Glass sculpture by Peter Layton

Peter Layton

in conversation with Angie Boyer

Born in Prague and brought up in England, Peter Layton studied ceramics at the Central School of Art from 1962-1965 before going on to teach at the University of Iowa and the University of California at Davis. On his return from the United States he founded the glass department at Middlesex University. Peter Layton is one of the pioneers of the new Studio Glass movement, having established the London Glassblowing Workshop beside the Thames at Rotherhithe in 1976. In 1995 the workshop moved to its current location at the Leathermarket near London Bridge, and Peter subsequently set up the Glass Art Gallery to provide a showcase for glass artists from all over the world. In 1996 his book “Glass Art“ was published by A&C; Black and the following year he founded and became first Chair of the Contemporary Glass Society. Peter’s approach is experimental and his pieces seek to express the magic of glass, its sensuality and fluidity. As an inveterate beachcomber much of his work is inspired by shells and pebbles, lichen patterns, found objects and places visited. Recent works explore the theme of ice and snow; exploiting the way glass freezes at a particular moment in the cooling process. Such pieces record intention and accident, a process partly controlled, partly natural, in the endeavour to create objects that express more than purely functional or decorative qualities. The studio’s philosophy is that each piece should be unique and signed by the artist. Free blowing allows for a degree of involvement and attention to detail not possible in standardized production. Peter Layton and Associates Limited was formed in response to a desire to work on a more ambitious scale. Since its establishment in the early 90s the company has specialized in combining glass with metals to create spectacular sculptures to enhance challenging spaces, e.g. some of the world’s largest cruise ships. Peter Layton regularly exhibits his work internationally and has pieces in many major public and private collections throughout the world. In 2006 London Glassblowing celebrated its 30th anniversary, making it one of the longest running studios in Europe.

Angie: Kilns and furnaces are necessary but expensive ‘tools of the trade’ for glass artists. In view of the rapidly rising energy prices, what do you think the near future holds for studio glass artists in the UK and globally?

Peter: It has been suggested that in a few years time, the only place where there will be any glassblowing is China, quite a depressing prospect, but spiralling fuel prices (not to mention food) is one of several major concerns that glass artists have to face. Others that need to be addressed now, rather than later, include emissions, sustainability and environmental issues, as well as steeply rising material costs, affected by the price of fuel. One way forward must be the use of shared facilities, rather than individual studios, involving a greater degree of cooperation and collaboration. This is particularly true of glassblowing, where the enormous production costs will have to be shared in order to be viable.

A: It has been suggested that a large proportion of creative university courses currently encourage students to produce ‘art’, rather than actually teaching them the skills of their trade; which as a result could limit the graduates’ prospects of earning a living in their chosen discipline. Many UK glass artists have trained with you - what are your thoughts on training for the future, is mentoring/apprenticeship the way forward or do the universities genuinely have something to offer?

P: Although it is clear that some craft skills are being lost, it is also true that new ones appear � the development and use of rapid prototyping is but one example. Reduced funding, together with current thinking about broad-based creative education means that nowadays only basic skills are taught in art colleges � learning by rote is no longer fashionable. The object is to challenge the initiative, creativity and ingenuity of students, to develop critical creative practice, provoke new questions, understandings and occasionally answers, thereby stimulating originality and invention. As far as Studio Glass (or Glass Art) is concerned, this approach appears to be paying dividends. The recent British Glass Biennale at the International Festival of Glass in Stourbridge, showed current standards of excellence, both technical and aesthetic, to be of a far higher standard than previously. Some of the student work exhibited was outstanding both in concept and execution. A visit to New Designers, the annual exhibition for graduates at the Business Design Centre in Islington, is always an exhilarating and rewarding experience. Each year different disciplines come to the fore, as do different colleges. This year, the mixed � media 3D work from Falmouth College of Art stood out for me, as did Product Design from Northumbria University. Some art colleges function best as experimental hot-house environments in which students have the opportunity to develop their creativity and ideas free from the constraints and pressures of commercial reality - a highly desirable aim, but crucially many disciplines also include intensive courses in business studiers and professional practice as part of the curriculum. There have always been exceptional students who have left college and walked straight into a great job, or else had the nous, support and good fortune to be able to set up a studio or label, and make a success of it. However, there is no room for complacency; high level craft skills require continual cultivation. The vast majority (of us) need a further period, something akin to apprenticeship, in which to develop and mature, within a more disciplined and realistic working environment, to gain the necessary experience to equip oneself for a particular career. Mentoring or working with a “master”, has proved its worth since Renaissance times, and is no less valuable today as a way of nurturing skill and talent. The Contemporary Glass Society has recently announced a mentoring scheme, and the Craftsman Potters Association has established a charitable trust to foster apprenticeships.

A: How do you feel trends and styles vary internationally and can these differences enhance a glass artist’s work and potential market for it?

P: The complex, though fundamentally useless and irritating art versus craft debate continues ad nauseum, but in my opinion the discussion should focus on the quality of work, whether it is good or bad, (although which is which is entirely subjective, i.e. “I knows what I likes”), rather than the hierarchy of media. So I tend to use the terms art, craft and design interchangeably. It has been said, and this is clearly an oversimplication, that craft is about process whereas art is about ideas. Nevertheless the international trend in all “crafts” media is a growing emphasis on creating “fine art” objects, where function is no longer the primary goal of making or usage. I imagine there will always be some who are inspired and content to make repetition work, producing beautiful and useful handmade wares for a discerning public, but this will become increasingly rare in the face of cheaply produced, imported work of excellent quality from around the globe. Selling to a widening body of collectors, not necessarily those amassing vast collections, but simply discerning people who can afford (or sometimes can’t but make the necessary sacrifices) to indulge their taste for beautiful, innovative and stimulating objects to enhance their surroundings will be, and already is in some cases, the only way forward. One of the most significant and exciting developments of the entire contemporary art/craft movement is the emergence of glass as a viable medium for creating serious and expressive works of art. Makers (art/craft/design practitioners) strive to find their own voice and the means through which to express it, and glass, one of the most beautiful and seductive of materials (which can in itself be limiting) is increasingly used to explore the human condition or make some political point. My own “Container Ethic” series takes a more conceptual approach that communicates my concerns about present day values, society’s drive towards disintegration, and the increasingly precarious nature of life. Glass, as a metaphor for life and its fragility.

A: What about marketing and promotion for glass artists - your work is widely seen and there is clearly some very efficient and effective PR at work, with excellent photography to support it. What advice would you give to glass artists wanting to promote their work, how best to achieve it and afford it?

P: Like it or not, marketing and promotion are crucial in this day and age and it is absolutely essential to produce and distribute first class images of one’s work. Dale Chihuly, doyen of glass artists, in an effort to press home a point, once remarked that the photograph was as important as the work itself, in that ultimately far more people would actually see it. The organisers of the British Glass Biennale have noted that the quality of the images submitted this time was far more professional than in previous years, resulting in a better show and a more impressive catalogue. Paying for P.R. (and advertising) has always seemed like a bottomless pit, (unless of course you have a bottomless pocket). One can accomplish a great deal oneself, with a good product or event, a good story (or “hook” as they say in the trade), good images and a huge amount of persistence. It takes a great deal of time and dedication to follow up on initial contacts, plus lots of luck to get anywhere. I have always been impressed by Amy Cushing of Mosquito Glass, Michael Ruh and Bob Crooks, who seem to achieve a considerable amount of press.

A: What are your thoughts for the future of glassmaking in Britain - for established as well as new artists?

P: I am optimistic about the future of Glass Art in Britain. After years of struggle for acceptance, I sense that the time is coming when glass will no longer be a Cinderella medium, but will sit comfortably alongside other major artforms. Certainly the exploration and use of glass as an expressive medium is burgeoning worldwide. One only has to visit SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) in Chicago or New York, where glass is the predominant medium, to marvel at the incredible range and scope of the work on show. Nearer home, the British Glass Biennale (with prizes amounting to nearly �15,000 this year) provides a unique opportunity to view a cross section of the most adventurous and sophisticated work produced in this country today. There are now important collections to be found all over Europe, and there is a proliferation of international prizes and exhibition opportunities, in the UK for example: Art in Action, Origin and Collect to name but a few. As I said, I think there will ultimately be fewer individual glassblowing studios, but there will also be more opportunities to rent shared facilities. Kilnworking (fusing, bending, casting) already strong, will continue to grow apace. Interest in flameworking and beadmaking (the strongest growth areas in the USA) will develop, along with engraving and cutting. These are low cost, easy access, methods of working. Further opportunities in architectural glass will develop as people realise what an exceptionally versatile material it is with which to enhance public and private spaces. Although we have many world class artists working in glass, like Anna Dickinson, Tessa Clegg, David Reekie, Colin Reid and Max Jacquard, the Studio Glass movement in Britain needs champions. The Contemporary Glass Society, Dan Klein Associates, Adrian Sassoon and others have done sterling work to promote the medium since those halcyon days when Sam Herman set up the Glasshouse in Covent Garden, as the only place to see glass being made by hand at that time. Northlands Creative Glass, The National Glass Centre, The Ruskin Glass Centre and strong active regional groups like the Cohesion Glass Network provide a necessary focus. The Ruskin recently received a grant of �9million (which may double with matching funds) for refurbishment and development, and there are also plans in the pipeline to create a public access glass centre in London. In the 1960s the UK led the design world, there are signs that we may be heading in that direction again. All in all encouraging progress and great potential.

Peter Layton
London Glassblowing
7 The Leather Market
Weston Street
London SE1 3ER
T: 020 7403 2800

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