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!
LISA SAMPHIRE, Pattern in Light
Circle Craft Co-operative, Vancouver
August 4 – September 5, 2006
By Bettina Matzkuhn
Lisa Samphire’s glass vessels are enrobed in rhythmic stripes, circles, striated bands and blocks of colour. Their patterning isn’t ‘put on’, rather it is literally built into the material. In textiles, metal or clay, the patterns would generally be applied to the surface; in Samphire’s glass, the pattern is both decoration and structure.
Her exhibit includes free standing vessels and a series of lamps – a new adventure for her. The minimal stainless steel fixtures make a perfect foil for the extravagant shades. Samphire has been researching the different colour temperatures of various bulbs and how to avoid too much heat buildup in the enclosed space of the glass. She does all the work: for the viewer, one flip of the switch is all it takes to set off a dance of saturated purple, red and amber.
Samphire holds a BFA from the University of Victoria with a focus on printmaking. She says this discipline is relevant to being a glass artist as it combines rigorous technical elements with intuitive vision. Her inspiration blooms from the dense, luminous patterns of traditional eastern carpets and the pixel-like, glittering segments that make up butterflies’ wings. Samphire said she was smitten by Austrian artist Hundertwasser’s architectural mosaics she saw in Vienna and New Zealand. The riots of colour and pattern in the work struck her as pure joy – a joy that continues to resonate in her own work.
At her studio at Starfish Glassworks in Victoria, B.C., Samphire begins with a sketchbook and pencil, exploring the intersection of form and pattern in a series of drawings. These are accompanied by notes on the colour codes of glass as well as lengthy mathematical equations that estimate the amount of materials needed. Two scholarships to study the process of making and using murini allowed Samphire to work with glass artists Ralph Mossman of Idaho and Giles Bettison of Australia at the Corning Museum of Glass studios in New York. Both men are innovators in this technique.
Samphire cuts 2’ x 3’ sheets of glass into strips and layers the colours. Briefly heating them in the kiln makes them melt together; heating them further allows her to elongate them into “canes”. These are cut with the metal beak of a chopping tool into bite-sized pieces called murini – like extra-hard licorice allsorts. She spends hours arranging them on a steel plate while keeping in mind their three-dimensional future. They are heated, first to fuse them together and again to roll the whole slab into a cylinder, joining the seam and attaching it by a clear glass collar to the blow pipe. Samphire says there is a temperature at which all the molecules in the little pieces are “happy together” and become one – but overheat them and they will liquefy and lose their patterns.
Samphire will blow the glass into the shape she wants, sometimes manipulating it even further with paper and cork paddles. One vessel has two flattened sides and a rounded one evoking the body and wings of a butterfly. After the glass has cooled, there is still more work “carving” – grinding off the faintly uneven surface with diamond encrusted wheels – and an acid etch bath to finish off. This sharpens the colour and clarity the way putting a beach stone in water makes it glow.
Samphire has made her living from her glass work for over 20 years, including supporting herself through her BFA and a diploma from the Art Therapy Institute in West Vancouver. Currently, she manages the bookkeeping and accounting for Starfish Glassworks – a limited company she formed with two colleagues in order to pool their resources. All her behind-the-scenes work is discreetly hidden from the viewer, as is her exacting and labour-intensive process. We are simply offered works that are as mysterious as they are delightful.
MASTERS IN GLASS
BY: Allan Antliff
Lisa Samphire began her career in 1985 and today is one of the West Coast’s leading glass artists. Most recently she has been working with the murrini technique, a painstaking and time-consuming process that results in mosaic glass works of dazzling complexity. Standard murrini pieces are opaque and the designs tend towards stacked uniformity. Samphire has gone in another direction. Her works are semi-translucent and the patterning is asymmetrical, organic, open-ended, and visually arresting. Undulating lines disrupted by squares and rectangular forms appear scattershot across the surface. After each piece is blown, Samphire roughens the surface to bring out the richness of colour and sharpen up the contrasting design elements. Standing back and viewing a work frontally, the dense interplay of lines and modular forms appears to flatten out, creating a remarkable illusion of flux in which each piece flutters between two and three dimensions. The tension is very entertaining, and the bold and innovative advance of colour and form, so unexpected in a three-dimensional medium, is mesmerizing.
Samphire has been inspired, in part, by the work of Austrian artist and architect Fritz Hundertwasser (1928 – 2000) who created brightly coloured mosaic works derived from vegetative forms in which irregularity was the key theme. His stated purpose was to emulate the growth patterns in nature and, to this end, he associated himself with an artistic sensibility that was pre-modern and pre-industrial. So too does Samphire, and perhaps this is appropriate, given the nature of glass work and its foundation in pre-industrial craft traditions.
Apart from the work of Hundertwasser, Samphire has studied Persian carpets, Iranian textiles, and shawls from the Kashmir valley region of India. Woven baskets created by the indigenous peoples of the southwestern United States have been an additional source of inspiration. Certainly the irregular play of lines in her vessels, crimped here or elongating there as if conforming to a rhythm not of their own making, appear to emulate the “imperfections” of woven materials.
The passage of time inscribed in the making are features that distinguish Samphire’s productions. They call attention to her indebtedness to nature-derived forms as a metaphor for process, evolution, growth, and transition. Indeed, Samphire has self-consciously taken this metaphorical sensibility one step further by paying homage to the patterning of nature itself. Works such as Greentail, Swallowtail, Crescentspots, Atala Butterfly, and Fritillaries take inspiration from different species of butterfly whose delicate abstract markings mirror the infinite diversity of their environments.