Australian Glass pioneers: the paper…

22 03 2009

A wander down memory lane with Stephen Skillitzi.

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Stephen with Elaine Miles and her percussion show…

 

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…and the set up of his 1975 glass exhibition (opened by the legendary Don Dunstan) in the same space…

 

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[That Playhouse Gallery has stood the test of time well – amazing really. n(Ed)]

While the Gang was in Adelaide we had the opportunity to have a natter with Stephen Skillitzi about things of a glassy nature and bemoaned the fact that we’d missed the Aussglass Conference in Hobart this year (Megsie,  in the throes of her new job, had been up to her neck in gallery renovations with the next hang and opening bearing down on her – so getting away simply wasn’t an option.) Anyhoo Stephen, after giving us a quick rundown on the conference, kindly offered to send through the paper he gave – and he’s included a number of snaps of early performances (check ’em out at the end of the tract.). It’s rather long, but it’s worth taking the time to read…and there are more pics at the end…

 

Australian Glass Pioneers ….S.Skillitzi   16-1-09

 

 

 

…Some might say: ”Don’t we glass workers have bona-fide historians without a personal ‘ax to grind’ and who are above career-long ‘empire building’ like some latter-day Ghengis Kahn. Incidentally, I observed no Studio Glass in Outer Mongolia, the ‘last frontier’ to resist international Glass incursions. “Surely they, those reliable historians, can give us the unbiased truth. So why does this panel dealing with this historical topic consist of 4 practitioners only and no pure academics or theorists?” 

A simple answer is: we need to hear from those practitioners who have done the hard yards by planting the actual ‘glass seeds’ and seeing to their sprouting above ground before they were visible to those historians who got involved later on. Indeed we pioneers can mentally relive in 3D what those historians attempt to do via inferior 2D research. Sadly, I have observed often the neglect of open and useful dialogue between authors and practitioners before and after publication. 

That perhaps belligerent perspective is what motivated the Danish pioneer glass artist Finn Lynggaard to regain control by compiling in 1988 his practitioner-written book on the development of International Studio Glass. In my opinion Finn correctly highlighted Harvey Littleton’s famous 1962 glass blowing workshop which was the major spark for the modern Glass Movement. For me the irritation by both Lynggaard and Littleton with some under-informed historians is justified. 

But for serious history students of contemporary Australian glass the survey texts by the authoritative Dr. Noris Ioannou and Grace Cochrane are hard to beat. We should respectfully reread them!   Another more individualized source of glass history is the so-called “Eminent Persons Program”, archived by the Canberra National Library. To balance the contributions of Nick Mount and myself, some more old-timers in Ausglass should have their histories preserved there.

Speaking personally, it seems my Glass got progressively better in reverse ratio to the ongoing unkind aging process I experienced. Pioneers by definition make mistakes, such as my sometimes lousy furnace designs, so those that follow need not repeat them. For example, my first solo show of clay with glass, at Sydney’s Grace Brothers store when aged only 18, was in January 1966. That was just before decimal currency started. I snobbishly overpriced my student items in guineas and half guineas because I saw mature artists doing just that. Of course a guinea was one pound and one shilling. In hindsight I’m thankful nothing sold. My point is that all us gray-headed pioneers have histories of individually-experienced steep learning curves and the taking of naive risks before we ‘learned the ropes’. 

An ancient proverb states : “As the sapling is bent, so the tree grows”.  I hereby pay a belated tribute to the Glass ‘old-timers’, the often underrated pioneers, who shaped our Glass tree by their risk-taking examples.  

I and only two others, namely Brian Hirst and Richard Clements, have been to all 15 Ausglass conferences. We three can confirm that about half the names on this list have never been mentioned at a conference before.  Incidentally in 1970 I observed Clements doing pyrex lampwork glass at Sydney’s Argyle Art Centre, using skills developed in England.

The narrow criteria for inclusion in my likely-incomplete pre-Ausglass list of in-Australia glass-artists are as follows:  “Those who had a full-time Glass career, or who had a solo glass exhibition, or who had completed a major glass commission in living memory before Ausglass started in December 1978”.  

These 38 Australians can be likened to ‘glass dinosaurs’, or ‘vitrified tribal elders’, or ‘father/mother figureheads’, — (whatever label you prefer)   they all occupied the glass scene before Ausglass was formed a mere 30 years ago. The 38 names alphabetically are: ……..

Douglas Annand, Les Blakebrough, Bill Boysen,  Maureen Cahill,  Richard Clements,,  Peter Dockerty,  Anne Dybka, John Elsegood, Mike Esson, Leonard French, Bill Gleeson, Peter Goss, Paul Hayworth,  Sam Herman, Helmut Hiebl, Regina Jaugietis, Gerry King, Rob Knottenbelt, Les Kossatz, Warren Langley,  Dick Marquis, Stan Melis, Peter Minson, Stephen Moore, Nick Mount, Dennis O’Conner, Tom Persson, Cedar Prest, Con Rhee, David Saunders, Julio Santos, Stephen Skillitzi, Ron Street, John Walsh, Jimmy Whitman, Don Wreford, David Wright, Klaus Zimmer.  

It’s important to note that six of those names were better known in other art spheres than Glass. Five or more have died but nineteen are still active glass practitioners, including a dozen Ausglass members. 

Others not on this list, but actively engaged in glass-related activities in various ways by December ‘78, quickly outshone many included in this ‘old-timers’ list. Those others include Jan Aspinall, Gizelle Courtney, Peter Crisp, Marc Elliot, Shar Feil, Marc Grunseit, Jeff Hamilton, Tony Hanning, Brian Hirst, Ede Horton, Kirstie Rhea, Neil Roberts, Graham Stone. But to the dozens of ‘rising stars’ I say: “Don’t get too impatient with us gray-headed ‘old-timers’. We are well aware of the stiff competition and dedication you present us. We dinosaurs will go extinct or get pensioned off someday, thus leaving the field wide open for all your fresh talent.

Beyond the scope of this analysis are non-contemporary stained glass workers, and mature, influential Glass artists, such as Moje and Proctor and Varga, who arrived after 1978. 

When in China recently I observed the Beijing Olympics’ mindset with its intense national rivalry.  I see a parallel to our Glass career-long competition for sales and status, but without me ignoring our altruistic desire for the betterment of the wider Glass fraternity, evident from the very beginning in the 1960’s. Because I see that parallel perhaps I have become a little more cynically ‘cuckoo’ than most. 

Ausglass was at first designated “People in Glass”, P.I.G. or “PIGs”, for a very short time, thankfully. “Ausglass” is a much more ‘kosher’ title!  

So at this juncture, on behalf of this very loosely associated group of pioneering glass artists, I “welcome”  Ausglass to the already-existing Australian Glass scene. Never forget, we ruggedly independent 38 glassworkers on that list were alive ‘n kicking glass ‘footballs’ around our studio workshops first!  

To use a telling analogy: In 1788 the first white settlers of Sydney-town arrogantly assumed Australia was uncivilized, therefore ‘up for grabs’ without needing any formal treaty with quote: ‘those primitive savages.’  In hindsight the ‘whitefellas’ were generally wrong, arrogant and exploitive of land and natives!   

Similarly, this ‘glass land’ of ours was not “TERRA NULLIUS”, (that is unoccupied or unexplored) before the 1978 ‘first fleet’ Ausglass conference arrived, also in Sydney.  So let’s not be ignorant or arrogant about our origins, like the 1788 First Fleet was! 

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