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All From a Blob!

Seminal moments in people’s lives are usually presented as grandiose blinding flashes, dignified with an almost mythical reverence that we mere mortals can only marvel at.

This is not what happened to Jo Downs, however this is not to detract from the moment that has directed her life ever since. It was a turning point all the same, one which emanated from the spectacle of… a humble blob of glass.


It occurred when Jo was already totally focussed on ceramics during her arts foundation course at De Monfort University in Leicester, despite her colourful and textured work indicating that glass was possibly an intuitive path to follow. Her tutor there even suggested it in fact. During this time, she’d travelled to the north east to see a friend who was studying art in Sunderland, where coincidently the National Glass Centre is based. The setting in Jo’s words ‘had a really good feel’, so much so that she decided to apply to become a graduate at the art college there. Once accepted she began a degree course in glass and ceramics with every intention of following through on her initial desire to specialise in the latter. 

Here she would learn about stained glass, glassblowing, cast glass and many other techniques that revolve around the subject. And then one fortuitous day, a tutor happened to say that glass could be fused together, but wasn’t sure how to go about it as it hadn’t really evolved as a technique yet. Jo’s face must have shown some sort of interest at this point as the tutor went on, “We’ve got a little kiln in the corner, why don’t you go and put some glass in it and see what happens?” Keen to follow through with the experiment Jo did just that, coming back the next day to see the result. She takes up the story, “And it came out as a blob. But in this blob was magic! It was the most amazing thing that I’d ever seen; it was just full of texture with all these little things going on, it was fluid. I was just absolutely amazed. And that was it, I literally gave up everything else and said this is what I want to do.”


Jo soon realised that to attain any degree of expertise in glass fusion she’d have to experiment, as at the time it was quite an unexplored region of glass production and no one was really teaching it. However, resources were under pressure, not so much in terms of the availability of materials but the fact the department had just one kiln shared between three years of aspiring undergraduates. How does the phrase go? ‘Never stand between a focussed person and their ambition’. So, after her first year in Sunderland she returned home to Leicester and managed to secure a summer job in a factory with one sole purpose in mind; to save enough money to buy her own little top loading kiln.


Having secured the item, she returned to Sunderland for her second year and installed the new purchase in – her bedroom! Weeks passed with Jo trialling it to see what appeared, experimenting with temperature and various additives to the major constituent. So, while many of us were turning down the temperature in our bedrooms to go to sleep Jo was turning up the heat. It was the start of a journey, via a bigger kiln in her parent’s garage and further experimentation, that has eventually led her to where she finds herself today.


The journey hasn’t been straightforward, as she points out, “Funnily enough I remember a ceramics tutor at university saying something to me in my final year. He said, you know what, you’re really hung up on this fused glass thing, but I think you should be focusing somewhere else. You’re never going to be able to make big panels out of this stuff. You should be looking toward incorporating fused glass with stained glass with lead and stuff like that.” This really seemed to stick in her head, realising that the limitations to how far she could take fused glass were actually only constrained by kiln size. As someone who was prepared to install a kiln in her bedroom to facilitate her ambition this realisation was like the proverbial red rag. Fortunately, whilst she was a guest student at Stuttgart Art Academy, she happened to notice that they had larger kilns there, galvanising her into researching where they had sourced them from. She discovered that traditional kiln makers were slowly starting to shift some of their attention toward flatbeds, where a large horizontal surface area is more important than depth. It seemed that Europe held the key. 

Today sees Jo and her team using kilns that just a little while back allowed them to produce a single piece measuring two metres twenty by one metre fifty! The technical difficulties are manifold but with her determination and can-do approach she has managed to punch through the critical hindrances to allow her to follow her path.

Although, the installation of larger kilns meant that Jo could roll out her amazing ideas in single pieces of fused glass it brought with it its own complications. To run such beasts meant having three phase electricity, which is really only available in industrial units; hence why the company is located where it is today. It meant a considerable financial outlay but proved to be the correct path to follow, with more commercial clients starting to come on board wishing to enhance their office spaces with Jo’s creations.


Fast forward and Jo has shifted her output away from singularly focussing on producing these large one-piece installations for several reasons. Sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees, but when you step back and critically assess what you’re doing then the light shines through. Jo realised that if the ‘kiln gods’ weren’t with her then a whole piece could be ruined, as she explains, “I’ve made large artworks, and it’s taken love and then it just cracks. It’s heart-breaking and you’ve got to do it again. I’ve even had situations where I was making a triptych artwork where everything flowed together. Then the delivery company has broken one piece, and you’ve got to remake the whole thing and it’s so soul destroying. It became very nerve wracking every time, I’d always be on edge until the piece was installed and everything had gone right. It was taking a toll. So just stepping back made me realise that there are other ways to make the installations that carry the same impact and have just as much artistic appeal for me and the client. So, if somebody breaks a piece it’s just a small part that goes to make up a bigger installation; it’s only one fish or one leaf say.” What really tipped the balance was a commission Jo received from a collector, who wanted a big feature installation to adorn a wall above a door, in his recently converted barn near Padstow. Jo’s initial reaction was, “I don’t want to put a really heavy, heavy piece of glass there above head height, over an entrance.” So, she presented him with her thoughts that had been forming for a while. “I’ve actually had this idea to create these shoaling fish whereby they circle around and head off. His response was, okay, go ahead!” She felt that she’d been gifted a rare opportunity. People passing through her workshop were so encouraging with their comments, when it was being made, that it eventually spawned a new chapter in the evolving history of Jo’s creative output.


I’ll leave Jo to aptly sum up why she does what she does – “I think one of the biggest driving forces throughout my whole career has been an absolute passion for it. And that has never died. You know, even now, I still really love opening the kiln, so it’s like Christmas every day. There’s a process of transformation. You kind of know roughly when it comes out what the colour is going to be like, but there will be textures, bubbles and features and things inside it that you haven’t got any control over. It’s like alchemy!”


She is a person who sees the possibility and takes the opportunity as these pages bear testimony to.


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