Defining light and space

Dan Chappell talks to Ann Robinson about her vessels and sculptures, which capture the rhythmic patterns of nature and the extraordinary luminosity and transparency of glass.

"Glass allows us to build up a harmony between shapes and penetrating light, and thus define the essence of light and space, and to touch the secret of this place," said the world's greatest glass sculptor, Czech Stanislav Libensky. He viewed glass as an alchemical product, releasing hidden light' in a way no other artistic medium can, and when Ann Robinson enthuses about the colours that can be created using rare earths, like neodymium, erbium and praseodymium, one detects more than a whiff of the alchemists' laboratories of legend.

In 1998 Lower Hutt's Dowse Gallery mounted a survey exhibition, Casting Light, with over 70 of Robinson's works on display, all showing her ability to transmute glass into vital, pulsing receptacles of pure light.

In the ten years since that exhibition her career has continued to flourish, and peer accolades have included being awarded Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in 2001, Arts Foundation Laureate in 2004, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Glass Art Society in 2006.

Often words like survey' and lifetime' might denote an artist entering the twilight of their career, but a visit to Robinson's new studio on the upper reaches of Auckland's Waitemata Harbour quickly dispels this idea. With her small production team, Robinson has four kilns in full swing, preparing for solo exhibitions in Melbourne and Auckland later this year, as well as a regular stream of commissions.

Looking around the studio it's obvious many of the recently cast forms reference the shapes from Casting Light - the square nikau undergoing final polishing, the four-legged antipodean bowl fresh from the kiln, and the various pod vessels, their trapped colour and light slowly emerging as the surface is painstakingly wetted and smoothed. Yet there is incremental change happening all the time, as Robinson explains, casting glass is not a quick, spontaneous process.

"I seldom launch into something unexpected, but rather look at previous efforts and see how they can be done better. The design evolves in gradual increments as I push and fine-tune. After I've made a work I'll look at it, live with it, but always be a little critical - looking to make it again and do better, perhaps giving it a different-shaped base, a pared-back lip, thinner walls or a different colour; I'm always pushing further."

And it's this pushing further' that has established Robinson as one of the world's leading cast glass artists who is represented in prestigious international collections, including the Corning Museum of Glass in New York State and London's Victoria and Albert Museum. After graduating from Elam, where she studied sculpture, Robinson was a founding member of Sunbeam Glass, along with Garry Nash and John Croucher. And it is this grounding in glassblowing, and a fundamental understanding of her chosen medium, that gives her the edge over all of the more recent entrants into glass art in New Zealand.

Her early casting attempts were frustrated by the unavailability of suitable casting glass, and her development of suitable refractory moulds was very much trial and error; there were lengthy periods when all her works broke during the annealing and cooling processes. But, when Croucher and colleague John Leggott set up Gaffer Glass, supplying glass to other artists, she worked with them to formulate a special lead crystal glass that has given her far more reliable casting results.

Robinson confesses to having a strong scientific bent, which has prepared her well for the technical aspects of making cast glass. Her art has evolved from the seat of the pants' intuitive and experimental days of 25 years ago to the relatively hi-tech operation she runs today. The kilns all have computerised temperature controllers, allowing her to preset the cooling profiles and monitor the internal temperatures of the castings. Robinson must allow the glass, which has an initial temperature of over 800°C, to cool decrementally over a period of several weeks before she removes the mould from the kiln. But even with all the benefits of technology, she still sometimes opens the the kiln and discovers a cracked, flawed or ruined piece.

She points to a row of blue nikau vases with visible slumps and air bubbles, commenting that after many years of successful castings, that particular form developed flaws for no apparent reason and so she ceased making them. Now, several years later, she has a hunch what caused the problem and intends to test her theory, with a new modified casting in the near future. Another little piece of the jigsaw falls into place.

"There's always a tendency to blame the glass, but as I've been a glassmaker and glassblower, I know how tricky glass is. Faults can develop because of small changes in any one of many aspects in the complex process. Mistakes happen most frequently during the cooling process, but they can also be caused by aspects of design and how the glass is poured into the mould."

Robinson uses the lost wax' process; each work is initially cast in wax from silicon moulds and then carefully carved and detailed with unique surface patterns, or design nuances, which are incorporated at this stage. The wax template is then coated in a shell of refractory plaster, and once the shell has hardened, the wax is then steamed (lost) out of the mould, which is then placed in the kiln and filled with molten glass.

But has the increased popularity of glass, and the relative ease with which students are now able to learn the fundamentals of casting this fickle medium, created a more crowded market? Robinson is guarded in her reply, but she observes that those artists trained in a challenging, questioning tertiary environment generally rise to the challenge.

"Artists like Galia Amsel, who trained at the Royal College of Art in London, and Emma Camden, who also trained in England, create works that stand out for me. I hate plagiarism, and it happens in the industry. You start seeing similar themes occurring across work by different artists, which to me indicates a dearth of ideas and a focus more on the market than the creative form."

Living on Auckland's West Coast at Karekare, Robinson has long been inspired by the surrounding bush and her garden, carving patterns from nature onto her vessels - flax, nikau, cactus. But more recently she has developed freer-flowing organic forms - slender, cursive flax pods and the broad leaf of the puka. The inner light and sensuous shapes of these forms call for touching and caressing, belying the fragility of the glass. Earlier versions of the pods were passive and inert, imbued with warmth and light, but Robinson thought they didn't interact with the viewer. So she's recently made some smaller maquettes of the flax pods whose joined stalks use counterbalance to create a poise that was absent in the earlier, heavier pods. Her next step will be to make a new template and try to recreate the dynamism of the model, carving and twisting the wax, then pouring more of her liquid light into the mould.

The conversation always returns to light. She loves the spiritual aspect of glass as a receiver and transmitter of light, both taking and giving.

Libensky spoke of glass having a fourth dimension - transparency - the ability to catch and transmit light. But the more you see of Robinson's work, with its soft, almost fecund curved vessels and rhythmic patterns of nature, the more you realise hers is more a liberation of light - a release of the inner warmth and pulse from the very core of her creations.

"I'm trying to do it in a way that's mine," she says.

Indeed.

Pods, 2008, 45% crystal glass.

Spiral vase (left), Te Rito Pod (right), both 2008, 45% crystal glass.

Ann Robinson in her studio working on wax casting for flax pods.

Layla Walter (left) shaping a wax mould; Ann Robinson's Fire Nikau, 2008, 45% crystal glass; and Angela Ternant-Jones (right) polishing a nikau vase.