a solo exhibition in 2007) before returning to the ACT, by which time the long anticipated Canberra Glassworks was finally up and running.
Since 2008, she has pretty much managed to realise her dream of full-time work in glass; when not making exhibition and production work of her own, she has regular teaching sessions at the ANU School of Art Glass Workshop, TA’ing and teaching at Pilchuck and TA’ing at the Canberra Glassworks ‒ all tucked in around what has now become her most regular gig; gaffing. (Indeed she has only recently returned from Pilchuck after a second stint as a Craftperson in Residence – an accolade indicative of her rising status.) And for some period of time now Netty has been producing work for a number of high profile Australian glass artists…and so where, we were curious to know, does she stand on the thorny question of accreditation?
Interestingly, she’s not particularly fussed – to be the gaffer is, after all, something to which she has long aspired. The object of the exercise, for Netty, is to continue to develop the technical process. And besides, there’s a gradation in the hiring artists’ input into the commissioned pieces; for some she merely blows the blanks (ie in these cases the defining decorative/finishing/coldworking elements are completed by the artists themselves.) She thoroughly enjoys the innate versatility and the challenge of successfully translating/manifesting another person’s creative vision; it stretches her and consolidates her expertise. And as jobs go, it’s the top of the blowing wazzir. Whether she’s a gun-for-hire for other artists or working on lighting and tableware commissions for interior designers, she’s entirely pragmatic when it comes to the end-game; the gaffing provides the wherewithal that enables her to sustain her own art practice. Glass is a demanding and expensive addiction; gaffing feeds the beast.
photo: Adam McGrath
There’s a clear emotional divide; blowing for others, albeit enjoyable, is a technical exercise entailing prescribed professional responsibilities/an objective duty of care, while blowing her own work is an avenue of autonomous, sensitive self-expression. And whether it’s the exhibition work or her ‘bread and butter’ production lines, it’s not just love of the craft that radiates from the pieces – there’s a bedrock of warmth and contentment. Her work is truly a faithful reflection of her character and personality; her constancy revealed in the abiding thematic of universal nostalgia, interwoven with cherished family narratives. And always an enveloping sense of nurture and devotion.
Nurtured, blown and cold worked glass, glass enamel. (photo: Adam McGrath)
Often the work features family members, her grandparents particularly; not ‘mining’ the past so much as tracing the binding inter-generational tendrils of social obligation and mutual regard. Vessels, softened and textured with pictorial endearments, nestle comfortably into each other; always complementary, always lovingly observed, never mawkish.
Still Life #2, blown and cold carved glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath
As You Left It (in the sitting room), blown and hot sculpted glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
As You Left It (in the shed), blown and hot sculpted glass, glass enamel (photo credit: Adam McGrath)
As You left It (on the shelf), blown and hot sculpted glass, steel, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
As You Left It (on the kitchen table), blown and hot sculpted glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
Still Life #3, blown and cold carved glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
Above all, it’s unpretentious. Like Netty herself, it’s comfortable in its own skin – which can sometimes lead others into an underestimation of the intrinsic worth. There’s no monster ego here, no squeaky wheeled ‘look at me, look at me’ scenario going on. No grandstanding, no theft of all the (visual)oxygen in the room. She’s patient and genuine – and enduringly stoic! – all of which is manifested in every aspect of her work. Without resorting to overwrought abstract concepts, she presents metaphoric portraits of life and loved ones that are intuitively (and exquisitely) familiar…
Vestige #1 (a study of domestic relics) 2014, hot sculpted, cold carved glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
A Place For Everything 2017, blown and hot sculpted glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
Currently she’s putting together a body of work for a solo exhibition at Beaver Galleries in 2018 – a further deepening of her exploration into the evocative resonance of domestic objects, tapping into the emotional connectivity of long possessed, common items…
“By applying multiple layers of paint I am able to build depth through line, pattern and imagery, while exploring the potential for simultaneous transparency and opacity in glass. Each painted layer will attempt to add to the story of the object; which may reference domestic textures such as lace or woodgrain, simple imagery like plant foliage, text from a recipe book or a rusty patina you would expect to find on the non-glass original.”
…or conjuring up something perhaps long forgotten by the viewer, yet everlastingly seminal.
Vestige #4 2017, blown glass, glass enamel (photo: Adam McGrath)
The exhibition work notwithstanding, she continues to juggle the day job; everything from trophy commissions…
CBR Sports Award trophies in progress
…to her highly popular and successful production lines (available this coming weekend at the annual Undercurrent Market at the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra)…
Luxe (production line)
Homage to Australia votes YES
…and, it goes without saying, her most significant Work In Progress; the super adorable Louie…
There is no doubt that she’s a rising star of the Oz glass firmament and fully deserving of the attention, respect and ‘collectibility’ that goes with the territory. But for all that she remains remarkably anchored and typically mellow – “I’m the luckiest girl in the world” she reckons. Perhaps it’s karma.