EDMOND BYRNE IS BLOWN AWAY BY GLASS (CRAFTS MAGAZINE)
All copy as provided to publication.
Glass artist Edmond Byrne finds inspiration in the endless versatility of his material – on both sides of the classroom. Katie Treggiden discovers how the cycle of teaching, learning and experimentation shapes his craft.
Watching a glassmaker stretch a piece of molten glass into a string the width of a hair and the length of a room was the moment Edmond Byrne knew he had found his calling. “I was hooked from that instant,” he says. “My perception of glass had been of transparent cut crystal – very precise, very controlled. And yet this was so malleable – it was like toffee. Glass is a tremendously diverse material and I was attracted to its spontaneity.” Byrne was undertaking a BA in Design in Craft at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design at the time, but he was studying graphic design. The demonstration was part of his core year (the equivalent of the foundation year in the UK) and resulted in both an immediate switch to a glass specialism, and an appreciation for the power of education that has seen him combine the two ever since.
Listed chronologically, his qualifications alternate between glass and teaching – as well as his BA, he has an MA in glass and two postgraduate qualifications in education, the most recent of which was earned at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) where he remains as a technical tutor to this day. He believes this combination of teaching and learning – of being both student and mentor – is crucial: “The two things feed each other. The more you develop your practice, the more you learn and the more you have to teach. It’s a tacit knowledge that can’t be learned from books. I’m always researching and experimenting to discover interesting ways of working with glass to use in my demonstrations to students, and my own practice in the wider glass community brings real-life experience and relevance to my teaching.”
When he is making his own work, he rents ‘hot shops’ – the part of the workshop where glass is blown, as opposed to the ‘cold shop’ where glass is polished – but his day-to-day base is within the industrial-looking glass workshops at UCA, surrounded by towering shelves of supplies. The art school comprises a series of low-slung modern buildings on the outskirts of Farnham – a market town in Surrey designated England’s ‘craft town’ as of 2013. The university boasts its own museum, often curated by students, and state-of-the art facilities built for function not form – a hot-shop, kiln room, and cold working facilities are about to be enhanced with a £100,000 investment in new glass blowing facilities. “UCA is a vibrant and creative environment,” he says. “Being surrounded by people who are as enthusiastic about learning and as excited about glass as you are is really inspiring.”
Byrne has intentionally immersed himself in such environments throughout his career. After his first year at university, he wrote to glass studios all over the world and landed a summer internship at Dale Chihuly’s Boathouse Glass Shop in Seattle. Arguably the most famous glass artist since Tiffany, Chihuly is credited with elevating blown glass into an art form and was part of a group of artists who translated glass production from an industrial process into a studio craft in the 1970s. “It was the most exciting and amazing place to blow glass in the world at that time,” says Byrne. “The sheer scale of the work blew my mind every day.” He was there while the Rotunda Chandelier that hangs at the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum was made. “It was exciting to play a role in that,” he says. “The whole thing was a monumental experience. I came back with lots of skills and completely inspired.” His MA at London’s Royal College of Art was equally transformative. “Leaving Ireland to study in England wasn’t a difficult decision,” he says. “I wanted to examine my glass practice in the best place possible. The glass community here is larger, producing some of the most creative glass art in the world – I wanted, and still want, to be part of that.”
And he is. His first solo show, Metameric: Colour as Fiction, opens at London’s Flow Gallery on 15 September and runs until 04 November 2017. He has been involved with Flow since 2010, when he answered an open call for an exhibition called Making Sense: Craft and Mind shortly after graduating. “Edmond had collaborated with a neuroscientist on his Emotional series at the RCA,” says gallery owner Yvonna Demczynska. “I was impressed that the colour and form of his vessels reflected research on the brainwaves that are produced in various neural pathways when different emotions are experienced.” Byrne describes being selected as his ‘first big break,’ saying, “It started a great relationship with the gallery and they have been incredibly supportive from that day on.” After appearing in several shows with Flow since then, at Collect and at SOFA Chicago, Demczynska felt the time was right for a solo show. “Edmond is exploring different qualities of colour in more depth and his sense of colour is wonderful,” she says. “I love the muted tones he creates which make the glass appear subtle and light, despite their very solid forms. All of this has evolved in the last seven years.”
As with much of Byrne’s work, the pieces he is developing for the show are blown into handmade moulds developed from drawings. “I do a lot of drawing,” he says. “I try to pin down emotion and memory in the textures and abstract lines and then use those drawings to build moulds from clay, fabric, plaster or metal – it is a way of translating two dimensions into three. The glass is then blown into the moulds, so it picks up the texture and hopefully the emotion too.” Glass blowers typically use moulds to create consistent repeated forms – Byrne uses each mould only once.
For Metameric: Colour as Fiction, he is exploring a phenomenon called metameric failure, which happens when two different colours look identical to the human eye, and are only distinguishable from one another when they are juxtaposed with contrasting colours – or when the light changes. The experience occurs because glass not only reflects light but also allows light to pass through it, and responds in different ways to different wavelengths. “I wanted to examine that dynamic,” says Byrne, his easy Irish charm belying the intellectual rigour behind so much of his work. “The subtlety in colour and how it behaves under different lighting conditions – even the different [photoreceptor] counts in people’s retinas, which affect how they perceive colour.”
At the time of going to press, Byrne is halfway through making the body of work, with some pieces still to be started and others that he wants to re-blow, “because they’ve got to be perfect.” He is a perfectionist, but his pursuit of perfection is a world away from the precise constraint practised by many glassmakers. His work is characterised by a much more organic and free expression, communicated not only though his use of colour, but also texture. “Texture is a way to express something emotional in glass,” he says. “It gives you a surface – a front wall that you have to peer through. The colour is on the inside so you have to look through to it and texture provides depth. It invites the viewer to go closer and enquire.”
His finishes are created by dipping molten glass into a clay mix, resulting in a whitened surface. “I love ancient Roman glass and this technique makes new glass look as if it is from another time,” explains Byrne. “Rome was the birthplace of glass blowing, and they did it really well. My work is actually quite contemporary, but it is about emotion. If you look at a piece of glass that looks like it has been dug up, it has the resonance of an artefact and that’s where that metaphor for emotive memory comes from.”
In the future, Byrne has ambitions to create a massive ‘emotion landscape’ of glass. “Something like the Tate Modern’s Turbine Gallery where the work could completely envelop you, filling your peripheral vision,” he suggests. “I am a huge Rothko fan, so I’d love to work at a scale where your vision is filled – and experiment with how your eyes react. When you look at those Rothko paintings and you get retinal fatigue so they dissolve into a single tone of burgundy, it’s magical.” But for now, his proudest accomplishment is twofold and, unsurprisingly, it includes both learning and teaching. “Getting through the RCA was a pretty big achievement,” he says. “And being able to pass that knowledge on to the next generation is a wonderful thing too.”