Cambridge Open Studios 2016 - Stewart Hearn

Following on from our previous interview with ceramicist Kathryn Hearn, here is the other half of this creative duo - glassblower Stewart Hearn...

Stewart, we found your glass studio set up really fascinating. Why the move from London to the Fens?

We moved from London through a simple question that Kathryn asked me, ‘is there anything you really wish you had done in life..?’ Being the complete glass geek, I said that I regretted wasting £30,000 per year by not owning my own workshop.

Anyone who knows Kathryn will understand that on that same day, she was looking at areas and properties we could live/work and from where she would be able to commute back to London. She was Course Director of BA Ceramic Design at Central Saint Martins, her incredibly demanding job at the time!

Stewart Hearn

Finally after three years of looking, we found a fantastic Grade II listed cottage, a real hidden gem in Chatteris, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where we were enthusiastically welcomed locally.

Our first project was to restore, extend and convert the also listed barn into a bespoke glass blowing studio. Later we got permission to build a ceramic studio for Kathryn. Incredibly, neither of us had any real previous association with the Fens and feel we are so lucky to have found such a beautiful place to live.

Where did you learn your craft?

I began my glass blowing journey at Sunderland Polytechnic (now University). My first encounter with glass was during my foundation course. The college was in its first year of a BA (Hons) 3D Design in Ceramics with Glass course and we had a ‘taster session’. I was hooked and went back for another go… initially I was seduced and next I was forming my addiction!

My original subject choice was to be ceramics but glass usurped that. I decided to do that course because I still had the ceramic choice if I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to become a glassmaker. I learned the basics of glass blowing at college with a good understanding of design, and even though I had some fantastic tutors, I soon realised that you don’t do the course and leave as a glassmaker.

I’ve had opportunities to work with some of Britain’s most skilful and talented glass blowers, artists and designers which is where I really began to learn my trade. People who I still regard as my gurus, inspirations and friends. Amongst the glass skills, they also taught me about time management, commitment to the craft, studio and furnace husbandry and sales techniques.

At college I was an occasional assistant to the late Charlie Meaker, Jim Griffiths, Rachael Woodman and Neil Wilkin. Three days before I officially left I began my first job as an assistant to David Kaplan and Annica Sandstrom in the Scottish Borders. Two years later I was in London working with Simon Moore, Catherine Hough and Steven Newell. Three years after that I was teaching at Degree level, set-up my first studio with Bob Crooks and had a Summer in Denmark with Pete Hunner and Maibritt Jonsson.

I had my second London Studio in Walthamstow and now I have moved to my final studio here in the Fens…

What is it about glass that is such an attractive medium to you?

I and all the glass blowers I know, were born pyromaniacs! I’ve always had a fascination for fire… and feel that I’m so lucky to go ‘to work’ and play with fire in our back garden.

Glass, like many crafts is a way of life. It requires great commitment. Blood, much sweat and the odd tear but I still feel absolutely privileged to be doing it!

As a material glass is magical. It’s like alchemy, we turn sand into beautiful mesmerizing pieces. It has optical properties using light and refraction, it can look hard or soft, organic or rigid, it can be rough or smooth, opaque or transparent, can be cut and polished and much more. You have to be at one with the material, to feel it through touch and sight and work with it, never fight it…

I love how you need to be spontaneous with the material, it doesn’t always work, but at times you need a quick speed of thought to go with the years of accumulated knowledge. It is an immediate process where you can produce something in minutes but sometimes hours, it’s a very entertaining spectacle and I’ve decided when I get bored watching someone making a piece of glass, it will be time for me to retire…

We need to cool the glass down slowly after we make it so we have to put the hot piece into a hot kiln. It’s rare that we have time to study the object before this happens. So, a bit like ceramists, we have to wait in anticipation of the pieces coming out, it’s still a buzz after all these years…

We were 'struck by your 'Spore' pieces. Tell us more about them.

The Spore (Series III) pieces were initially made for an exhibition through Contemporary Applied Arts in London. It was about pushing the boundaries of your making. I decided to make pieces that were over a metre in height as I’d never done this before. It was something I had only previously thought about but this gave me the permission to act.

I would base them on some pieces that I had previously made, enjoyed and sold well in an exhibition in Holland. However the stipulation then was that they could only be 30cm max in height. They are imposing in their scale and work well as individuals, pairs or even as a group of three.

They are about male and female reproduction as self-pollinators or self-fertilisation. Asexual with sensual references. They are pieces that can be seen from afar but also entice the viewer to look more closely, more intimately into the body of the piece.

When you are crafting your vessels, like your 'Soft Pots,' what elements are you bringing to the piece?

The ‘Soft-Pots’ are some of my favourite pieces. I designed these pieces to get away from years of making production work, where everything was very exacting, particularly the heights and sizes.

These pieces were deliberately made to be asymmetric, they were to look as though they were off centre, not straight. Like most of my work, it involves simple looking forms combined with colour.

The Soft Pots have a base colour and an extra colour which imitates a shadow or reflection but also acts as the weight that tips the piece over to one side. Just as important, I wanted the colour to look painterly, almost Rothko like.

The pieces are supposed to look ‘haphazard’ but as ever I needed to make them so they stood how I liked them. I utilise my skills to construct something that looks quite simple and effortless but like most simple things, they are in fact quite technically challenging.

How do you bring in the coloured elements to the glass?

I work a lot with coloured glass but still prefer the finished piece to be transparent or translucent. I tend to only use opaque colours as accents really. Although saying that the colours in the ‘Spore’ pieces are mainly opaque but there is still a lot of clear glass to allow the pieces to remain transparent.

I enjoy the way light passes through the glass and the refractive hues it can achieve, adding to the overall quality of the piece. I often spend a lot of time contemplating colours that will fit together. How they will look when they are finished, how they will react to the heat, are they hard, soft etc… Sometimes they just do not work either visually or mechanically so they end up in the recycling bin.

I mainly use rods of colour that come from Germany and New Zealand, occasionally using crushed glass chips in my production work, which have a completely different visual effect.

Do you make commission pieces?

I do make commission pieces, which is something I particularly enjoy. I relish the problem solving and the design development. I prefer to work to a brief no matter how abstract it may be and often set my own brief when designing my own new work.

I work with artists and designers which can be very fulfilling, translating their designs into the finished product. I also work for glass restorers, always a challenge trying to replicate something that was perhaps mass produced over 100 years ago but having to match it by hand without the supervision of a Gaffer (the glass master of the factory team).

Apart from running the only hot glass blowing furnace in Cambridgeshire, my USP is that I will make one piece for a client. It may be a modern replacement light shade which is no longer produced or something to replace an antique piece.

I have a long list of repeat clients who I have either, designed for or with, or simply followed their drawing to produce some of their production, which are generally now reordered by phone or email. However, there are many things I simply can’t make or indeed can’t work out how to make.

Sadly a lot of that knowledge hasn’t been recorded or passed down due to the fact we have gradually lost most of our glass industry in this country. I’m hoping that the assistants that I and others train will keep our heritage going.

I have worked with well-known designers and artists, up and coming artists and crafts people and large and small businesses. Another commissioning opportunity we do is corporate gifts and awards, my favourite probably being the Health & Safety Awards for Anglo American. We have done an incredible array of this type of work, diverse both in style and price.

There are many stages to go through in making your pieces, do you have assistants to help you?

I have a great assistant, Alex Pearce, who I work with in the hot glass workshop and also in the cold glass studio where we do the cold finishing processes. Generally the glass blowing process is quite quick but does require more than one person. Some of the cold working processes are very slow so it’s also a great relief to have help.

There’s not too many pieces here which we make as individuals so teamwork is vital to our success. As I mentioned earlier it is the assistants who will hopefully keep the craft alive. Alex is not only my assistant but makes his own work too incorporating forged metalwork from the blacksmiths forge he built.

Other previous assistants who are already very successful and established are Mark Bickers (Rothschild & Bickers) and Phil Atrill. The teamwork extends to the office too with Kim Downes, who along with many other tasks, coordinates sales and promotion.

Are there any particular glass artists you admire, that have made an impact on your practice?

I admire lots of other glass blowers mainly because of their skills, techniques that I often have little knowledge of. Makers like Lino Tagliapietra (rated as one of the best if not the best in the world - age 80+), younger makers like Steffen Dam and Tobias Mohl. But I also really enjoy the work of Bertil Vallien who is not a glass blower but casts his work from the furnace.

I also still have great admiration and affection for all the makers who have helped and guided me on my glass journey. I can say for certain that every single person I have met, seen their work or had the opportunity to watch them work have all influenced my work and my practice because that information is all there, somewhere in my head and will come out whether through my subconscious or not…

This year, Cambridge Open Studios have tasked the artists to design a heart, which will be auctioned, and the funds raised will go to Arthur Rank Hospice. What is your design?

The heart I’ve designed (actually I made two, in case one didn’t work out but slightly different to each other) is based on my Westmorland table lamp design. I just wanted to produce something that was colourful and had a bit of texture as I envisaged it hanging somewhere with light passing through it.

Can we see your work for sale in any other outlets?

I sell in various galleries like Vessel and Contemporary Applied Arts, both in London. The closest here is Primavera in Cambridge.

I also have small gallery at the studio which is open three mornings a week or by appointment thereafter.

There is also my online shop www.stewarthearn-shop.com (which includes designs that aren’t retailed elsewhere).

Also our current websites www.stewarthearn.com and www.londonglassworks.com are to amalgamated into one new website which is currently under construction.

Visit Stewart and Kathryn on weekends 2 and 3 of Cambridge Open Studios:

http://camopenstudios.co.uk/open-studios/671

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