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Through the looking glass

Words by Hannah Tapping

Embracing innovation and the ever-evolving art of glassmaking.

From its humble beginnings three and a half millennia ago, glass art has undergone some remarkable transformations, driven by advancements in techniques and materials. Today, glass fusion is an art form which has given rise to some incredible installations, artworks and stand-alone pieces. Jo Downs established her very first gallery in Padstow in 2005. Her work has become synonymous with the Cornish coast, and each year she releases new collections that reflect her passion for the beauty of the area. With galleries now open in Launceston, St Ives, Fowey, Tintagel and Sunningdale, the journey of a glass artist has been one of constant learning and discovery for Jo, as she explains: “One of the things that I love about the glass art is that there are always new things to discover; that’s why I find it such a fascinating process. From where I started, some 30 years ago, I’m still learning. At the moment, I’ve been spending a lot of time experimenting. There have been lots of changes in the availability of materials over recent years. I was working with a beautiful German glass that was really lovely to cut which enabled me to produce fluid designs on really large pieces, and they just went out of production!

“Because of that I have been exploring alternative products, including a new enamel. It’s sourced from a UK-based company and has a really different feel to it. I tend to do a lot more experimental work in the winter, and so I’ve been working with this new material which is a very painterly and opaque medium. I’ve always loved painting, and there is a painterly approach in a lot of the kind of sketch work I do. So, I was able to draw inspiration from that and get some interesting textures to reintroduce into glass both from the enamel and also by adding small pieces of fritted glass to my work.”

Working with this new enamel requires a different approach compared to traditional techniques. It is akin to working with oil paints, where the medium is applied to the glass surface and then manipulated to achieve desired effects. Jo experiments with various methods, from brushwork to pouring, creating a diverse range of textures and styles. The unpredictable nature of the process adds an element of surprise, as colours interact and react with each other in an almost chemical reaction, resulting in unexpected and mesmerising outcomes. This fusion of traditional and contemporary elements adds depth and vibrancy to Jo’s work.

I’m keen to learn of the new collections and projects planned for this year: “For 2023, we have launched a brand-new series of wall panels inspired by, and named, the Beating Heart of Cornwall; works inspired by gulls on the wing, fish shoals darting through rock pools, rolling waves, samphire and seagrass drifting in the current, golden sands and leaping dolphins. “Alongside these wall-mounted works is our newly launched Cornish Sunset collection of interior pieces, a bright new series inspired by beach walks on a warm spring evening.

“We have designed a new showroom in our Launceston premises which showcases some of the larger pieces including splashbacks, lighting and tiling. With the new room sets we’ve been able demonstrate how you can use our gorgeous tiles in a bathroom situation, while also showcasing our design service. It isn’t always apparent that we offer installations in our smaller galleries as they tend to concentrate more on the giftware. Our new Launceston installations act as a showcase to visitors of the whole range of our work, with experienced staff on hand to talk through the design process.”

Jo is also able to offer bespoke commissions, as was the case with a new flower and leaf art installation: “I was given a picture of a very floral table made by a Spanish artist. The client commissioned a three-dimensional external wall-art piece to be in keeping with the table. The final creation works on various levels, both in terms of the vibrant colours of the flowers as well as shadows and reflections they create on the wall. I loved working on this project as, while I absolutely love the coast and am obsessed with everything about it and obviously it’s where I get a huge amount of my inspiration, I do enjoy the challenge of a new project, using new colours and techniques.” Bespoke projects tend to start with a sketch and then Jo and her team are able to create visuals which can be projected onto the wall or space where they are intended to go, allowing clients to clearly visualise the finished product.

Jo’s large installations and chandeliers are the backdrop to smaller pieces such as jewellery dishes and tea light stands, all with the colours and patterns of the Cornish landscape running through them. “Not everyone has the space for large-scale works,” says Jo, “so we always have smaller but equally lovely things on show. New for this year will be little glass fish magnets, so that visitors can pin that Padstow postcard to their fridge, when they are far away and dreaming of Cornwall, as well as the return of our ever-popular soap and lotion dispenser stands. I want everyone who comes to my galleries to take home a little something of Cornwall.”

For those wanting to have a go at the fine art of glass fusion for themselves, both the galleries in Launceston and Sunningdale offer glass-fusing workshops. Here you can spend a glorious three hours creating and designing your very own fused-glass pieces. No experience is necessary, and all glass and equipment are supplied. During the workshop, small pieces of glass, different grades of frit (crushed glass), stringers, powders, and liquid glass are all used. The end product is only limited by the imagination with coasters, vases, dishes, waves, hangings, soap dishes, and framed artwork all possible within the timeframe.


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