I had the pleasure of sitting down with renowned animator and glassmaker, Philip Vallentin. Known for his humorous and quirky animation style, Philip has been enamoured with glass for the past sixteen years. Within this article, I delve deeper into his influences, techniques and future plans.
Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself to get started?
“Where to begin? I’m an animator from Canada who first came to London for work in the 1980’s. I always knew that I wanted to be a director and animator, and London in the 80’s was the place to be. All of my friends at the time were working on ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ with Steven Spielberg but I knew that I didn’t want to work in a giant studio. Having previously worked in Asia on one project with a thousand other people, I knew I wanted to work in a small studio focused on commercials.
Being a generalist who likes seeing the whole picture, ads were very appealing to me as I love their super short format. They are different from a feature film as you work on one task for the entire duration of the project. I liked doing the small tasks, meeting clients and working on one piece for a couple of months, rather than over a year. I’ve worked on hundreds of advertisements with my own studio, Espresso Animation, for twenty years, including Tony the Tiger from Frosties and Coco the monkey from Coco Pops. I now teach animation at the University of Hertfordshire.”
When and how did you first discover glass?
“I discovered glass in around the year 2000, when my sister and I visited the V&A to see Dale Chihulys Rotunda chandelier. I walked around the exhibition with my jaw on the floor and completely immersed myself in his work. However, it wasn’t until I saw Chihuly’s solo exhibition at Kew Gardens in 2005 that I was hooked and had to know how his sculptures were created. From there, I booked my first session at London Glassblowing with Anthony Scala for a one-day class. I would say I am a classic glass story – the first time I blew a bubble, my heart was transported to an otherworldly place outside of my ordinary life.
After that one day, I was blowing glass every chance I got. Eventually, I bought a small starter lampworking kit after 3 years of blowing and experimenting, which by that stage I had blown at least £10,000 worth of glass. Different to blowing, lampworking uses a torch or lamp to melt the glass. Once in a molten state, the glass is formed by blowing and shaping with tools and hand movements.
Of course, scale is a problem; it is extremely difficult to make a weightier sculpture. Even now, I struggle to form anything larger than my animals. At home, I have a simple set up of an oxygen generator, a small beading kiln, a propane tank and a torch called a minor burner. My flame is not large enough to easily blow on the torch and I can only fit a maximum of seven sculptures in the kiln at one time.”
I love that you describe glass as transcendent. It’s definitely a charming and seductive medium that you immediately fall in love with. We’ve briefly spoken about your career in animation, how much does this influence your glass work?
“For sure my animation and glass work go hand in hand. Animation is a high-end craft; you are building a cathedral and your job is to do the grouting in the corner. You are in control and responsible for the outcome – you have to be inventive whilst simultaneously directing the viewers’ attention to the right place on the screen. Glasswork is different as there is a moment where you can relinquish control in a way that cannot be done with animation. You could be in complete control for thirty minutes, give the power to the glass for a few moments and then reharness at the end. These can be the most fun times, a doodling spontaneity where I don’t necessarily have to adhere to a brief. I don’t mind if the colours tarnish or if the glass looks rusty or bubbles – sometimes it suits the piece.
When I first started to blow, I would draw my designs on the floor of the studio for many of my glass artworks. Nowadays, I draw sketches for entire new works of art or designs that I haven’t completed in a long time. You often need to think ahead to calculate how each individual piece will fit together, so my doodles help me understand the procedure. I’m currently in the middle of making a dodo for a friend of mine and I’m trying to solve it in a different way than I normally would, so I’m definitely sketching designs as I go. Otherwise, I have a stock range of designs in my head that I love to immediately get going on.”
You mention that you’re currently working on a dodo, why is so much of your glass work dedicated to depicting birds and animals?
“I think they lend themselves to the medium of glass. I’ve tried to make people’s heads in an exaggerated and semirealistic way, but I don’t have an affinity to tell a story with people. My whole life has been devoted to doodling anthropomorphic creatures… I love making fish, but people don’t like fish as much as birds because we can’t communicate with them. Birds are a perfect metaphor for people because we can resonate with them – I can tackle important issues in a simplistic and effective way. For example, one artwork I did had eight birds mounted on a branch, but the eighth bird looked slightly different from the rest. I’m subtly hinting to give this little guy a break, let him be part of the group and be a better person.
While I largely create birds, I am always trying to learn and work towards other animals. Anything with eight legs is very difficult to make. A masterclass with the incredible Lucio Bubacco gave me the confidence to try and make spiders, and a workshop with the talented Wesley Fleming boosted my confidence to tackle insects. However, unlike Wesley I’ve never tried to make my creations look realistic. They may appear lifelike, but they’re goofy and comedic.”
It’s exciting to hear that there may be more animals in the pipeline. Roughly how long does each individual sculpture take? Can we hope to see more birds in the run-up to Christmas?
“For my smaller decorations, the ideal length of time for me to work with the glass is between thirty and forty minutes. Beyond that, I know there will probably be too much glass or it’s too complicated of a design – especially when managing the external and internal temperature of different colours. If I am making a hanging ornament, it is a lengthier process as I use memory wire. It’s a beautiful, high-carbon metal, but also a pain in the neck because it’s an argument to bend.
For my larger sculptures, it can easily take a week’s worth of work (or longer) until I am happy with the design. It’s a fussy process to combine the glass components and mount them onto wood. I also have to make sure that the glass artworks suit the final design. It’s particularly important to me that the animals do not look as if they are in pain, especially when they are hanging decoratively. You can’t beat a nice piece of wood and I gear towards linking glass and wood together. Maybe in the future I will create sculptures that are solely made of glass.
With Christmas, I will make many of the same things repeatedly, although I don’t think I can easily make two things that are identical. I can only place them within their series. In saying that, there’s no way I’m going to make thirty robins, so invariably there will be rogue and interesting new designs for Christmas. Of course, there will be some robins and polar bears but also some new quirky characters. Sometimes I don’t continue to make projects after once or twice. I haven’t made something that moves for a while, so definitely something to look out for in the future.”
We would love to welcome you to London Glassblowing where Philip’s stunning work will be on display as part of our Christmas 2023 exhibition.
Interview Conducted by Isabel Gilchrist
Article Constructed by Isabel Gilchrist