Were your family creative or artistic?
No ¯ but they were always making things. My father was a policeman who had won a scholarship to grammar school in Aberdeen, he read a lot. My mother had a good eye and was always buying things she liked in the Petticoat Lane market. But the only artistic member of my family was my mother's great-great uncle ¯ Joseph Parry the composer. I was the first one in the family to go to art school, and although it seemed something of a mystery to my parents at the time, they were very supportive and proud that I was going to college.
Why did you choose to work in glass?
I had done mostly conventional two-dimensional art at school and it wasn't until my foundation year at college that I started making three-dimensional objects. At that time only the Royal College (famous for its stained glass teaching) and Stourbridge (respected and admired for its teaching of glass blowing and engraving) taught glass making. Now there are 16 colleges which have glass making courses. So it was merely chance that found me working in glass and ceramics. I found glass blowing limiting and too much linked to the concept of the vessel, so I was excited to discover the possibility of forming glass in an electric kiln and began to experiment with glass casting. For some time all my work was centred on construction. I used a wire frame to cast my glass around, and using these prefabricated glass sections I found I could build much larger constructions. Over the next few years my work became very architectural, and I felt it needed a sense of scale, so in the late 1970s I started to introduce cast figures. Keith Cummings introduced me to the historical traditions of glass casting (the Romans produced small cast glass figures), and that tradition enabled me to move comprehensively away from the decorative and the mundane.
I've heard that it can take over a month to make a piece. Is that true?
Heating up and cooling down the kiln is a very time consuming process, because the glass must be allowed to run into the mould slowly, and even more importantly it must be allowed to cool slowly as well. This 'dead time' can be a very frustrating period, and although, having worked in this way for so long, I know how my material will behave, there can always be flaws in a piece that will only be revealed when it comes out of its mould. Sometimes these 'flaws' can be interesting rather than damaging to the piece, one never quite knows how colours will develop during the casting process. Part of the beauty of casting is that one is working with a liquid material, and because of the movement within the liquid there is always an element of chance.
You say that your pieces contain a narrative, yet each piece seems to be a frozen moment. Do you think of the surrounding story when you are working on a piece?
I don't so much think of the story of an individual piece but of the story which is constructed within a series of pieces. So an ongoing narrative can be seen in the series as a whole. I began to make pieces in series as a way of expressing ideas. My figures are placed in surreal settings, and appear as a frozen moment from a narrative. Recent series have had titles like Living in Confined Spaces or On Shaky Ground.
On Shaky Ground I (Sept. 1997)
I was looking for ways to express the uncertainty and imbalance of the individual in a society which seemed, in recent years, to be moving in the wrong direction. At present I am working on another series called Fear of Heights which goes on developing the insecurities which we all feel as we get older. I see my work as following in the tradition of political comment in caricature which is typified by Hogarth and Daumier. I use the theatricality of figures who appear as dancers, acrobats and clowns to make an ironic comment on society and of the individual within it. I put my characters in unreal and unstable situations and subject them to surreal distortions in order that, though they have no actual meaning, they are capable of
Do you use materials other than glass?
I use wood in many of my pieces because the satisfying contrast between the warmth of the wood and the coldness of the glass enlivens the piece and stops it becoming too glassy. It also acts as a cushion, enabling me to make structures which would otherwise be too unstable to survive. For example, the acrobats are balancing on wooden planks. That wood is also redolent of floor and solidity which the structure itself contradicts.
Where do you get your raw materials?
I use factory cullett, which is the waste and broken glass from a crystal factory, the same sort of glass that you may drink your wine or whisky from at home. Even when made from the finest quality sand, glass is naturally greenish, and it is the addition of various oxides to the molten glass which decolourises it. For example the addition
of manganese introduces a purplish tinge which counteracts that greenishness. Each factory has its own recipe, and I work with glass from the factory whose glass I find most attractive.
You exhibit in galleries in Europe and the USA. The dark humour and irony in your work seems typically English, so why are you not more recognised here?
It is true that I have fewer opportunities to exhibit in this country than abroad, but you should remember that the market in America is much bigger than in Europe. There is a bigger volume of collectors out there. An element of my work seems to appeal to the American psyche. They seem to miss out on the darker side of my pieces and recognise the humour more strongly. The English seem to find my work accusatory and unsettling. Being short-listed for the Jerwood Prize, in 1998, gave me
a rare chance to show my work in this country.
I have heard that you teach all over the world, and yet you choose to live and work in Norwich, can you tell me why?
It was the merest chance that brought me here. My wife Pam Reekie got a job as the manager of the Norwich Arts Centre in 1986, and because I can set up my workshop anywhere, we moved here. I had been teaching part-time in an English art school, but by then I was able to give up regular teaching entirely and concentrate on my own work. Now I can choose where I teach, I often visit Dublin, and I'm off to New Zealand very soon. I have also taught in Belgium, the United States and in Australia. I'm looking forward to teaching in France in September.
Why are all the figures in your work male?
I have to work from a male point of view because I am a man. I can't honestly represent a woman's position in the world. My earlier figures were hermaphrodite and could be read as human rather than as either men or women, but as I get older I have found the figures getting more solid (as I have myself!) and more overtly male. I am trying in some way to express man's condition ¯ which is after all the only position I can know ¯ and so it is my own discomfort and the insecurity which all artists share that I draw on in my figures. Because glass is an innately beautiful medium, I don't make my figures women because of the danger of introducing a superficial prettiness. The situations in which I place my figures present them as vulnerable in the way all human beings are vulnerable. Having said all that, I have made figures which represent women, and I still feel the political message that they contained very strongly.
You also collect glass, what do you look for? What catches your eye?
It's certainly not the beauty of the piece which attracts me in the first place. Rather, it is the sense of making, and of quality of workmanship which catches my eye. I like to collect press-moulded glass, and what I enjoy is the story of the way it was made. I'm always on the look-out for buried bottles with embossed lettering ¯ I like the idea of looking in the ground for things that have been lost.
Glass is fragile, what do you say if a client breaks a piece?
If it is a genuine accident then although it's sad it doesn't seem too terrible, and if the accident has not been too catastrophic it is often possible to make a repair, to recast a broken hand for example. What does really make me cross is when a gallery breaks or damages something just because they haven't taken enough care in packing or storing a piece. They should know how to treat the work they handle and all too often they fail miserably to care enough. Sometimes, and exceptionally I have had to remake a whole piece, but I don't like to have to do that, it seems too far away from the impetus and inspiration of the original idea.
Have you kept any of your own work?
I still have all my drawings, but I have only purposely kept one piece of finished work. I would keep more but there is always pressure from the galleries to complete a series for exhibition, and there is never enough time to make pieces that are not destined for a particular show. When I am enjoying a series I would love to have the freedom to work through the idea until I am satisfied that I have said it all, but it is always time to move on to the next thing.