Stronger: a tribute in pate de verre

Concept: It began when I saw a news report about a lady named Reshma Qureshi. She was a pretty 18 year old expecting an ordinary life, when she was attacked and had acid poured over her face. Now despite severe scarring and loss of an eye, she refuses to hide away. She leads an active public life, campaigning for Make Love Not Scars, which aims to stop the public sale of acid in India, and finds work for scarred women.

I wanted to celebrate this refusal to give in, this commitment to rising above pain and difficulty. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. More examples came to mind; the boys who found that the cost of football coaching was submitting to sexual exploitation, but who finally found the courage to speak up and see justice done. Women who were subjected to FGM but refused to allow their daughters to be mutilated. Domestic violence victims who walked out and created refuges. People who have faced the challenges of mental illness, found their own balance, and then supported others.

My idea was to make faces representing these people, bright and brave as their spirits, with their scars transformed to glittering jewels.

Glass is a good medium to represent strength arising from fragility.

Making the work: I like to work in pate de verre because it is so flexible in terms of form, colour and texture. Patience is needed: it’s quite a long process, which calls for care and attention at each stage. Here is the method I learnt, from glass artist Alicia Lomne.

First, I make the original form in potter’s clay. It’s possible to use wax or other mouldable materials, but I like the soft earthy versatility of clay. When I’m happy with the form, I can either smooth the surface with a brush or sponge; or create texture by pressing tools in, or adding little lumps and so on. I can also add pieces of cut glass sheet, or forms made previously. I made the ‘jewels’ for Stronger on my torch, melting and shaping the hot glass.

Stronger blog 1

I make sure all the glass I use is compatible. Artist glass is rated with a COE (coefficient of expansion), which needs to be the same throughout, otherwise stresses in the glass will make it crack apart when it cools.

The next step is to cast the clay in investment plaster, which can cope with the heat of the kiln. I use hand-shaped rather than poured moulds – less waste, and they conduct heat more evenly.

Stronger blog 2

When the plaster is set, I pull out the clay – that can go back into the tub for re-use. The added sheet and torch-formed pieces stay embedded in the plaster, and will fuse to the glass I put into the mould.

If I want, I can incise lines into the mould now for fine detail, with a steel tool.

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Now I can build up layers of glass powder and frit – crushed glass – into the wet mould. I mix my frit with a little water and gum arabic, so it is like slightly sticky damp sand. Then it’s a matter of dropping little bits into the mould, and patting it down well to push out the air and compact it down. I use a variety of spoons and homemade tamping tools for this. I need to get each layer well compacted before laying down the next.

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Once I have the thickness I want, I can put the mould into the kiln. I programme the kiln to sit at 99º C for 2 or 3 hours to dry the mould out, then to rise slowly and steadily to near melting point; a brief quick heat to fuse and then set before the whole thing collapses; then cooling in stages, very slowly, to anneal the glass – which removes stresses which might make it crack.

The whole firing takes between about 12 hours and 2 days depending on the size of the piece. Glass needs a lower temperature than pottery, but much more control.

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When it is back to room temperature, I lower the mould – now quite fragile due to the heating – into a dish of water, where it fizzes like a sherbet lolly and starts to break up. Most of it will come off in chunks, but I have to clean off delicate shapes very carefully to stop them breaking.

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The final stage is coldwork. I grind off the rough edges, and rub off bits of embedded plaster from the surface, using diamond tools. The piece is then ready for mounting. Here they are on the workshop bench as I try out different mounting methods.

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Moira Robinson, January 2017.

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