Glass has fascinated humanity since its accidental discovery when, legend says, a beach bonfire turned powdery siliceous sand into smooth drops with a solid jewel quality to their surface, that Phoenicians soon refined in a material at some point regarded as more precious than gold.
And if nowadays glass is quite affordable, and widely recyclable for day-to-day use, in the past this unique fluid-that-is-not-liquid used to be the privilege of the elite: cups were made of clay or porcelain (still un-recyclable stuff at present, by the way) and only royalty could afford glass windows, while most European manors stormed the weather with thin slabs of alabaster, also used for crockery.
The invention of large glass sheets, for shop windows for example, is quite recent, and so is the diffusion of flat clear glass; before, it was all about panelled windowpanes or stained glass, reserved for churches and posh drawing rooms.
Handmade stained glass is still in demand in this mass-production era.
Priceless in the Middle Ages, this artistry became fashionable in the early 20th century with the art nouveau Tiffany lamps, yet handmade stained glass is still in demand in this mass-production era, with a number of artisans still practising it for customised commissions.
Kate Davies is one of them: she earned an HND in Crafts, specialising in stained glass at Wrexham College of Art, and she has a bachelor degree in Design from Liverpool Hope University. She graduated in textile design specialising in infant and child bedding, consequently being hired by a greeting card manufacturer. “I designed and crafted patchwork that was turned into Christmas cards and sold in Marks & Spencer nationwide,” she says.
After moving to Gibraltar where she became a full-time mum, Kate attended a crafting course at the local college, shifted to fused glass, and went on ‘cooking glass’ to create the colourful keepsakes she is now well known for.
“I have many returning customers, who either commission special pieces or buy the already made ones: my greatest satisfaction is knowing how someone can love what I’ve made enough to buy it as a gift,” she says.
Her signature piece is the slender clear fish dusted in vibrant colours, but she also cooks mosaic hearts, flowers and plants, birds, from seasonal robins with copper-wire feet to lucky owls, as hanging ornaments or as decorative details for bowls, trays and trinket dishes.
Geometric pendants in vivid colours that glitter almost literally with space dust. I use special dichroic glass that was first invented by NASA for space missions.
Kate has a jewellery line to her name too: geometric pendants in vivid colours that glitter almost literally with space dust. “For them, I use special dichroic glass that was first invented by NASA for space missions and later extended to ornamental objects, because of its reflecting the light in many directions and thus changing colour by the angle one looks at it.”
This is an epensive process in which metals are added to glass not by melting small quantities into the mix as traditionally done, but actually vaporising them with electron beams. That’s why Kate uses her selected ‘space glass’ sheets for her high-end pieces as well as for highlights in her larger creations, like for instance fancy beaks for her birds or droplets decorating her multi-layered bowls.
Cooking glass is time consuming when textured items have to be fired more than once, and all objects take long to cool down: “If I put the kiln on at lunchtime, it will be ready the morning after, some 15-18 hours. In fact, if glass cools down too fast, it will crack.”
Kate doesn’t use recycled glass because its heterogeneous make-up is prone to cracks, but she is supplied sheets, roughly A4 sized and A3 sometimes and 3 to 5 millimetres thick, from the UK. She cuts them with specific tools – and her bare hands. “I don’t wear gloves because they would hinder my feel of the glass. One must respect the glass and handle it correctly. If you do so, it will be sufficient to gently tap it to separate the cut-out shape. Yes, I hurt my hands sometimes, but it’s more like paper cuts, no need for a trip to A&E, thankfully.”
Sheets come in many colours, and she has built a varied stock over the years, so customers can be assured that her artwork is multi-coloured and visually attractive. Different colours cannot be mixed but can be layered for a shaded effect, as seen in her ‘wish-sticks’, one of the most affordable items in her collection at just £8.
To pepper up the transparent elegance of basic shapes, Kate layers copper or silver foil between two thin glass sheets or she prints out lettering on special paper that stands the firing and is crystallised in the finished product. Mixed pinches of Frit – coloured powdered glass – creates a speckled effect whose final impact is appreciable only after firing, so every time she opens the kiln, a surprise awaits. Sometimes the process goes sideways, like when bowls slip in the mould they are cooked in and become asymmetric, which is the signature of any handmade piece, but when this becomes too conspicuous it can be corrected with extra firing.
She dabbles in mosaic too, and likes to arrange it on clear glass so it can be translucent, ideally suited for panelled windows or doors, which she’s glad to take up commissions for.
Visit Kate’s stall at the Arts & Crafts shop in Casemates and like her Facebook page: Kate Davies Glass & Crafts.