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Nancy Sutcliffe, Glass Engraver

Published: January 2013

It’s curious how entirely practical considerations can have a profound effect on creative work.
For me the practical matters were the weight allowance on international flights and the fact that I am not an especially strong, well-muscled individual. Specifically they were forced on me by the need to spend extended periods of time away from my studio in rural Herefordshire and work instead from a room in a high-rise apartment in Dubai.
I needed to find an appropriate working practice that would solve the logistical problems of working in a small shared space (one end of the dining table in Dubai) and allow me to transport work back and forth easily and safely, preferably in my hand luggage.
I had been working with glass for a while before concentrating on engraving about eight years ago, my preferred medium, as with many engravers, was lead crystal in the form of glass vessels, often quite sizeable ones. I couldn’t transport these easily; vessels were too bulky, too heavy, and too prone to cause delays at the security scanners (airport x-ray machines show lead crystal as solid and suspicious black shapes).
None of this fitted my nomadic lifestyle. On one of the trips to Dubai I brought with me a pack of a hundred microscope slides, basically as a cheap way to try ideas on a lightweight disposable glass surface. I could doodle with my handheld drill and play around with techniques like water and oil gilding.
Those slides gave me freedom to experiment without any pressure. It was also possible to assemble a number of small slides into larger scale work, and that is when it got interesting.
As it happened, my ideas about content and subject matter were changing too, though maybe I hadn’t fully realised that at the time – my training was as an illustrator and most of my work is representational, the elegant curves of the kind of vessels I was having blown for me encouraged a sometimes purely decorative.element to the work but I was also keen to find more emotional resonances in engraving.
I draw nearly every day, images that come not from life as such but from memory or my imagination. I suppose that’s what some might call doodling; but drawing is key to my artistic practice and that is how I approach the tools I use. Using the engraving drill feels as comfortable to me as using a pen or pencil, and if all is going well I don’t have to worry about technique getting in the way of expressing my ideas.
In Dubai I took some time out to draw and to think about how my work might progress, and generally to let the dust settle. I found living in the Middle East visually stimulating – Dubai is a dramatic place set in a dramatic landscape – and even though I was not producing engraved vessels my notebooks were filling up with ideas; my work began to change.
Engraving on to slides, with the obvious lack of depth, meant that I had to be careful not to go right through the glass whilst maintaining as deep a cut as possible. The other key element turned out to be the gilding.
I had done a very short course with gilder Frances Federer and began experimenting with combinations of engraving and gilding with no particular end in mind, gilding into and over my engraving.
It felt almost decadent to deliberately hide work that had taken some time to do, but the softness and lack of definition were beguiling to me. It was a complete contrast to my previous engraving style – up to the then my work had been sharp and crisp, meticulous in its definition, a testament to my previous career as a scientific and medical illustrator. The combination of engraving and gilding, of precision with complication, was some sort of breakthrough in my approach, a new way of working for me and in many respects a distilling of my experience so far.
The first project that emerged from this process was Memory Cloud, a personal examination of loss, remembrance and the fleeting nature of memory. Perhaps it was the physical dislocation of being in Dubai so far away from home and family, perhaps   it was the normal passage of time, getting older, leaving friends and acquaintances behind; but increasingly I felt that sometimes when trying to remember someone who had gone from my life,       I could not hold on to their image. It was as if they were slipping away. The image came and went, flickering in my mind – a painful reminder of the inevitable letting go as time passes.
I wanted to express this feeling and to capture those illusive moments. I began to draw what I thought, and the results started to look like a storyboard – a series of sketches that had a consecutive sequence. If you were to arrange microscope slides one after another, you’d have the same kind of sequence. It wasn’t quite a eureka moment, but it wasn’t far off it …
I created a timeline of slides engraved with faces in profile. These I covered in fragile white gold leaf only partially revealing the image beneath; the aim was to represent the fog of memory, clearing and clouding over again.
Storyboards are typically used to plan shots for films, and this arrangement of the slides became  the basis for a stop-motion animation. I produced    a short film which helped to clarify my thoughts, photographing each slide individually and using a simple movie-making application to sequence them into a one-minute film.
I had always intended to frame the slides for display, and in the end the wall art overtook the film and could stand on its own – the animation became simply a way to organise my ideas. Producing over  a hundred engraved slides with one or two heads  on each took almost a month of repetitive work;  and yes, there were breakages – these slides are      a mere 76x51mm apiece and are only 1.2mm deep.
It took a while, but eventually I was happy with the result: the slides were to be laid in a specific sequence, each of them engraved and water gilded with white gold leaf, burnished, distressed and lacquered to protect the delicate surface.
Gently layering the slides with tissue paper, I carried them on the journey home in two small boxes that could fit in my pocket. There was no excess baggage charge, no arm-stretching lugging of bags, no x-ray problems.
Once in my studio in Herefordshire, I had the space to assemble the piece, editing as I went. The final version contains 65 slides and is mounted on black in a Perspex box frame to allow light into the cut edge of the glass slides and across the modelling of the faces,     a crucial consideration because the engraving would disappear completely without it.
Standing back from the finished piece, I saw that I had inadvertently created some sort of mirror. I was now reflected in and had become part of the picture, only when I looked through the surface could I see the engraved heads. I loved this effect;   it was another layer of separation and mystery that fitted well with the whole idea of the work.
I had ended up with a piece that to my mind takes my work in new directions. I see the subject matter as a personal response to a common human experience. In exploring this I had found myself playing with techniques and effects that were new to me, and I am still discovering the possibilities there – I am trying to build on the lessons learned during this project, using them to pursue what I hope is an identifiable personal working style and an individual approach to the traditional craft of engraving.
And it allows me to work between Herefordshire and Dubai in an entirely practical fashion.

www.nancysutcliffe.co.uk
www.facebook.com/NancySutcliffeGlassEngraver

 
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