Gather, heat, repeat
By Aaren Madden, June 2014
Glassblower revels in colour, pattern and process.
At its most basic, glassblowing is an art form reliant upon heat, pressure and movement. Molten glass at an ideal temperature of 2100F (about 1150C) is gathered onto the end of a hollow steel tube (the blowpipe). It is then removed from the furnace, shaped, and blown. More glass is gathered depending on the desired piece size, then transferred to another rod for further manipulation at a bench. Constantly rotating the pipe on a support is imperative to keep the sides even. Wooden paddles, wet newspaper, and the table surface shape the vessel. Achieving the desired form requires repeated trips between the bench and the glory hole, another furnace, for reheating to allow manipulation. Once finished, the piece is placed in a third furnace to cool slowly.
It’s physically demanding, an intense and complicated dance (often requiring a partner, in the form of a trusted assistant), and Lisa Samphire loves it.
“The left hand turns the pipe, while the right manipulates glass. Your hands are doing two jobs at the same time, but at almost equal pressure.” It’s a whole-brain, whole-body, immersive activity. “Once you start a piece, it’s start to finish. There’s no stopping,” Samphire continues. “The process is so liquid and fluid; you are up and down, and you are also carrying weight on long rods, which increases the weight exponentially. Then there’s the heat added to it.” The typical behaviour of glass—and the desire to push its boundaries—combined with the inevitable elements of “happenchance,” are fascinating to her.
Both Samphire’s parents are potters (the three often show together now) in Crescent Beach (in South Surrey), where Samphire grew up, so she was always aware of art making. She originally studied sciences, however, planning to enter into occupational therapy. A switch to art therapy led her to the University of Victoria as an undergrad to study printmaking with Pat Martin Bates. After that she earned a diploma from the Vancouver Art Therapy Institute. During holidays and breaks, she worked at New-Small and Sterling Studio Glass on Granville Island, a job she landed just after high school.
It was still some time before she fell in love with the medium. “I learned how to blow glass with words first,” she offers. Part of her job was to answer customers’ questions regarding the glassblowing process. The artists were working right in the space, so she could ask and relay answers. While keeping shop and the books, she would pick bits of glass off the floor and fashion them into jewellery, which fed her creativity—and attracted attention. “They would sell right off my ears,” she laughs. Those designs ended up financing the bulk of her education.
Seeing an opportunity, Samphire asked to try glassblowing herself, and that was it. “Part of my entering into it is this financial motivation. It’s kind of interesting when I look back at that,” she says. “Now I do it because it’s a passion; it’s my life. I couldn’t imagine not blowing now.” So much so that Samphire has been a glass artist going on 30 years now, and at 48 years of age, that’s a major chunk of her life.
In that time, Samphire has continued to grow as an artist. She has studied at, among other places, the Pilchuk Glass School, Red Deer College, and the Corning Glass Museum in New York. For ten years she was a partner in Starfish Glassworks, a beloved landmark and destination in downtown Victoria that closed in 2007. Teaching glassblowing has been a very rewarding aspect of her career as well. “It makes me a better blower, and I have to understand it more and be aware of the process. It’s learning for me too,” she says.
Her list of commissions, exhibitions and awards is long. She has four pieces in Canada’s National Art Collection, and represented Canada at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in South Korea in 2009. She continues to show at galleries in Montreal, Saskatoon, Vancouver, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (where she also works as Gallery Services administrator), and recently has begun showing at The Avenue Gallery in Oak Bay.
The pieces at The Avenue include some of Samphire’s functional “production” line of jugs and vessels, along with larger art pieces that are luminous, intricate gatherings of colour and pattern.
These result from a process called Murrine, a centuries-old technique that adds a great many painstaking steps in both preparation and finishing of the glass. First, colours of plate glass are combined and stacked, then heated, stretched and further manipulated into long canes of a desired pattern. It’s at least a two-person job. Once cooled, Samphire chops the canes into cross section pieces (dare one say “bite-sized”—they look like candy), revealing the pattern. These are then arranged like tiles on a metal plate and, once heated, they meld together to form the walls of vessels.
This is where, due to different chemical makeups, colour “behaviour” adds to the intrigue. “Red is a stiff colour; a hard colour is what we call it,” Samphire explains, offering a red-and-white patterned vase as example. “So next to the white, which is softer, it will rise to the surface and kind of schmear over the red.” Once joined and blown, pieces must be finished to “excavate” the crisp lines and shapes that hide beneath the surface that has been blurred and roughened by the heat of the glory hole. Several steps of grinding and sometimes an application of acid give the desired finish, from ethereally translucent to substantially opaque. In turn, the feel of the glass ranges from luxuriously silky to slightly rough.
In all her work, Samphire embraces lush colour in repeating, alternating, and undulating patterns that reveal her sources of inspiration. Though intricately planned, many pieces offer a joyful, even whimsical lightness, paying homage to artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. She is also captivated by basketry and Middle Eastern textiles; this inspiration can be seen in the alternating Murrine patterns that mimic weaving.
The pattern and repetition inherent in natural phenomena, in their most vivid and luminous forms, find their way into Samphire’s work as well. Butterfly wings are a fascination. Tropical fish and undersea environments she sees on snorkeling trips in the South Pacific and Hawaii capture light in a way that Samphire emulates in work that combines Murrine segments with glass from the crucible. “They are sort of undersea gardens,” she says. “There is lots of movement. I think of the Murrines as flowers, or underwater coral; [capturing] just a snapshot in time.”
Just as the hand-made and natural elements they are inspired by, Samphire’s unique works are both beautiful objects and a celebration of the doing. They are the precious evidence of the extensive, multifaceted process she continues to revel in and explore.
Lisa Samphire’s work is on show in Victoria at The Avenue Gallery, 2184 Oak Bay Avenue, and at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria shop, 1040 Moss Street. Find her online at www.samphireglass.ca.
Aaren Madden suggests everyone watch the youtube video of Lisa Samphire deftly spinning molten glass into a large, elegant plate. Dazzling!