Throughout history, the medium of glass art has undergone a number of journeys, from Ancient Egypt and the East, to the stained glass windows of medieval churches, the workshops of Venice, Orrefors of Sweden, and finally the studio glass movements of America and Australia. In Australia, the movement was pioneered by people like Maureen Cahill, both in her development of key institutions and her own unique practice. The techniques and conceptual growth of other contemporary artists Tevita Havea and Rebecca Coote are worthy of note because of their innovative engagement with the medium.
Early in Maureen Cahill’s career, she established two dynamic parallel and related careers. One was the founding of key institutions such as the first glass university course in Australia, the Ranamok Glass Prize, and the Glass Artists’ Gallery. All these and more have contributed to exposure of the Australian glass community to local and international audiences, effectively putting Australia on the map. Secondly, Cahill’s arts practice showed great innovation by solving kiln-firing difficulties regarding compatibility in glass. Maureen stringently tested her materials and was the first to fuse colour panels together. This innovation was recognized in the international publication Corning Glass Review in 1976 for three separate works, highlighting the avant-garde nature of Cahill’s technical prowess. Later, Cahill took her skills into the public arena, completing permanent commissions such as her artwork Willy Willy in the House of Representatives building of Parliament House, Canberra. Recently, her works have been witty explorations of current issues like social media, commodities and materialism.
Tevita Havea is a Tongan-born artist who has been living in Australia since the age of ten. His unique work combines the traditions of his native land with the contemporary West of his adoptive country, highlighting the challenge and inevitable visual tensions between these customs. His creativity was inspired by his grandmother’s traditional craft from an early age. Havea’s practice explores these themes conceptually by using wood, string, hemp or tapa cloth as the ‘primitive’ or traditional, while the glass is the ‘urban’ or Western.
Rebecca Coote’s artworks straddle the line between design and art, focusing on architectural elements. In 2010 she was awarded an Arts Tasmania grant to create a new body of work. She focused on lighthouses, staying over a month in a variety of different locations, influencing her sculptures (which double as lights) into living embodiments of textures, patterns, colours and abstract interpretations of these buildings. The exploration of steel and glass are innovative as they define the very thing they are based on, emphasizing the quiet dominance of these lighthouse structures. They are a lasting reminder of a time passed; only changed on the inside with technology. In many ways this reflects the process of glass art, an ancient practice with a modern twist. Coote’s works innovatively play on this twist.
Maureen Cahill, Tevita Havea and Rebecca Coote all explore their medium with ease and grace that makes them unique and intriguing to follow. These three contemporary artists are but a snapshot of the talent and innovation in Australian glass.