I was honoured to sit down with Alison Kinnaird MBE and discuss the significant body of work on display as part of Colour and Light at London Glassblowing from 9 September - 1 October 2022. Much of the artwork had never been exhibited in the UK and it was a number of years since Alison had shown in London.
Together, we explored her plans for the future, her intricate techniques, influences, inspiration and complex engravings.
Can you describe how you plan your artworks? Do you begin with preliminary sketches for your engravings? If so, do you ever exhibit these?
I always do a lot of drawing – if you can’t draw it, you can’t engrave it. People can misinterpret engraving as an outline, but you have to know what is under the surface in order to create a three-dimensional effect. You’re continuously sculpting and carving, so it’s important to know how to create this effect on paper first. I don’t often exhibit my glasswork and drawings together, unless I am showcasing the development of the work. Some of my drawings are rough and experimental, whereas others are more complete. However, as you have to wash the piece several times throughout the engraving process, I will always refer back to a detailed drawing as a point of reference.
One of the fascinating aspects of engraving is you have the option to omit the detail if you want to. I love combining traditional wheel engraving with sandblasting as I like the painterly effect you can achieve. Although wheel engraving will always be my main technique, sandblasting offers a depth you cannot achieve with engraving alone. This versatility is shown significantly in Butterflies; the negative butterfly spaces are sandblasted, while the more detailed shapes are engraved and coloured with a glass paint. The transparent sandblasted butterflies create a beautiful shadow on the wall where the insects appear to be escaping from their glass collection.
I also love to carry a notebook with me when travelling. I spent a number of years in New York and used to carry a little post-it pad with me, collecting people while I was on the subway. Unlike a photograph, a sketch isn’t intrusive and people rarely even noticed – they probably thought I was writing a memo to myself! All of these little quick-fire sketches appear in Subway Photographer. Remarkably I was approached by a lady a couple of years ago who had spent time in New York and recognised her portrait within the glass. It's extraordinary when little coincidences like that happen.
You've mentioned how inspired you are by the human figure, what else are you inspired by? What messages often lies behind the medium?
I studied Celtic Studies and Archaeology at Edinburgh University so I am definitely inspired by ancient customs, civilisations and art such as cave paintings. I love the idea that you can place your hand in the same location as someone once did thousands of years ago. In partnership with this, you can’t ignore modernity and the way of the world today. I often comment on the fragility of life in times of war; one installation titled, Unknown, documented fifty-two unnamed uniformed soldiers arranged in ranks. This took a remarkable three years to complete and toured around twenty-five different venues starting in Scottish Parliament in 2014. It’s important for me to visualise when I feel strongly about an issue – we can all make something beautiful, but it’s significant when there is an underlying special quality to the work.
I also can’t ignore my Scottish heritage; obviously when you live in a place like Scotland, you are surrounded by ancient artefacts, culture and beautiful landscape. I’m also fascinated by family and relationships. Family Tree, on display at London Glassblowing, explores the complicated and tangled connection between families. Juxtaposing the modern against the ancient, I have incorporated traditional Celtic knotwork with computer circuit boards. Both metaphors symbolise a type of maze from a different era.
As well as a successful career in glass, you are also one of the foremost exponents of Scottish harp music. How does your music influence your work?
I have been involved in music all my career – glass may take over from time to time, but they often run in parallel with one another. These two passions are combined when the music directly relates to the artworks. I discovered harp notes produce sound-waves that unbelievably look just like Celtic knotwork when analysed on a computer. I completed a couple of projects showcasing the visual expression of a sound alongside the sound expression of the visual. We don’t recognise patterns as having a sound so it's fantastic to be able to play the music alongside an illustrated depiction.
As I’m involved in traditional Scottish music, people often think of tradition as an ‘old linear discipline’. However, this isn’t the case. Tradition is a moving point, offering you the opportunity to promote your own voice but with the same accent.
You have pushed your engraving far beyond traditional approaches to this art form - who are your heroes in the field, and why?
I never went to art school or had any ‘formal training’ in engraving. Rather, I met my first teacher Harold Gordon by chance when he saw my drawings and said they would translate onto glass. I went to work with him for the summer and the rest is history – I even used to sneak into Edinburgh Art College to use their facilities and equipment! As ‘hero's’, I can’t miss Jiri Hacuber, the Czech engraver who was not only unique in his approach, he really reenergised the field. You can also look further back to people such as George Woodall whose cameo engraving was absolutely astonishing.
There are a number of important and interesting people who are continuing to explore the possibilities of engraving. It’s the artist engraver who sustains glass engraving; I’m extremely proud to represent it and I love seeing what other artists achieve with the medium.
I know this is a difficult question to answer, but can you give an indication of how long it takes to complete one artwork?
This is an impossible question! I can’t even estimate an average as all my pieces are so different and independent from one another. One thing I can say is that it is completely dependent upon the size of the piece. My longest ever commission continued for four years, but this is partly because you deal with external factors such as architects and planners. It is possible to complete an engraving in a single morning, but only if it is a tiny artwork. What I tend to say is that it takes fifty years of practice!
What impact did lockdown have on you - how were you able to continue your practice?
I’m a glass engraver; I sit at my workbench all day listening to radio four, often working endlessly on one artwork. Aside from the obvious, lockdown therefore wasn’t too difficult as I was able to continue my practice as before. Up until recently the majority of my work has concentrated on the subject of the human figure but lockdown and Covid prohibited any interaction with people. Whether or not lockdown is the direct cause, I have definitely focused more on nature over the past year. Especially as we’ve all been limited to our homes; I’ve found inspiration in my garden! On display as part of Colour and Light, Honeysuckle and Wild Strawberries are two botanical studies based on plants in my own back yard.
Many artworks included in this exhibition include colour and light, which is unusual. When and how did this begin?
I began experimenting in 2002 when I was awarded a creative grant in Scotland. At this point, optical fibre was the most commonly used form of lighting and people were only just beginning to experiment with LEDs. Of course, since then, LEDs have evolved tremendously and there is a vast variety. Now I incorporate this form of lighting into many of my pieces – they're great fun to work with and you can achieve so many exciting things. Light travels in a straight line and when interrupted, such as with an engraving, it catches and illuminates the interruption as if by magic. Swan Wing is an artwork that is transformed by the use of LEDs; the feathers almost sing when they're lit up and I hope to continue engraving different feathers in the future.
Past collaborations such as flashed or overlaid blown glass, lighting and the use of technology (LEDs) etc. have brought about significant changes in your work. What major innovations or changes in direction do you foresee in the future?
I tend not to look towards the future, but rather enjoy the spontaneity of the creative process. Each new commission or artwork often leads to a new direction or way of working. For instance, when I was commissioned to create the Donor Window in the Scottish National Gallery in 2011, I was asked to engrave thirteen individual portraits of donors. Not only was this a challenging piece as the glass is built into the fabric of the building, I also had to develop a new way of double engraving (engraving on the front and back of flashed glass) to ensure the portraits stood strongly against a pale grey Scottish sky. This is also true for the Nativity Window at St Mary’s Church in Kenardington, Kent completed in 2017. With technical assistance from Derix Glasstudios in Germany, we were able to laminate double engravings onto toughened glass, producing a window that looked like stained glass but without the lead.
Traditionally, wheel engraving is only possible on smaller pieces of glass roughly 40cm in any given direction. Without these new innovations and technological advancements, I wouldn’t have been able to work on much larger artworks, further pushing the limitations of wheel engraving. Colour and Light at London Glassblowing is a varied selection of glass as I wanted to showcase the architectural potential of engraving alongside the smaller traditional pieces.
What advice have you got for future generations wishing to explore the medium of glass engraving?
There’s so much potential to advance the technique and artform of engraving and I know some people will become hooked, as I did. Wheel engraving is unfortunately on the list of endangered crafts as many colleges are sadly closing their glass departments. Although, luckily, a number of Eastern European colleges are still teaching the basics of wheel engraving; so long as you are taught the basics and principle of how to handle the equipment, you can find your own way and make the medium your own.
I would advise for students to embrace a dying art; not only is it a fantastic passport for opportunities such as travel, teaching and meeting new people, but there is always the potential to develop and flourish the medium. Although engraving certainly doesn’t have the drama of the hotshop and you have to be comfortable in your own mediative company working on a single piece for a long time, it's incredibly rewarding.
Alison Kinnaird: Colour and Light
9 – 30 September 2022
Interview Conducted by Isabel Gilchrist
Article Structure by Isabel Gilchrist