Pictured above: Ornithology by Layne Rowe. Photo by Alick Cotterill.
In what have been two of the most difficult years globally, three glass artists are attempting to redress the balance by using their work to bring hope, renewal and peace. Catherine Rose interviews Terri Albanese, Helen Hancock and Layne Rowe.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY CATHERINE ROSE
Listen to the narrated article:
Terri Albanese / “I want the viewer to connect with my heart”
Terri Albanese “paints” pictures with glass, which aim to have a positive emotional impact. Her compositions feature vibrant colour, tactile form and a sense of rhythm.
Taking her inspiration from the natural world and the symbolism of flowers, Terri’s glass paintings are, in her words, “an invitation to come with me, for just a moment – and walk with me through a garden”.
Artist Terri, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, had her epiphany seeing first-hand the colours and intricacy of Italian mosaic in Montepulciano, Italy. “Visiting the cathedrals and churches was magnificent,” she says. “The mosaics spoke to me.”
She was particularly captivated by the way gold smalti tiles reflect the Tuscan light and today uses them as a signature in her work. On her return, she enrolled on a course in classical mosaic setting at the Miami Mosaic Academy.
Terri illustrates by using diagonal strokes and straight away Terri’s tutor told her that because of this, her designs wouldn’t work in a classical setting. Terri’s initial disappointment turned out to be a blessing. After some deliberation, Terri began cutting and setting glass strips diagonally for her designs, abandoning grout for visual continuity. It worked beautifully and Terri’s technique was born.
While completing a year’s fellowship with the Clark Hulings Foundation, which helps artists develop their business Terri had a pivotal moment that was to shape her whole direction.
“I had to figure out my ‘why’ and it was actually a painful process. I had been through a difficult time in my life where I stopped painting. The mosaics changed that.”
Her first exhibition was at the James Art Gallery in the James Comprehensive Cancer Hospital at Ohio’s State University Medical Centre.
“I had just hung my final piece, Light in Bloom, when a patient entered the gallery, walking with the aid of a stick. She stopped and stared at the painting, asking who the artist was.”
Terri introduced herself and the patient explained it was the first day she had walked on her own in two years and the first thing she saw was Terri’s painting. It was an intensely emotional moment that moved them both to tears. It gave Terri the affirmation she needed about the effect and direction of her work. Since then, she has frequently witnessed people find catharsis through her pictures.
Terri obtains her glass from the world-renowned Youghiogheny Studio, three and a half hours drive from her home, whose patented colour range reflects palettes in nature. She frequently finds inspiration driving there through the Laurel Highlands.
Inspired by Renoir’s philosophy that art should be “pretty”, Terri says, “I’ve always aimed to see beauty in the world, to make work that is uplifting. I want the viewer to connect with my heart. I spend a lot of time up front with a concept thinking ‘what do I need this to say?'”
Lifted Up in Triumph was made for the Columbus Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s new conference and simulation centre. When Terri discovered its corporate symbol was a butterfly, she chose an indigenous plant that butterflies love – the coneflower. Her piece depicts its petals moving from a wilted to an uplifted state, symbolising healing and hope. She has now been asked to produce her biggest piece yet at six foot square for the lobby of a new women and children’s hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
Terri’s forthcoming exhibition has been conceived in direct response to the Covid pandemic after she decided to send out 30,000 thank you cards to hospital workers. The cards reproduced her work Interwoven, depicting flowers that symbolise qualities such as hope, courage and resilience.
A Garden of Gratitude will run from March 2022 to 2023, starting at the James Art Gallery then touring Ohio and Kentucky. It includes a glass “Bouquet of Gratitude” that has a name engraved on each petal, each chosen by a contributor as “their someone” to thank.
Terri also works privately. One commission was for a client whose wife had successfully completed a course of chemo and radiotherapy. With All Boldness was based on his wife’s favourite flower, the white peony, which Terri discovered is an Eastern symbol of courage. The husband was so moved by the picture that he wrote a poem.
Terri wants her art to have an immediate impact on the emotional wellbeing of others. Through her glass paintings, she aims to instil hope and be part of the healing process, inviting the viewer to stop and take a breath.
Helen Hancock / “I was in very dark place … glass was the thing that changed that”
Irish artist Helen Hancock is the only known glassblower in the world to include human breastmilk in her pieces, which are designed to be objects of emotional healing.
She originally studied glass-making at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin. Before graduating in 1998, Helen spent the summer in Seattle at Dale Chihuly’s famous hot shop, meeting inspirational artists and talking to them about native influence on glass design.
“I didn’t just want to read the books. I had to go and meet the people,” Helen says. She worked in Seattle for three years.
In 2007, she settled in Donegal with her now-ex partner. The following nine years saw her abandon glassblowing and her confidence plummet.
They had bought a 400-year-old cottage to renovate while trying to live self-sufficiently in a caravan on site and during this time Helen had her children. The births were traumatic and she struggled to establish breastfeeding. On top of this, she lost her second baby at 26 weeks gestation.
Helen decided she didn’t want any other woman to feel as isolated and unsupported as she had, so she trained to become a doula and breastfeeding counsellor. “The more I helped others, the better I felt,” she continues.
Helen then heard about Melanie Scholtz in the US who was making ergonomically-designed glass bowls to catch breastmilk. At the same time, a friend actively encouraged Helen to take up glassblowing again. By then, Helen’s partnership had broken down.
“I was in a very dark place,” she admits. “Glass was the thing that changed that.”
Melanie had experimented with encapsulating breastmilk into hot glass but without success. Helen decided to try and after trial and error was successful. In 2017 she asked for volunteers to supply her with breast milk and used it to make glass objects that “change the conversation”. Because of the way breastmilk reacts within glass, each piece is unique.
Some of the earliest pieces Helen made used breastmilk from a mother whose baby had died. The bereaved mother shared her experience at a lactation conference and explained how Helen’s glass had helped her. Struck by a sense that she “had to do this”, Helen has found that people invariably have a strong positive emotional reaction to their piece.
Last year, Helen set up her own glass studio in Derry using £12,000 of crowd funding. She now makes memorial glass jewellery, paperweights, baubles and personalised etchings for those who have lost babies, been through birth or feeding trauma, or simply want a meaningful keepsake.
“It’s about having something visual that can capture that moment. It’s a huge representation for the mother and because I’ve experienced it, I understand it,” Helen continues.
Each piece requires 50 millilitres of breastmilk and takes around a fortnight. Helen also works with human ashes, umbilical cord, placenta and baby teeth (DNA from her own children’s milk teeth has been infused into hot glass).
What does she say to those who find her art disturbing or distasteful?
“The UK and Ireland have the worst statistics for breastfeeding so I knew there was always going to be push back. I’m used to handling people who are a bit anti but it’s not about me; it’s about the mother. Women blame themselves when things happen. When you’re working with someone’s milk, you feel it [the emotion]. I’m lucky to have had such good breastfeeding training. I love that I get to combine that with my work.”
Helen has also exhibited. Her largest sculpture Nature does not Bloom in Private is a collection of glass breasts, each containing “a nebula” of human milk. It was made for the group exhibition Inspired at the London Glassblowing Gallery. Now on tour, it has visited Belfast City Hospital, Letterkenny University Hospital and Galway University Hospital. The exhibit represents the many women whom Helen has supported as a breastfeeding counsellor.
“I would love to do an exhibition where people come in and find their own piece,” she said. “It’s niche but it works for me.”
Layne Rowe / “Lockdown gave me opportunity for thought”
Glass artist Layne Rowe was inspired to conceive a glass sculpture that explores the way people have been affected by the Covid pandemic.
Solace, a huge pair of stunning glass angel wings is both a tribute to the thousands who have died and to give their loved ones “a symbol of freedom, unity, strength and power”.
With the piece Layne aims ‘to provide a focus for people of all faiths and none, to contemplate the effects of the pandemic’.
Layne, from Cambridgeshire in the UK, studied glass and jewellery design at Lancashire University and has worked at the London Glassblowing Centre and in Brazil.”I’ve always had an affinity for birds and flight and I’ve produced several bodies of work based on this theme, most recently my Quill ‘n’ Ink series and Ornithology,” explains Layne.
“Lockdown gave me the opportunity for thought and the time to make such a large project. For me, angel wings represent freedom and fragility but with power, strength and protection.”
The display area in St Albans Abbey was offered to him during a Covid memorial service. “It’s a huge space with amazing architecture and a fantastic stained glass rose window so the wings needed to compete with all of those features to create an impact,” continues Layne.
Displayed in St Albans Abbey from April to May 2021, Solace moved to Ely Cathedral from June to August where it was admired by thousands. At the time of writing in December 2021, it was in a private house in London.
To create the incredible sculpture, Layne worked with a former classmate from his 3D design course at Shephalbury Art College in Stevenage. Metalworker Ryan Harms built the frame for the 160 hand-sculpted glass feathers with mouth-blown centres. Having reached out to each other during lockdown, they were delighted to collaborate and bring their skills together in such an inspirational way after 29 years.
“The idea of the blown centres allowed me to make each feather individually,” Layne continues. “This meant I was able to make the sculpture as large as I wanted.”
Layne won an award for his past cane overlay work. Each feather of Solace features fine white canework inclusions – a Venetian technique which coupled with the flowing shapes helps give a sense of weightlessness. Standing ten-feet high, the wings took three months to complete.
Layne believes that the emotional connection we each have with the Covid pandemic promotes a very personal reaction. Solace has been described as an “awe-inspiring visual experience”, which captivates the viewer. The stained glass and candlelit interiors of the cathedral setting brought out its beauty. People were able to interact with the work by taking photographs standing in front of it so that they resembled angels.
“I like to think my work helps heal in many ways,” Layne says. “I met a lot of people during and after seeing Solace, most having travelled specifically for the experience of how the work made them feel when standing next to it in that environment. The reactions were amazing. The realism connects with people.”
Layne is currently planning a new project. “Like Solace, it will have a powerful effect on people’s thoughts and beliefs,” he adds.