Cambridge Open Studios Interviews 2014 - Althea Braithwaite

When it was suggested that we visit Edward Parker in his workshop in Over, we didn't know his wife was a very talented glass artist  and childrens' illustrator too! Meet the lovely Althea Braithwaite...

We thoroughly enjoyed seeing you and your studio. How long have you been working with glass?

About twelve years. I started by painting on glass, when Edward converted the old stables into our living space, he put in our shower room next to the front door. I hate frosted glass, so I bought glass paints and painted a window for us. I also painted the front door. I am surprised at how long painted glass lasts. The glass paints are not fixed in a kiln, just varnished. I then moved on to fused glass.

What is it about the medium of glass that attracts you?

I love the colours and the way the light shines through producing different colours and shadows as the day progresses. Fusing is fascinating and I am still experimenting and finding new and exciting results, often by accident. Coloured fused glass never fades.

Please tell us a little about your practice?

The glass comes in big sheets, already coloured, and I cut it up and lay it on a piece of plain or coloured glass to make a pattern. The glass is placed on a kiln shelf and is fired in the kiln, usually to around 780 to 820 degrees centigrade. I use ceramic kilns which are side opening, so I can look and see if it is cooked. The glass if often heated more than once, the second or third time it is slumped into a mould giving a dish shape, or slumped through a mould, making a deep dish or vase.

Have you had any formal training?

I attended a weekend course at Wysing Arts, which made me want to explore what one could do when heating and fusing glass. Mainly I am self taught, also relying on books. I was lucky enough to be given a ceramic kiln by the sculptor Janet Macleod.

Shortly after, I ordered some sheets of glass. Coloured fusing glass is very expensive and I thought I was ordering 25 x 20 cm sheets through a 'hobbies' catalogue, but the glass company thought I was ordering through their trade catologue, and their sheets are 90 x 50 cm, so I got into glass in a big way! The best possible way, because I would have probably fiddled with small pieces, rather than exploring all the possibilities.

What sort of glass pieces are you currently working on?

I am doing a lot of wall and window hangings. The window hangings cheer up a dull and rainy day, and can be very intricate and fascinating, lots of colours of glass mixed. The wall glass is held proud of the wall, so it creates shadows behind it. I thought that this would only work on white walls, but in friend's houses, I was surprised and pleased to see it working on coloured walls too.

I also make dishes, some very deep, they produce lovely reflections in certain lights. Some glasses change colour when fused, for instance many of the reds start as yellow glass, and pink can start from pale blue so you have to imagine the finished piece.

I sometimes use metals or growing plants between two sheets of glass, they change colour and produce some interesting results, bicarbarbonate of soda and other specially made powders give off gas which creates bubbles in the glass.

At the moment I am experimenting with enamels which give a more subtle colour, they are usually made from metals, and you are told to avoid mixing certain enamels together, it's like showing a red rag to a bull, it immediately makes me want to mix the colours to see the effects I get.

You've worked with children at the Shouldham in Norfolk, please tell us more...

Groups of children have made windows for their own school, I usually cut the initial square, then expect the children to add pieces of coloured glass to make an abstract pattern. I worked with all the children from Shouldham Primary School in Norfolk. I designed a cross which would fit their existing window in the Hall. I made a mock-up of the window with blue and aubergine glass at the top, which would be good on a dull day, coming down to green glass reflecting the plants outside, and placed it on a photograph of the hall window, so they could understand what they were doing.

They then came to me in groups of about eight children, and, except for the youngest children, they all cut the pieces of glass that they wanted to use on top of the square. I photographed their design and brought them back to fuse in their own bag. The cross is about three metres tall by two metres wide, so it was quite an undertaking. Dave Whyman leaded the window and installed it at the school.

For years you had your own publishing company and wrote and illustrated many children's books. How has your publishing experienced influenced how you work with glass?

I started publishing childrens' books as a result of running a printing company, Polyhedron Printers. We thought it would be fun to do something of our own on the printing presses, rather than always printing for other people. We started with three story books which I had written for my then husband. Desmond the Dinosaur being one of them, which is why we came up with the name Dinosaur Publications. At the time (1968) it was long before computers were common, and colour printing was very expensive, so I worked with colour separations, doing a separate film in black for each of the four colours - magenta, cyan, yellow and black, imagining what it would be like when printed. The magenta and yellow making red, and using letratone (black dots on clear film) I could have 20, 30 or 50% dots of magenta with 100% yellow making pale to deep orange.

When I came to fusing glass it was relatively easy to imagine the finished result, even when glass changed colour on fusing.

We were delighted to meet Desmond the Dinosaur when we visited. Tell us about his books.

Desmond the Dinosaur resulted from an oak carving of a dinosaur who looks very miserable, bought from an exhibition in Milton. The first story being about being very miserable because he was living many years after his proper time. 'People stared and pointed at him when he walked down the street, being a shy sort of dinosaur he always hurried on.....' Soon after my first three books I had a son of my own, and learnt children's curiosity and belief in stories. I found that if I told Duncan what was going to happen at a visit to the doctor or the dentist he could cope with it, so I started writing books to reassure children about what happens in new situations.

Please tell us about the series of books you made for the National Trust.

In the spring of 1971 we were asked to produce our first childrens' book for the National Trust - 'All about Squirrels and Mole and things', this sold out very quickly and the NT asked us to do another book that same year. We went up to the Farne Islands, and observed Puffins and eider ducks, and before the season was finished we published 'All about Creatures on Islands and things' I was totally fascinated by the puffins which walked like wind-up clockwork toys! We eventually did ten books in the series, 'All about Cuckoos and Robins and things' probably tested my colour separations techniques more than most!

Can people commission you to make decorative glass?

I love commissions and the challenge they bring, I made a couple of windows for someone in Yorkshire, they wanted me to include a pheasant, so I did one flying in one window, and one standing in the other window. Another commission was for a window above the door of a converted dairy, a farmyard which was great fun to do. I have also done dishes for Weddings and anniversaries like Ruby Weddings, I usually engrave the initials and dates on the base of the dish as a memory for the people concerned.

What dates are you doing for Open Studios?

12 -13 July, 19 - 20 July and 26 - 27 July 2014

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