It's a historic craft, rooted in centuries-old techniques and ancient tradition. It's also an exacting medium, expensive to work with and completely unforgiving of mistakes, no matter how small.
Nonetheless, glassworking is having a moment in Canada, the range of artists and designers gaining national and international acclaim in the field a sign of its growing popularity. The most exciting among these master stylists are manipulating glass and crystal in myriad innovative ways, putting new spins on crafting methods and informing their work with both rich symbolism and significant scientific research.
"I am interested in ways it can find contemporary expression," Mark Raynes Roberts, a British-born, Toronto-based engraver who just wrapped up a solo exhibition at Gallerie eliile in Toronto, says of the medium. His highly detailed vessels and sculptures, created for clients including the Bank of Montreal, the retail magnate Galen Weston and the late businessman and art collector Kenneth Thomson, are fashioned via a unique combination of two centuries-old techniques: diamond point stippling and diamond-coated-wheel engraving, a highly complex skill dating to 3000 BC.
Using pure optical crystal (the same crystal used by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for its telescopic lenses), Roberts aims to convey a host of concepts – diversity, spirituality, finding hope in adversity – through the material. Most of all, an overriding theme in his work is the prospect of "human transcendence."
"Scientific crystal has literally become the material and lens through which we see our future and answers to our immediate existence," he says. "I have been inspired by this metaphoric aspect."
French-born Cédric Ginart, who got his first glimpse of glass-blowing while studying biochemistry at the Lycée Dorian in Paris, also responds to science, although he became so smitten with glass that he quit chemistry and began studying scientific glass-blowing instead. "It was the best move I ever made in my life," he says.
Since moving to Quebec after graduation, Ginart, who is a scientific glass-blower at the University of Montreal and teaches torch glassblowing glassblowing in Quebec and New York, has collaborated on prototypes and one-of-a-kind pieces with artists, designers and architects. Most recently, he has been working with partner Karina Guévin on a new series of bell jars, reliquaries and magnolia-petal wall installations; at the same time, he's developing a mini-alembic for essential oil design. "These two main projects are different," he says. "But they complete each other."
An expert in the process of flame-working, wherein glass tubing and rods are heated over a burner to a honey-like consistency that he can then blow, fuse and shape, Ginart describes his work as a romantic mix of Victorian craftsmanship and mechanical engineering. "I just discovered the word 'steampunk,' " he says. "It fits well with my artistic [vision]."
Cali Balles, meanwhile, blurs the lines between art, design and craft in her subtle, minimalist pieces, which often evoke delicate natural elements. Her Sketches collection, for instance, is a series of clear blown-glass tree branches encased in frames using a UV adhesive.
"I was initially drawn to glass because of its sculptural diversity," she says. "I still love that glass can be moulded into very structured forms, used loosely and organically or [encompass] anything in between."
For her textural Canvases series, Balles employed the same tree branches, slicing them into cylinders and photo-sandblasting them with patterns of Toronto streets before assembling them onto canvases with invisible thread. Mixing glass with other media is something that Balles has always been interested in; when she was a student at the Ontario College of Art and Design (now OCAD University), she also experimented with textiles and jewellery, combining all three in her earliest works. "The boundaries that divided craft, art and design are breaking down a bit," she says. "When I began, it was more common to view glass as purely a functional material for vessel making."
Now, she continues, "glass is more widely recognized for its potential as a sculptural or design medium."
Especially, it seems, in Canada.