Elements of place: Sand, fire, glass and sea

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Above: Mermaids Purses by Andrea Spencer. Photo by Tony West.

Mosaicist Joanna Kessel spent three days studying at glass artist Andrea Spencer’s studio. Joanna writes about her experience and she explores Andrea’s path and the ‘impossible delicacy’ of her glass work.

By Joanna Kessel

The phrase ‘impossible delicacy’ is one that Andrea Spencer uses to describe her intricate and exquisitely observed natural forms rendered in glass, and the conundrum runs like a thread through all her current work. This is work that rewards slow viewing – all is not as it may seem. Like glass itself, the work is a fusion of elements that time, the natural world and the creative imagination have brought together.

I got to know Andrea, and her work, in May 2022 when I spent three days studying at her studio on the rugged North Antrim coast of Northern Ireland – a place where flint-studded limestone cliffs tip into the sea and a cooling flow of volcanic lava formed the hexagonal basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Andrea had been recommended to me for her in-depth knowledge of flameworking and as someone who could act as my mentor for the VAS: Inches Carr Creative Development Award – for which I’m researching traditional Italian micro-mosaic techniques for use within a contemporary context. Over the three days, we explored a range of glass, techniques and torches to hand-pull filati. The intensity of this time together enabled us to discuss our work and discover a mutual passion for the natural environments we inhabit. As we talked, I also learned more about Andrea’s personal and professional background, and began to understand how she has arrived where she is today. 

Andrea grew up in rural Hertfordshire enjoying family walking and camping holidays. Able to roam freely through fields and woodlands, she developed an early interest in observing, and being within, nature that has continued to the present day. She has a deep passion and respect for the natural world and needs to feel firmly rooted within it. Standing on the edge of a cliff, walking in the curious half-light of dawn and dusk, sea swimming, observing the flow of seaweed at the water’s edge, sifting through detritus deposited on the strand line – all these become elemental, almost visceral, experiences that powerfully inform her work.  She talks about the landscape “nourishing her soul and feeding her practice” and how it evokes profound childhood memories of comfort and joy. As she does so, it becomes clear that the internal and the external worlds are continually fused for her through direct experience – and that, it is this that drives her creative imagination.

Flotsam and Jetsam by Andrea Spencer. Photo by David Pauley.

Andrea’s professional training began at Edinburgh College of Art, where she studied Architectural Glass. She relocated to Belfast in 1993 and, having fallen in love with the people, culture and landscape, has remained in Northern Ireland ever since. Her work has always been a combination of studio practice, residencies, commissions and teaching.  She has exhibited in the UK, Europe, the USA and China, most recently at Collect, the British Glass Biennale and Made in Ireland.  She has received several awards for her work, examples of which are held in both public and private collections nationally and internationally. 

Teaching and nurturing creativity, particularly in relation to nature, observation and natural forms, are important parts of Andrea’s creative practice. She has taught in craft schools and glass facilities throughout the UK, Europe and USA including Pilchuck (USA) Bildwerk (Germany) and The Royal College of Art (UK) and holds an Artist in Residence post in Healthcare.  

In 2016, Andrea and her glass blower partner Scott Benefield created their rural live/work space nestled amongst green agricultural fields, close to the sea. The studio set-up is impressive and provides both artists with distinct, extensive and well-equipped studios. Andrea’s studio is a tranquil haven; glasswork, drawings and curated collections (a mix of found and manmade objects) sit on shelves, hang quietly on walls and are laid out on tables. All are there to be considered, to be handled, arranged and rearranged, to inform. 

Andrea Spencer creating Mermaids Purses in her studio. Photo by Conor Edgell.

This year, Andrea received funding from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs towards the development of a dedicated teaching facility at the studio – a place for students to pause, reflect, be inspired and be creative.

Andrea’s practice also draws on her work in hospital arts programmes. This enabled her to visit Queen’s University Medical School, where she passed displays of anatomical specimens suspended in glass vials and studied dissection alongside medical students.  The physical and visual correlation between anatomical and botanical forms fascinated her.  She explores this duality and ambiguity, where vascular, circulatory systems transporting blood or mineral-rich water sustain life, demonstrated in her 2015 solo show Fragile and Fugitive States of Being.  In Human Nature, the bulbous mass of the brain becomes analogous to a hydrangea mop and an accompanying lupin branch reminiscent of a spinal cord.  Mermaid’s Purses represent bodies and become vessels of presentation for encapsulated objects.  In Flotsam and Jetsam, Andrea explores the sculptural forms of desiccated and gnarled seaweed cast up on beaches and transformed by air. Her work explores the fragility and fleetingness of life, flow, connectivity and association, death and decay, and considers our place within nature and deep time.

Andrea Spencer with Human Nature. Photo by David Pauley.

Concepts are transformed into sculptural objects at the flame. Andrea works intuitively, using rods and tubes, blown glass forms, and layering colours in opaque and transparent glass, allowing heat and gravity to transform the solid mass into a flowing liquid. She enjoys the free-forming process, working with the natural properties of the glass and through skill, practice and ingenuity has learnt to manipulate the hot material to achieve the effects she desires – delicate pods, thin and crumpled textures, and writhing and sinuous fluid lines.

When cold, the glass pieces are again considered, grouped and arranged as new curated collections ready for exhibition. Sometimes the work incorporates natural objects, a dead bird, seaweed, hydrangeas, stacks of slate or seashells.  The ‘impossible delicacy’ of the material transformation becomes an exploration of the beauty and fragility of nature and what it means to be human.  

Fragile and Fugitive States of Being (detail) by Andrea Spencer. Photo by David Pauley.

From my perspective, I feel incredibly lucky that the Inches Carr award funded research with a mentor. The personal tuition I received from Andrea was instrumental in shaping my thoughts; we discussed my project aims and she devised a flamework plan. I brought a crucible and portable torch from my studio plus Venetian smalti, madretinte, and Effetre and Bullseye glass. I‘d undertaken research and made some filati prior to applying for the award, so I already had core skills that meant that our time together could be a collaborative exploration of the potential of the differing materials, techniques and torches. 

We worked hard and covered a lot of territory. I gained an in-depth grounding in flamework, material properties, tools, torches, extractors and good studio practice. I also gained a greater confidence in the practicalities of working with high-temperature flames and manipulating hot, fluid glass.  

Joanna Kessel heats glass in a crucible at Andrea Spencer’s studio. Photo by Andrea Spencer.

Beyond the workshop, the landscape was truly magnificent. Immersed in the immensity of it, I was drawn to the detail. I drew, took photographs and made notes of the rich colours, marks and forms – a blackened organic-rich limestone pebble, holes filled with white crystal-like deposits, picked up from the shore shone like a starlit night sky in my hand. My research will continue into next spring, transformations are happening and new work is beginning to emerge.

Left: Filati samples with a coastal colour palette. Right: Cliffs and turquoise sea. Photos by Joanna Kessel.

Andrea and I both enjoyed the collaborative experience and creative discussions. It fuelled a mutual enthusiasm to find a way to work together again and to explore our complementary skills and interests. Out of this grew the idea for a flamework and filati workshop informed by the wild landscape of the Causeway Coast. If you are interested in expanding your studio practice then come and join us in May 2023 for our workshop Elements of Place – Formed by Fire.

Web: andreaspencerglass.com
Instagram: @aspencerglass
Web: joannakessel.co.uk
Instagram: @joannakessel