Terry Grimley previews Stourbridge’s fourth International Festival of Glass.
Glassmaking in Stourbridge may no longer employ the numbers of people it once did, but anyone who imagines the ancient craft is extinct in this corner of the Black Country should pay a visit to the International Festival of Glass later this month.
This now well established four-day event returns to venues across the Stourbridge Glass Quarter over the Bank Holiday weekend, from August 27-30.
A packed programme of events aimed at professionals, collectors, the general public and the local community includes the now familiar mix of master-classes, hands-on workshops, lectures and exhibitions.
Visitors can catch up with the latest ideas and techniques in contemporary glass design, bid for a piece in the Fun Auction, and even try their hands at glass-blowing and engraving.
At the heart of the festival is the British Glass Biennale, a nationally important exhibition now returning for the fourth time. This unique review of the best in contemporary British glass continues at the Ruskin Glass Centre until September 11.
This year’s Biennale, selected by five distinguished judges, consists of 96 pieces by 62 artists, chosen from an open submission of 446 submitted by 202.
“This is the fourth festival, and it’s building on the success of the previous three,” says festival organiser Natasha George.
“It’s very difficult to describe because it appeals to so many different groups – professionals, amateurs, members of the public, galleries and, very importantly, the local community.
“We’ve got a fantastic range of talks, including one on the archives of Chance Brothers, who made things like lighthouse lenses in Smethwick. We have international artists leading masterclasses and tons of have-a-go sessions for children.”
Perhaps the most unusual workshop will be led by Nomodo Djaba, whose family have made glass beads in Ghana since the 15th century.
Their technique, quite different from the one familiar in Europe, involves a wood-fired mud furnace which will be built in the week before the festival. Recycled ground glass is poured into clay moulds into which is inserted a plant stalk which burns out, leaving a hole in the bead.
Over the weekend there will be two-hour bead-making workshops for schools in the morning and for members of the public in the afternoon.
Other international participants include the American Scott Benefield, who will be giving a lecture on four emerging glass makers in the US, and Prof Guan Donghai of Tsinghua University, Beijing, who will talk about the rapid development of the glass scene in China, including the creation of new museums.
These are two in a rolling programme of lectures at Amblecote British Legion on Saturday afternoon.
As in previous years, the Biennale is staged at the Ruskin Glass Centre, which is currently undergoing a £1.38 million transformation which will deliver 15 new units for glass and craft-related businesses, displays on the history of the site, plus a new cafe and main entrance.
There is a slight change in the format of this year’s exhibition in that 19 well-established artists, including Peter Layton, Keiko Mukaide, Ronald Pennell and Colin Reid, have been invited to show their work. But as exhibition organiser Michelle Keeling points out, the Biennale is unique in the cross-section it offers through contemporary glassmaking.
“Because it is selected anonymously, it gives emerging artists a chance to be pitched alongside established artists,” she explains.
“So you will see people from university or in their first year of setting up alongside well-known names.
“It can make a huge difference to the prizewinners. Tracy Nicholls won last year and her work has changed dramatically.”
Each of the previous exhibitions has reflected a wide range of styles and techniques, from traditional blown vessels to sculptural pieces and installations.
“We’re definitely seeing certain techniques emerging this year,” says Michelle. “There have been four artists selected who use water-jet cutting, and they are using it in quite diverse ways.
“There’s also quite an increase in artists using neon. You can see from previous exhibitions how techniques have moved on and they are being used in imaginative ways.”
Alongside the Biennale, other exhibitions in the festival include three at the Broadfield Glass Museum, now reprieved after being under threat of closure for much of last year.
Transformations, a survey of contemporary glass furniture, continues until the end of February, while for those wanting to catch up with the story so far a comprehensive survey of 20th century British glass is showing until the end of December.
More tied-in to the festival timescale is Hi Honey, I’m Home!, an exhibition of glass inspired by domestic activities, until September 12.
The Red House Glass Cone hosts Made in Glass 2010, documenting eight international collaborations, and The NEXT Big Thing, a display of work by emerging artists (both until September 26).
Glass seems to be a medium which is on the move at the moment, with a huge range of artists exploring its unique possibilities in all sorts of ways.
In one of the talks during the festival Matt Duran asks whether we are entering a new evolutionary phase in glassmaking, prompted by rising energy costs and increased environmental awareness.
And throughout the festival at the Ruskin Glass Centre local inventor Merlyn Farwell will be demonstrating his new Combination Complete Glassmaking Production Plant, which opens up the possibility of “garden shed glassmaking” with running costs of between £35 and £45 a week.
If you are interested in collecting contemporary glass rather than making it, the event for you is Confident Collecting, two free after-hours tours of the Biennale with Michelle Keeling and fellow organiser Candice-Elena Greer, with tips on collecting and advice on the artists to watch.
The Black Country can be a mystery to anyone from more than ten miles away, and you suspect that however high the profile of the festival, and the Biennale in particular, it still isn’t as high as it deserves to be.
But as Natasha George reveals, there are signs that it is getting there.
In 2008 the Victoria & Albert Museum came to take a look for the first time, and recently she was approached for advice by people in Spain who want to set up a glass festival there.
“We’re getting a lot of interest from the States. The Americans particularly like the informality of it, because in the State’s there is not the same access between artists and members of the public.
“One of the really good things that came out of the last festival was that the Paul Hamlyn Trust, which is supporting the Ghanaian beadmaking, really liked the community aspect of it.
They contacted us and said if we could come up with something they would like to fund it.”
* For full details of this year’s festival events, visit www.ifg.org.uk, or contact the International Festival of Glass at the Ruskin Glass Centre, Wollaston Road, Amblecote, Stourbridge 01384 399410, firstname.lastname@example.org
* There is an admission charge at the Ruskin Glass Centre during the four days of the festival
At all other times admission to festival exhibitions is free.