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Louis Thompson Glass

by Stephen Prendergast

Published: March 2014

Louis Thompson

A Smile from the Heart

by Stephen Prendergast

2012 was a very good year for Louis Thompson. In January he was selected to make new work for Jerwood Makers Open, and in September he took Best in Show at the British Glass Biennale. 

Thompson watchers were not surprised at this sudden burst of recognition. They had seen it coming for some time. Ed Burke taught him at university: “As a student he was not frightened of doing things for himself. He’s determined and has an eye for detail.”

Louis Thompson is a widely acclaimed glass artist and with good reason. The aesthetic of his work is crisp and clean. His imagination flows freely with a playful energy, and the work rarely disappoints. It’s art for arts sake and nothing less.

In his art there are no traces of introspection or didacticism and no political messages. There are no signs of complex tautological conceptualist theorems, the bane of so many artists of his generation and the cause of so much mediocre art. His art is intelligent and thoughtful without being insufferably intellectual. You do not need a PhD in art history to enjoy a Louis Thompson piece, but it may stimulate the mind and raise a smile in the heart.

Louis is an artist determined to tread his own path. “My practice and making are not rooted in any particular artistic influence, and I don’t look much at other glass artists’ work. Hot glass is my language. There are thousands of techniques. I’m not drawn to any technique in particular.”

His love of glassblowing began at art school in one of those magic life-changing moments. “I did a foundation year at Wallasey School of Art, Merseyside. Then I went to North Staffordshire Poly, now Staffordshire University, and did a BA. I was going to study design. One day I wandered into the glass department and saw someone blowing glass. It was amazing, a magical performance, I was mesmerised, totally in awe. I did a one week project in the glass department, then at the end of the year I was able to transfer to the department.” Art school also taught him how to draw. “We did all kinds of drawing: life, charcoal, pen and ink. It was about learning how to look at something properly.”

Today drawing is part of how he develops creative ideas. “I’m very much a sketcher. I draw quite a lot. I had a sketchbook for the Siobhan Davis Dance Studios installation. I started by looking at the space, the building’s function. I looked at images of dancers, their legs, their movements, and considered how I could make connections with themes. I started drawing and made lots of maquettes with straws. Then I started to work with glass.”

After art school Louis headed for London and found work with Adam Aaronson. It was a tough grounding in a rigorous workshop environment,  but he learnt the rudiments of glassblowing - gathering, shaping, colour - under the watchful eyes of master craftsmen; and Louis frequented Adam’s glass art gallery in Piccadilly, one of the first in London, absorbing the work of some of the world’s foremost studio glass artists.

He stayed with Adam for a year before returning home intent on starting his own glass making business, working from a shed in his parent’s garden. To fund the venture he sold greetings cards on Birkenhead market, standing on cardboard boxes during the winter in a futile attempt to keep warm. Salvation arrived after seven months. Ed and Margaret Burke ran a busy glassblowing workshop in Cheshire making glassware for the US market; they offered him a job. “Working with Ed and Margaret was a fantastic experience. It was great to be part of a studio as it grew. They spent a lot of time teaching me.”

After five wonderful years with Ed and Margaret, Louis returned to his old college to teach glassblowing two days a week; now he had the time and space to develop his own work. In 2001 he met Peter Layton and they kept in touch: “Then I bumped into him at New Designers and he invited me to come and work for him in London two days a week. I did that for four years, two days with Peter, two days teaching. Working for Peter was a very different experience.

Whilst working for Peter, Louis undertook an MA at the Royal College of Art; it transformed his work. “After years of working in glass you begin to work in a particular way and get very blinkered. Going to the RCA removed those blinkers and opened my eyes to what is possible. I was working in a very narrow way. It was like rediscovering the potential of the material. I now make lots of different things. I have the confidence to be free, both creatively and technically. I’m not tied to any aesthetic thinking. The idea comes first then you use the right language to express that idea.”

This creative freedom is evident in ‘Sigmund Freud’s Dream Catching Apparatus’: a witty metaphor, skilfully executed. “It’s my response to what Freud did, psychoanalysis, dreams, etc. I like the idea of being able to catch the dreams in bottles; dreams in the ephemeral sense, something you can’t put your finger on, a strange evocative shadow. I spent time looking at medical equipment. The idea is that dreams go in one end, are processed through a condenser and then pickled, as it were, in jars. Freud had about 800 patients. Each bottle represents a dream, an ephemeral form, like a ghostly light suspended in the bottle.” 

Another work in this series, ‘Sigmund Freud’s Dream Archive: Case numbers 396 – 405’, was exhibited in Japan at the International Exhibition of Glass Kanazawa, and bought by a Japanese museum.

His pieces for Jerwood Makers Open are also concerned with the ephemeral mind. “The bottles are about illusion. They have water in them. When people want to pick them up, it means the idea is working. Touching is part of how you engage with art.

Louis’s art is layered and suffused with beauty. It draws the spectator to look beyond the initial impression. The experience can be deeply satisfying. Isn’t this the role of the artist? 

Stephen Prendergast is the Glass Section organiser for Art in Action.


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