Terry Grimley previews Stourbridge's International Festival of Glass, incorporating the British Glass Biennale.
Returning for only the third time later this month. Stourbridge’s International Festival of Glass can seriously claim to be the most internationally significant visual arts event taking place in the West Midlands this year.
Launched in 2004 with a brand-new British Glass Biennale at the heart of a re-imagined Dudley Festival of Glass, the four-day event with its programme of longer-running exhibitions (no fewer than 15 this year) brings leading contemporary glassmakers from across the world to Stourbridge, as both exhibitors and active workshop participants.
The central event is the Biennale, Britain’s only regular national survey of contemporary studio glass, which is hosted by the Ruskin Glass Centre, the main focus for the festival, from August 22 to September 28.
This year’s first exhibition, the largest so far dedicated to the extraordinary glass dresses of Diana Dias-Leao, is already showing at the Broadfield Glass Museum (until spring 2009). Glassmakers from Egypt, Israel and the United States will be coming to share their expertise and a wide range of makers, including some famous names, have been challenged to contribute to an exhibition of glass beads inspired by The Tempest.
The theme of The Tempest, running through the festival, has also been adopted for an international sculpture garden including works by artists from no fewer than 10 different countries, plus a soundtrack by British composer Andrew Peggie.
Peggie will be in residence during the festival to explore the delicate soundworld of glass, while another venture into the performing arts will be Tempestade, a specially-devised and innovative co-production of The Tempest from Midlands-based Puppetlink and Portuguese company S.A.Marionetas, using light and glass puppets.
“The festival is bigger than ever this year, because we have more partners each time who want to be part of it,” says festival director Janine Christley.
“We also act as enablers for other organisations to put on events. That’s working more and more successfully, because it’s enabling us to get to the roots. Last time we had one local history society taking part and this time we have six, so the whole heritage element is expanded. There was one church that took part and this time we have five.
“So the community are starting to engage, and we’re very keen to do that so that it doesn’t become something that’s imported and landed on the community.
“As well as having interesting visiting artists it’s also about celebrating what’s here by people who worked in the industry. It’s got to have that stuff coming in from above and stuff coming in from below.”
What should really give Stourbridge a claim on national attention, though, is the Biennale. Eighty-one artists have been selected for this year’s exhibition, which is a bit down on 2006 – but that’s no bad thing, says Janine Christley. Works are chosen entirely on merit, and exhibitors range from long-established figures in the field like Peter Layton, subject of a special focus in 2006, to a painter who is making her debut with glass.
“We had a really good jury led by Will Farmer of Fielding Auctioneers, who appears on Antiques Roadshow. He does the auction for us each year, and the amount of glass that goes through his auction house is increasing all the time.
“The prize money has gone up this year, and for the first time we have a student element in the Biennale. There was fierce competition among students to be one of the 11 chosen. Although the number of courses has declined, the quality of work coming out of colleges at the moment is really interesting.”
You might expect glassmaking to be a relatively tradition-bound activity which would not change much over a decade, but in fact there have been quite distinct shifts of emphasis in each of the three Biennales so far.
“In the first year we had some big installations and a lot of blown work, in 2006 no big installations and cast work came up strongly. This time there’s a strong political, social-commentary element coming through for the first time. A lot of work is reflecting on the world. Lighting is strong again – we have about five different chandeliers – and there are quite a lot of cast pieces.”
The international workshop programme features several leading American makers and Israeli web-designer-turned-beadmaker Sarah Hornik, regarded as an international pacesetter in this currently fashionable area of glassmaking.
A particular coup among this year’s workshops is the visit of Egyptian glassmakers Galal El Gendi and his son Mohamed Galal El Gendi, because although the tradition of glass in Egypt is ancient, its exponents rarely travel. They will be tutoring a group of eight students on how to build a traditional Egyptian furnace.
Egyptair is subsidising their visit, and thanks to the enthusiasm of the Egyptian Embassy there will be an Egyptian finale to the festival at the Ruskin Glass Centre on August 25, with a dozen performers including musicians and Sufi dancers. Another aspect of the Egyptian theme is a lecture by American archaeologist Dr Mark Boslaugh, part of the team assembled to research a jewel in Tutankhamen’s necklace which was found in 1996 to be made of glass older than Egyptian civilisation.
However, the festival is not missing out entirely on this year’s cultural focus on China. Glass Routes, one of the outlying exhibitions at the Bilston Craft Gallery (August 22-November 17) looks at the international impact of the work of Prof Keith Cummings and in particular the impact of his glass course at Wolverhampton University on newly-established university programmes in Shanghai and Beijing.
The exhibition featured work by Prof Cummings alongside work by colleagues from the UK, China and Australia.
? The International Festival of Glass takes place at various venues around Stourbridge from August 22-25.
The British Glass Biennale takes place at the Ruskin Glass Centre, Woollaton Road, Amblecote, Stourbridge from August 22 to September 28. For further information about all events visit ifg.org.uk, email email@example.com or call 01384 399410.