Catherine Dunstan / “I’m broken but I’m flourishing”

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Social commentary, personal expression and technical risk-taking entwine to forge a striking new way with glass.


Catherine Dunstan’s relationship with glass has been an intuitive journey developed through a love of teaching and a desire to experiment. Colour blooming is the result of her dedication to, and innovation within, the craft.

Vibrant kaleidoscopic petal shapes bend and merge with an illusory shimmer. The patterns are solid yet slippery, defined and melting. The blooms are fixed in time yet trying to escape or caught in the process of transformation. The sense of motion and change at the heart of Catherine’s vision is palpable.

Bullseye bloom. Image courtesy of Catherine Dunstan.

The solace of creative practice was vital for Catherine following the birth of her child. The time she spends away from her son, she says, must be used to its full potential. Creative making is an absorbing activity that allows her to play and explore, to push boundaries and just be in the moment. It’s a valuable mode of expression that has helped her rebuild her identity following motherhood. 

Yet Colour Blooming has more at its core. In Yank I & II the patterned glass has been bent and twisted out of shape to create uncomfortable forms, creature-like with heads bowed. Support System comprises two solid, rough-edged shards resting peacefully next to each other; they could be hewn from the same block, fitting neatly together to form a complete whole. 

Yank I & II. Image courtesy of Catherine Dunstan.

The pieces are beautiful, skillfully rendered objects in their own right – but there’s a shadow of deeper meaning here. Catherine’s need to take risks, explore new territories and bend glass until it’s close to breaking point represents her personal story: specifically, her transition into motherhood. 

In Yank, she explores the idea of being removed from a controlled environment – Catherine’s “comfort zone” which keeps anxiety at bay – and forcibly wrenched into something new. “The patterns were … forced to become a hybrid like I was having to do,” she says. “Pulling out a corner of the pattern created a shape which looked like it had been yanked away from where it once was. Twisting suggested a piece had almost been wrung out.” Support System was the result of a realisation that small figures are undefined in isolation but validated by a companion piece, representing the support of a partner, the shared experience of parenting, and that “there’s companionship in a struggle”. 

Support System. Image courtesy of Catherine Dunstan.

The themes are universal. An artist with a social conscience, Catherine is passionate about lifting off the cloak of invisibility from the real experience of motherhood, and she’s indignant about the lack of space for new mothers in society: “Why are we dismissed, ignored or stigmatised? Becoming a mother can be raw, traumatising and depersonalising. You can feel judged all the time. There needs to be more conversation and openness about what it’s really like.”

In exploring these experiences through her glasswork, it became clear there was expression not only in the forms produced but in the methods she was using as well. The process wasn’t always easy: “The real challenge has been about the introduction of vulnerability,” she says. In coming to terms with the need for acceptance and “letting go”, for benefit of both mother and child, Catherine forced herself to resist her desire for ultimate control, both in life and glasswork. She gave herself, as she puts it, “a quite literal trial by fire”. 

Catherine in her studio. Image courtesy of Catherine Dunstan.

Taking her work into the hot shop for the first time, she says, “not only pushed me to adapt to working collaboratively with a technician but also to become more comfortable with risk. Colour blooming became a visible expression of my obsessive need to avoid anxiety by being in control.” The slow, precise pace of creating her pristine flat bloom panels was at odds with the fast-moving, high-risk environment of the glory hole. Here the panels were heated, then shaped into their final form in just seconds. 

In distorting the perfectly organised blooms, Catherine exposed the conflict experienced in the transition to motherhood: “I feel they look precarious, stretched, severe, in motion,” she says. In their dynamic nature, the pieces signify the complex reality of human experience. 

The work didn’t always go to plan, and she realised the fragile nature of the process was essential in both personal and creative terms. Ultimately, the high-risk element provided the greatest joy for Catherine, as she began to recognise the inherent beauty of the smashed chunks broken in the hot shop process: “I’ve been taking the fragments and following them along their fault lines to cold-work and polish them,” she says, producing a jewel-like hunk and holding it to the light. “The vulnerability is still there, this time from breaks I couldn’t stop happening. But it’s still as shiny as can be. I feel like they’re saying: ‘We tried, we failed, but we showed up anyway.’ That’s what being a mum is! I’m broken but I’m also flourishing. These cracked, polished gems stand up proudly, holding space for that reality.”

“In a way, people and glass are alike. Both need to embrace fluidity and flexibility in order to become the hybrids we need to be.”

Catherine advocates exploration, play and risk-taking in creative practice, aiming to instil this philosophy in her students. Many come into the studio, she says, with a love of glass and a view to replicate exactly a piece they’ve seen; Catherine works to help them find their own style. Considering art in other mediums encourages them to analyse why they love a certain painting, sculpture or textile; she then guides them to bring this deeper artistic appreciation to their glasswork. She’s adamant that experimentation is an essential part of creativity: “It’s the only way we can discover new things.”

More colour blooms.

For now, she’s busy teaching her new technique. Demand is high, from local to global, and colour blooming has the potential to change the landscape of glasswork with its almost limitless possibilities of design: once learned, students can individually interpret the method so no two finished pieces are the same. There is a real capacity for new creative expression and discovery. 

What’s next?

She’s not sure; perhaps further experimentation will lead to something equally ground-breaking. One thing shines through clearly, however: Catherine’s addicted to glass. Her affinity to the medium is strong, and she’s eager to help others use glass to its full potential – supporting our life journeys, conceptualising challenges and helping us to celebrate change as we evolve. “In a way, people and glass are alike,” she says. “Both need to embrace fluidity and flexibility in order to become the hybrids we need to be.”