Words by Mercedes Smith
We take a look at the career of one of Cornwall’s most high-profile designers.
Image courtesy of Mike Evans
Fused glass artist Jo Downs has always known that talent is not enough. In a region brimming with creatives, she has set the standard for professionalism in the arts, creating a successful, design-led company based on the value and integrity of her original, handcrafted work. Since graduating from university 25 years ago her talent and technical expertise have made her an unrivalled specialist in her field, with a portfolio that includes commissions for high profile public venues like the Royal College of Art London, and the Flying Boat Club on the Isles of Scilly. Here, she tells us what it takes to build a meaningful career as an artist, and how focusing on her passions has been the secret to her success.
Images courtesy of Mike Evans and John Such
Jo, you are one of Cornwall’s most high-profile creatives. What does that kind of success mean to you?
“I think ‘success’ means different things to different people. For me, it means the freedom to spend my life making beautiful work. When I first discovered glass fusing at university, I didn’t think ‘Wow, this could make me really successful’, I thought ‘Wow – I love this stuff, I want to mess about with it every single day for the rest of my life’. Passion – I mean that raw, almost childish passion for a thing – is the secret to success in anything, isn’t it? I’ve been lucky in that I found my passion early in life, but honestly, the rest has been down to commitment and a great deal of hard work. There are lots of artists here in the south west with exceptional talent, but it’s not enough, you need that something extra to make it in the arts. I’ve heard people call it ‘business sense’ but it’s not that. It’s commitment, an absolute commitment to following your dream. Creatively, I’ve always felt confident, but business wise, I’ve simply learned. Trial and error have been two of my greatest allies! And taking advice from others has made all the difference. If I don’t know something, I just ask someone who does. It’s really that simple. My success is the result of my own passion, every ounce of my energy and the wisdom and support of a whole string of other people who have helped me build Jo Downs Handmade Glass, and who now give me the freedom to make work while they take care of the day-to-day running of the company. I come into my studio each day and get hands-on with fused glass, and that’s my definition of success.”
Image courtesy of Peter Searle
Image courtesy of Mike Evans
How did you get started as a fused glass artist?
“I originally planned to study ceramics, but at college my tutor said I had a talent for colour and texture and he suggested I try working with glass. I enrolled for a degree in Glass and Ceramic Design at Sunderland University and that’s where I first tried glass fusing. All that came out of the kiln was this glorious, melted lump of colour – but I fell in love with glass right there. When I graduated, I spent some time working with established glass artists, people like Mike Davies, Galia Amsel and Rebecca Newnham, and then set up my own workshop in London. I’m well known for my galleries now, but that’s not how I started. I went straight into bespoke commissions and that was a steep learning curve. Hilton Hotels and P&O Cruises approached me to make large scale installations, and that’s where I really found my focus. Commissions have always been my passion, and still account for the majority of my studio time. In 2001, when my first son was born, I set up my studio here in Cornwall, and over the next few years I developed a range of interior pieces. They sold well at independent galleries across the country, so in 2005 I set up the first dedicated Jo Downs gallery in Padstow. Now I have five galleries in Cornwall, and one in Surrey, and a small team of talented glass artists who work with me every day here at the studio. I design, we make, and then the most successful pieces are pulled together into collections for the galleries. On the commissions side, I work from a separate studio with its own kiln and workspace, and I focus on bespoke work for private clients. That’s where I love to be, with my dog Izzy, my radio and shelves of glass in every conceivable colour.”
What do you love most about creating bespoke work?
“One off, large-scale work is where fused glass goes ‘fine art’, if I can describe it like that. Going back to my college tutor’s comment about colour and texture, those are the things that make fused glass such a special medium to work with. Colour and texture are both enhanced by light, so the larger a work is, the more it captures the natural light in a space. It’s incredibly satisfying, as an artist, to see my work reach its full potential like that. I also really enjoy the process of creating to a brief. Clients come to me with some extraordinary ideas – I have been asked for swimming pool floors, four-storey chandeliers and spectacular glass ceilings – and every idea pushes my creativity just a little bit further. Put simply, clients come to me for something beautiful and totally unique. It’s a special thing to work with people who’ve created a beautiful home, or a beautiful business space, and to make something meaningful for them. I begin by meeting with the client, visiting the space where the commission will sit, and finding the balance between what the client wants and what’s possible in fused glass. From there I will make sketches just to frame an idea, then the actual design process is really about experimentation and getting straight into the glass. It’s an exciting journey for me and my client, and at the end of the project there is that wonderful moment when the finished work is installed in its rightful place. I never get over the thrill of that.”
What inspires your work above all else?
“Living and working in Cornwall is my greatest inspiration. The landscape here is so varied and yet so unique. So much of my work is inspired by the shapes and colours of the Cornish coast, from the rolling ocean to the quiet little rockpools, the brilliant blue of a Cornish cove or the dusty gold of the moorland. It’s the same for everyone who is drawn to this part of the world, isn’t it? We want to celebrate the natural beauty of the place. Nearly every commission I make here reflects my clients’ passion for Cornwall, and in some sense brings the inside and the outside together. What could be better than creating work inspired by the place I love, for people who love it as much as I do? It’s a pretty nice way to live my life.”