The Gaffer…



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.


Netty Blair gloryhone

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.)



Netty Blair

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

Tea set01

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.


En famille


Tour de Force: the artists…

Whacko – the national tour of Tour de Force: in case of emergency break glass is about to get underway. It’s being installed at Wagga Wagga as we speak and will be up from the 21st Jan – 13th March (and officially opened on the 28th Jan by Megsie) before moving on to The Jam. So we thought we’d celebrate by posting the fabulous List of Players

Growing up in Parkes, NSW, Deb Jones recounts that her sister was the reader and she was the maker, and that’s the way it still is. Her 20’s were spent between art school and travel, and she graduated from the Canberra School of Art in 1992. She moved to the JamFactory in Adelaide in 1993 to do her glassblowing traineeship, and it has subsequently become her home. In 1995 Deb and a group of friends opened a glass studio called Blue Pony, and more recently (2007) she has established a new studio, Gate 8, with Jessica Loughlin. Her time is currently divided between Gate 8 and the JamFactory glass studio, which she runs on a team basis with Tom Moore and Nick Mount. She enjoys drawing, making design work, artwork or, for that matter, anything – for Deb, the cup’s half full regardless of the circumstances.

Jacqueline Gropp grew up in a house sheltered by a weeping willow in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where she explored aspects of the world through the material of transparent glass including: night stars through the lens of a telescope; the many eyes of a spider temporarily trapped in a converted Vegemite jar; too many bad 70’s comedies through the television screen; and pink bubbling concoctions contained within test tubes of her brother’s chemistry set. Intrigued by Muranese glass, she came into contact with the material’s molten form through glass blowing lessons before undertaking a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Australian National University (ANU) School of Art, Canberra, where she graduated with First Class honours in 1997. Awards including the ANU Peter and Lena Karmel Anniversary Award for Art, Thomas Foundation Pilchuck Professional Scholarship and Australia Council Visual Arts/Craft Fund Development Grant allowed her to travel to New Zealand, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands and USA where she was able to exhibit, study and undertake research into the history of scientific glass apparatus and become enamoured with the depiction of glass in western painting and the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. She currently lives and works in Canberra where she sporadically creates works for public scrutiny.

Timothy Horn‘s work focuses on the meeting point between the natural and constructed worlds. Much of his work has drawn extensively from the sphere of decorative arts, concerned with the inherent/assigned gendering of objects. More recent work attempts to locate the area of slippage between the organic and artificial. Often working at an ambitious scale, he chooses to work with materials for their inherent physical and metaphorical qualities. Inspired by 19th-century zoologist Ernst Haeckel’s engravings of jellyfish, he began an ongoing series of large works made of transparent rubber, that culminated in his first solo exhibition in New York, Villa Medusa in 2006. More recently the fabled “Amber Room” belonging to Catherine the Great of Russia, considered “the eighth wonder of the world”, inspired a crystallized rock sugar encrusted carriage for Horn’s exhibition Bitter Suite at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in 2008. Horn’s work has featured recently in exhibitions at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Museum of Arts and Design, New York, GoMA, Brisbane, and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. A Samstag Fellowship took Horn to study in Boston in 2002. He has lived in New Mexico since 2006. It is a region and landscape, which has greatly influenced his work.

Neil Roberts trained as a glassblower at the JamFactory in Adelaide in the late 1970’s, followed by a stint at the Orrefors Glass School in Sweden in 1981 and the New York Experimental Glass Workshop (Urban Glass) a year later. On his return to Australia he was invited by Klaus Moje to join him as associate lecturer at the fledgling Canberra School of Arts Glass Workshop. Roberts had a broad arts practice that straddled disciplines and media, and a natural curiosity and empathy for materials that inevitably eventually drew him away from a dedicated glass focus. He was the recipient of numerous awards including Australia Council residencies in New York (1989) and Manila (1991), the inaugural ACT Creative Arts Fellowship for Visual Arts (1995) and the Canberra Arts Patrons Organization Fellowship (2000). Working primarily with glass, neon and collected objects, he was a sculptor of growing reputation at the time of his accidental death in 2002. The extraordinary spirit of his practice remains evident in his extant public art commissions and the large body of collected works held both in private and public hands.

Ian Mowbray has been working in glass for nigh on three decades. He originally rented space in the Jam Factory with partner Vicki Torr in 1981, followed by the establishment of Moto Glass in 1989. Since moving to Melbourne in 2000 and setting up a new studio (World Glass), Mowbray has been working exclusively with kiln formed glass. Only too aware that glass is already extraordinarily beautiful in its raw state, Mowbray resists the easy path of coasting on the obvious material properties and investigates instead the darker potential offered by the medium. His main focus lies in the personal political: the torments and desires inherent in daily domestica. He is represented by Diane Tanzer Gallery.

While the practice of Nicholas Folland generally highlights an anxiety for potential failure in everyday activity, the primary work considers this notion through a relationship between the controlled space of domestic dwelling, and the unpredictable chaos of the natural environment. By forcing everyday appliances to a point of excess, and by colliding their practical application with their inherent reference to naturally occurring forces, there is an attempt to highlight a fragile relationship to the world, and to shift our perceived sense of stability and security within the home.

 Nicholas Folland is a restless artist who is currently holidaying in his birthplace, Adelaide. He is a Samstag Scholar who studied within the research program at the Piet Zwart Institute Rotterdam and the University of Barcelona, completing a Masters Degree at The University of Sydney in 2009. He has lived and worked in Australia and Europe, and examples of his practice are held in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia and the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, as well as University and Regional Galleries and private collections internationally.

 Trish Roan grew up in Melbourne, and moved to Canberra to study glass at the ANU School of Art, finishing with Honours in 2006. Since then she has been working as a glassblowing assistant for several artists, as well as working in her own studio at ANCA (Australian National Capital Artists). She has exhibited her work in various locations in Canberra, as well as in Denmark as part of the ‘Young Glass 2007’ exhibition. Trish  undertook a research residency at the Sydney College of the Arts in 2009 and has recently returned from a 2010 exchange/residency in Canada. Her practice lies somewhere in the margins of crude science and everyday miracles. For now, she lives and works in Canberra.


Tom Moore uses traditional and innovative glass techniques to breathe life into his eccentric hybrid specimens. Though Tom’s inventive creatures are mostly friendly, he addresses darker issues such as nature vs. industry in his dreamscape dioramas. For the last 10 years Tom has been the production manager at the JamFactory Craft and Design Center in Australia, where he makes varied commissioned items, and trains graduates in glass production and exhibition work. Tom exhibits his glass in elaborate mixed media environments and was featured in a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney this past Fall. Tom’s work has received a number of awards and is in many notable collections. 

Tour de Force: in case of emergency break glass is coming your way – catch it at a venue near you.