Fabulous fusion

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Pictured above: Synergy Series I by Cathryn-Shilling. Photo by Ester Segarra.jpg

Fused glass is the heat bonding of separate pieces of glass in a kiln – a technique believed to be over 4,000 years old. More accessible than hot glass, there are hundreds of ways an artist can create diverse pieces using this method. Small wonder that it has become so popular. Catherine Rose meets two experts.

Written & narrated by Catherine Rose

Listen to Catherine narrate her article:

When glass artist Jo Downs went to study at Sunderland University with its famous hot shop, she was actually hooked on ceramics. 

“A tutor on my foundation course had suggested I try glass,” she says. “I wasn’t convinced but I found a course that covered both.”

Jo tried all kinds of glass working techniques including blown glass, but she was still unsure it was the direction she wanted to go in. “Kiln formed glass wasn’t really out there as a process at that time” she says. 

Jo Downs designing

One day, a visiting lecturer talked about the fused glass method using a kiln and Jo decided to try it. “I put some glass into the kiln and it came out as a blob,” Jo laughs. “But it was absolutely fascinating and I thought, ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life!’”

She bought a small top-loading kiln and set it up in her bedroom, learning to use it through research and experimentation. Shortly after graduating, she relocated to Germany as a guest artist at Stuttgart Academy. While there, she set up Jo Downs Glass. 

About Jo Downs
Jo Downs is one of the world’s most respected fused glass designers. Following an Art Foundation course at Leicester University, Jo graduated from the University of Sunderland with Design in Glass and Ceramics. She subsequently had work placements with Mike Davies, Galia Amsel and Rebecca Newnham. Jo set up her first glass-working studio in London in 1996. Using advanced fusion techniques, she creates abstract 3D designs for statement pieces from wall panels to architectural projects. She has earned commissions from cruise liners, churches, hotels, hospitals, public gardens and corporate headquarters as well as hundreds of private commissions. Working out of her Cornwall studio, Jo’s work draws inspiration from coastal landscapes.

In 2001, Jo returned to the UK, settling in Cornwall where she has remained, expanding both her practice and galleries over the past 20 years. Today, she is hugely commercially successful, making smaller affordable commissions for organisations like the National Trust and John Lewis, alongside producing her own large, bespoke installations.

Shoreline by Jo Downs

Fused glass has many crossovers with mosaic working as you are working with small pieces. 

“I tried mosaic on my foundation course,” says Jo. “What I do now is definitely similar in that I take individual pieces of glass to produce a design but then I fuse them together. You could easily combine both. I’ve also done leaded glass with fused inclusions, which is a little like a mosaic.”

Jo enjoyed working with stained glass at college but found it visually limiting because of the lead lines. Instead, she wanted to create large organic images that had texture. Fused glass was the medium that helped her achieve it and rising to a challenge has always been Jo’s forte.

Dragon House Installation by Jo Downs

“I was told I couldn’t make large picture windows without leading so I bought a 2m by 1.5m kiln and created a fused glass panel. I’ve now done a few windows,” she says.

Jo’s commissions include some large pieces for Fulham Methodist Church and windows in private homes. She has also created atrium ceilings for P&O cruise liners. For their ships Arcadia and Ventura, she designed 104 glass panels over 11 metres which had to be laminated onto toughened glass. 

“When you’re working to that size, you never get to see the whole thing until it is put together,” she says. 

Seaward Installation by Jo Downs

Nonetheless, creating large pieces is her passion. “Fused glass is a medium which enhances light and colour, so the bigger the piece, the more spectacular the results,” Jo says. She still loves to create the many one-off pieces for her galleries but feels the rewards are amplified for larger projects. She concedes, however, that the latter can be challenging as they often involve working with contractors, which means mistakes like mismeasurements or breakages are out of her control.

“One of the first windows I made was in a new build house in Germany. It was a 5x2m installation using eight double-glazed panels, one of which the glazers accidentally cracked. For another – a quintic – a fitter broke a panel so I had to remake the whole commission as the five panels together were one installation.”

Autumn Leaves Cascade (detail) by Jo Downs

Jo now tends to make large installations out of smaller individual pieces so that if one breaks, it can be more easily replaced. She has just done a shoaling fish panel for a cruise liner in Finland with 162 separate fish. One of her recognisable motifs, Jo’s shoaling fish design came out of a commission inside a barn conversion. The client wanted a 3x4m fused glass panel above a doorway. Jo was concerned about having a heavy panel above an entrance and was also challenged by its asymmetrical beams. To overcome the problem, she designed 100 individual fish which she made into a circular shoal, mounted on bespoke scaffolding.

“When I was making them at the studio, everyone wanted one” she recalls. A marine biology company subsequently commissioned an installation for their head office. One of her favourite designs, she now makes her shoaling fish in many different sizes to suit all budgets.

Jo often adds other materials to her fused glass, having used silver (which becomes yellow in the kiln), copper leaf, brass, tin foil (which turns black), and even bicarbonate of soda to create bubbles.

Artisan Vase by Jo Downs

She has recently started making chandeliers and has branched out further into offering studio tutorials.

Ever conscious of her small beginnings, Jo still has a little workshop in her garden for experimentation, which she likens to the kiln in her bedroom all those years ago.

“It was never my intention to grow this big,” she says. “I now have 37 people working for me, seven galleries, and five fused glassmakers as my production team. I also have people who do my marketing and finance. I am in a very privileged position.”

But she does acknowledge that it has come out of years of hard dedication.

All photos of Jo Downs’s glass are courtesy of the artist.

Jo Downs’s top tip for artists 
“If someone tells you can’t do something, try it anyway! Experimentation is key. You will have disappointments along the way but it’s a journey. Enjoy it!”

Web: jodowns.com
Instagram: @jodownsglass

Glass artist Cathryn Shilling describes kiln-formed glass as “the perfect medium”. However, with a background in hot glass, her ideal is to combine both. 

After a spinal tumour in 2011 put an end to her glass blowing, Cathryn continued designing and kiln forming in her studio while working directly with hot shop artists such as Louis Thompson, James Devereux and Katie Huskie (of Devereux Huskie Studio) to fully realise her visions. It is a marriage that succeeds for her.

Cathryn Shilling. Photo by Anthony Scala

One of Cathryn’s trademarks is that she can make glass resemble flowing fabric, something she was inspired to try while a student.

“Early on in my fused glass course, I saw an exhibition at the V&A by Sue Lawty, then a textile artist in residence. She had done a little case of test pieces using sticks and strips of lead. It was absolutely beautiful work and I wondered if you could weave glass. I went back to the studio to experiment.” 

About Cathryn Shilling
Cathryn Shilling is a glass artist, living and working in London. After graduating in Graphic Design from the Central School of Art and Design in London, Cathryn worked as a designer until a move to the USA in 2001 prompted her to pursue a new direction. She studied the Art and Craft of Stained Glass in Connecticut and then on her return to London in 2004 was introduced to kiln-formed glass at Kensington and Chelsea College, as well as becoming a student of blown glass at Peter Layton’s London Glassblowing Studio. In 2009, she began her professional practice in a studio near her home in London. She was London Glassblowing Gallery’s curator from 2010 – 2019 and is a member of the Art Workers Guild and a Fellow of the Society of Designer Craftsmen. Cathryn’s work has been widely exhibited internationally and she has won numerous awards. She has also been shortlisted as one of ‘the most game-changing female glass artists’ by Glassation.

Using fused glass canes, Cathryn produced ‘woven’ glass in tartan designs, sewing small 10cm squares together with wire to make a “glass quilt”. She then made a light shade using hundreds of squares. Since then, Cathryn has moved on to producing standing forms, which have become increasingly figurative. She mainly uses Bullseye stringers for her work, some of which are only 1mm thick. 

Cathryn uses “a painstaking process” to bring each strand together. She then fuses them in the kiln until they resemble sheets of woven fabric. The sheets are subsequently re-fired and shaped by slumping – moulding, bending or draping the glass to become three-dimensional artworks, ranging from free-standing sculptures to bowls. 

Cloaked – The Women of Troy by Cathryn Shilling. Photo by Ester Segarra

There is a strong sense of movement in all of Cathryn’s pieces. A recent body of work, Cloaked – The Women of Troy, comprises free-blown glass figures that are draped with kiln-formed glass fabric applied hot. 

“Clothing conveys so many things,” says Cathryn. “Not only does it protect against the elements, but it also broadcasts your identity within society, as well as reflecting your mood and emotional situation. My pieces explore these themes and the associated misconceptions and judgments that we’re all guilty of making.”

For Cloaked, Cathryn used the traditional Venetian roll-up technique innovatively, inverting the process so that it occurs at the final stage (a method devised by Australian glass artist Scott Chaseling). The pre-heated glass fabric is picked up onto a finished blown glass form and put into the glory hole. Heat and gravity shape the ‘cloth’ serendipitously, enrobing the figure with fluidity and spontaneity.

The Path We Follow by Cathryn Shilling. Photo by Agata Pec

“I enjoy the interplay between kiln-formed glass and blown glass and the roll-up technique allows me to explore this,” explains Cathryn. “The vessels are made from pre-fused glass sheets that are picked up hot, rolled and hand blown. This technique allows me to create three-dimensional objects with a greater level of control and design than can usually be achieved in a hot shop.”

For her Synergy series, Cathryn wanted sculptures that were “a suggestion of fabric being blown gently against a figurative form”, using colour and light to give a sense of movement. Three pieces from Synergy Series I will be exhibited in Sur le Fils at MusVerre, Sars Poterie, France from 11 February to 20 August 2023; while Synergy Series III will be exhibited in the TARTAN exhibition at the new V&A Dundee from 1 April 2023 to 14 January 2024.

Cathryn is drawn to the idea of kinesis and body language, something she has explored further in her separate series of works Metamorphosis (which uses gold), Dissonance, and Hidden Gestures – a solo show at Vessel Gallery, London in 2019 to commemorate her ten years of professional practice.

Pandora’s Jar by Cathryn Shilling. Photo by Agata Pec

“I approach each project as a graphic designer, deciding on the best techniques for each,” says Cathryn. For one of her artworks, The Path We Follow, Cathryn found mosaic was the best way of interpreting her idea.

An environmental comment, the artwork illustrates global warming across Europe using observed data. The installation is in two parts: a mosaic visualises the temperature change across Europe from 1975-2020, while blown vessels represent an assembly of European nations, each displaying a rise in temperature over 80 years. The work’s message is that by acting now, we can follow a new temperature path to a sustainable future.

At this year’s Glass Art Society Conference in Tacoma, Cathryn did a demonstration alongside glassblower and artist Louis Thompson entitled Shrouded in Myth – An Innovative Approach to Combining Kiln-Formed and Blown Glass. For this, she conceived Pandora’s Jar, which corrects a mistranslation in the Ancient Greek myth. Pandora originally came to Earth with a pithos (‘jar’ in Ancient Greek). This was subsequently miswritten as pyxis (‘box’) in a translation by Erasmus in the 1600s, hence the Pandora’s Box we are all familiar with.

When Pandora released evil into the world, hope was caught in the lip of the jar. Cathryn recreated the concept of Pandora’s jar in glass but inverted the story so that the jar releases hope and retains evil. Hope is something that resonates with her as a disabled artist.

“Disabled people are often overlooked in the world of glass,” she says. “But I have found a way of being actively involved in one of the most physically demanding crafts there is. Being disabled doesn’t have to limit your ideas or your practice.”

Asked what she thinks is the best aspect of working with fused glass, she says, “Working with [kiln-formed] glass is very meditative. It’s what I love most about it.”

Cathryn Shilling’s top tip for artists 
“Test, test, test. Learn your kiln and try ideas out at different temperatures. Don’t be afraid to do something different.”

Web: cathrynshilling.co.uk
Instagram: @cathrynshilling