2017 News & Events

 

Interview with Prof Keith Cummings 2017

For Bruntnell-Astley

 

Professor Cummings, you are one of the most respected glass-makers and authors on the subject of kiln-forming; you have also been titled as one of the `founding fathers of the British contemporary glass movement`. Can you tell us a little of your working and teaching life. How does it feel to be the only British glassmaker to be listed in Who`s Who.?

I developed my interest in glass while studying Fine Art at Durham University in the late 1950`s and early 60`s. My experiments with deforming stained glass in a kiln led me to fusing as a way of joining and shaping glass. When I graduated I wanted to develop this process and worked at Whitefriars Glass in London, and was able to bring the technique to a point where it could be used in architectural features. Whilst I was there I was lucky enough to share an office with the late Geoffrey Baxter, the vases he designed for production at this time are now highly sought after and fetch high prices at auction.

Art education in Britain in the early 60`s underwent an overhaul which led to a revitalised system, and the setting up of new or revised courses. Among these was a degree course in glass and ceramics at Stourbridge College of Art and Design. I was always drawn to teaching and became a lecturer on the new course in 1967. This period in British Art and Design is now seen as a golden period, and the freedom to experiment with course design, material techniques and the philosophy of the applied arts enabled students and staff to redefine and expand the nature of education` through` rather than` in` the various disciplines and materials. For me this meant constantly expanding control over kiln-forming techniques and passing them on to students. At the same time the glass aspect of the course at Stourbridge became involved with the developing world-wide studio glass movement, whereby the divide between Designer and craftsman disappeared to be replaced by The Designer/Maker. In hot glass this was led in Britain by Sam Herman a Wisconsin graduate of Harvey Littleton. The development of the `one man` artisan hot glass furnace became established at Stourbridge under the tutelage of George Elliott. For my part, I established kiln-forming at Stourbridge to provide a distinct way of approaching glass, different from hot glass; and students were free to specialise in whichever approach suited them. Early graduates of the new course (established in 1966) were studio glass artists Karlin Rushbrook, Annette Meech, and Pauline Solven. Contacts were developed with the global studio glass movement, visitors included Sam Herman, Marvin Lipofsky, Dale Chihuly, Joel Myers and Erwin Eisch. At the same time the course attracted students from Israel, Europe, America and Australia. In a recent article in NME Led Zeppelin`s Robert Plant credited his contacts with glass students at Stourbridge with his introduction to a wider global culture whilst he was a student at Stourbridge Grammar. I also introduced a course in the history of glass as a way of grounding each student`s search for an individual voice within the context of the material`s background. The local rich historical resources were, and have continued to be, a valuable resource for students, whether in terms of advice from glassmakers, the examples set by the contents of Broadfield House Glass Museum or the expertise of its superb curating staff. Graduates who specialised in kiln-forming began to emerge in the 70`s, and artists of the calibre of Colin Reid, Tessa Clegg, and Brian Blanthorn graduated during this decade or the early 80`s. Personally, this period was marked by a constant interchange between my teaching and the student response to it, the result of which was that kiln-forming became increasingly defined as a series of different but linked procedures, providing an ever widening control of the growing vocabulary of form, colour and texture. For example, casting, which was almost impossible in 1970, became a standard procedure by 1980, as evidenced in the work of alumni like Colin Reid and Tessa Clegg, whose student work did so much to refine the process. By 1980 I felt confident enough about the nature of kiln-Forming to publish my first book on the subject, illustrated in the main by Stourbridge students work. Subsequent books have extended this basic primer to reflect both the constant development and sophistication of kiln-forming and its constantly expanding global use.  In the mid 80`s I divided my teaching between Stourbridge and the Royal College of Art, thereby working with both graduate and post-graduate students. In 1988 the government decided that all degree courses in Art and Design had to be carried out within the Polytechnic sector, and the course moved, lock, stock, and furnace, in October 89, to Wolverhampton Poly. I was asked to become head of the new department, set in custom-built accommodation and within a much larger School of Art. The move presented short term problems of identity, but also, eventually, great opportunities. From offering only an undergraduate programme I was able to extend the study of glass to M.A., MPhil, PhD, and Post-Doctoral levels, and supervise research into glass and glass related subjects. A prime example of which was the research carried out by Dr Max Stewart into the pâte-de-verre process used by the French artist Amalric Walter. This was facilitated by the first exhibition of this artist`s works at Broadfield House; and is an example of the continued links between the department at Wolverhampton and the Museum. A feature of the glass department`s work in recent years has been the links forged with international institutions, in particular with China, with students studying at Wolverhampton and returning to set up glass areas within the University sector. One alumnus founded the department in Shanghai University and the Shanghai Museum of Glass. I retired officially in 2013 (after over 50 years in education) but retain an Emeritus Professorship which allows me to maintain strong links with current staff and students. Whilst I have written at length about myself (as requested) I must stress that at every stage of my career I have been fortunate to be part of a team of colleagues and contacts who, at each institution and each period played their parts in this story. In relation to my entry in Who`s Who, I suspect that luck and longevity have played a large part, and perhaps the fact that I have been active across a wide field, as a teacher, author, and maker.

How has your work developed over the years, and where are you now with it?

My work has always reflected the fact that I began as a Fine Artist, and perhaps, as a result I have always sought to use glass as a medium, often in combination with others, and am more interested in painterly and sculptural outcomes rather than, for example, container forms. Although I am a great fan of glass and glassmaking many of my favourite artists are painters and sculptors, and I paint as part of my preparatory work, although do not exhibit the results. My work has many sources, light, the English countryside, early metal-work and weaponry among them. Also a major influence over the years has been how the glass behaves when heated, and perhaps the way I paint is a way of exploring this; using mobile watercolour washes as a kind of exploratory substitute. All of my glasswork contains an element of experiment; in this way I feel I have been able to constantly widen my technical and formal vocabulary, and as a teacher to pass these on to students.  Until retirement my personal sculptural work existed in concert with my teaching and my writing, and all three influenced each other. Now it is my sole activity I feel that all of my creative energy goes into making; I realise that I no longer need to understand or explain what I do and can just enjoy the journey. Perhaps the work reflects this, it certainly feels different in character to me. Ultimately my work is a personal reflection of my experiences, yet I am constantly surprised and delighted when it reaches a wider audience.

Who have been some of the interesting people you have met or worked with at Stourbridge and Wolverhampton?

I could obviously provide a list running into thousands, but will have to limit myself. The staff at Stourbridge, Irene Stevens, John Smith, George Elliott, Stewart Garfoot, and Tony Adams all of whom brought different perspectives to glass and to the student experience. When Broadfield House glass Museum opened in 1980 it brought together Charles Hajdamach, Kari Moodie, and Roger Dodsworth all of whom added so much to the understanding of the collection and to glass in general. The partnership of Dan Klein and Alan Poole was a major influence on the development of contemporary glass from 1980 until the present day. Dan died in 2009 but Alan continues to act as a central figure. Their collection, now housed at the National Museum of Scotland, represents their support for emerging artists over three decades. Like so many, I felt the benefit of their support and friendship during the crucial decades before British glass had developed an audience.

I have already mentioned the impact of visitors to the college, many of whom I have maintained contact with over the years. At Wolverhampton contacts were made globally by Andrew Brewerton and his successor Bryony Conway. These included South Africa and, particularly, China. Students like Dr Guan Donghai, and Dr Xhuang Xiaowei have gone on to establish important glass courses in Universities in Shanghai and Bejing. Dr Xhuang Xiaowei also founded the Shanghai Museum of Glass. These, and all of the students I have worked with over my fifty year career deserve mention.

A lot of people in the Bruntnell/Astley exhibition, and in Allister Malcolm`s retrospective have been taught by you, and gone on to have very successful careers; how does that make you feel?

Obviously delighted, and not a little proud. A teacher is a facilitator, and I have always tried to help students to develop as individuals rather than as obvious graduates from a particular institution. Looking at the Stourbridge and Wolverhampton Alumni in these two shows I hope that this is evident. I also always sought to help students to develop the ability to evolve over the course of long lives and careers rather than concentrate on a single style, and many of the artists have managed to do this. As I said at the opening of Colin Reid`s magnificent exhibition at Cheltenham Museum in 2014, “You know you are getting old when a student of yours has a thirty year retrospective”

Keith Cummings 2017

 

Bruntnell-Astley Show White House Cone August 25-28 2017  

              Since its launch in 2014 B-A has established itself as a major promoter of, and dealer in, the work of artists who use glass as an expressive medium. Its base in the Stourbridge was, for centuries, a traditional glassmaking area, but, since the demise of the factories has seen a regeneration in glass making through a network of small studios within which predominantly unique pieces are produced. In addition the area is also home to a world renowned collection of glass (currently being rehoused), and educational establishments with a long history of specialisation in glass. While Bruntnell-Astley has naturally reflected the richness of this area in its stable of artists it has always sought to develop a wider, more international profile. The selection criteria adopted by B-A cuts across boundaries to reach only work of great originality and quality. Following its successful presence at Collect 2017, the show planned for August will run as part of the 2017 Glass Biennale programme, and will help to showcase the new White House Cone Museum building before Stourbridge`s  historical collection moves in.

The artists in this important show are, true to B-A`s ethos, from disparate backgrounds, and present a variety of approaches to their choice of material. Contributors vary in age and experience, from veteran Keith Cummings, with new works that reflect over half a century of involvement with glass in the Stourbridge area, and his life-time interest in glass casting, to newer artists like Simone Crestani who works in Venice and who presents ground-breaking, large scale  lamp-worked sculptural pieces. Techniques used by the exhibitors vary from those, like glass blowing, which have been used for millennia, to 21st century processes like water-jet cutting, and the resulting variety of form, colour and texture present an overall view of the material, used by a diverse body of artists in artefacts, that represent the very best of contemporary studio glass.

 

 

 

 

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