The production of glass in Aotearoa has been staggered, due to the remote geographic location and scarcity of raw material. Despite these limitations, many glass-artists have established successful practices.
By Grace Lai
There was very little manufactured in Aotearoa when the first settlers arrived - raw materials as well as finished goods had to be imported. Thus, early imports were highly valued and took on several life-cycles. Glass objects were often recycled and remade into other objects, because the raw material was so valuable.
With glass being a desired material in building, the demand for it grew as population increased. This combined with scarcity of locally skilled glass-blowers meant that what precious glass that made it into the country was constantly up-cycled. Re-melted by small-scale operators, the glass was supplied to local cottage industries to make lamp chimneys and windows, or recycled by local breweries to bottle beer. Glass in the early 19th century lived practical and multiple lives.
In 1922, to fill the gap in the local manufacturing market, the Australian Glass Manufacturers' Company opened a plant in Penrose, near Auckland. With them came skilled workers and resources, including furnaces and machinery able to handle mass production. This built up local knowledge of glass making, one rooted in industry. However, in the cross-over between the decline of the glass industry and spread of an 'anti-industrial' sentiment following World War II, a number of individual studios emerged. Without mentors or set instructions, early glass makers had to solved problems of small-scale production through improvisation and trial-and-error.
Considered to be the first glass artist in New Zealand, Englishman Reg Kempton (1897 - 1987) is the forefather of homegrown glass art. Immigrating to the Marlbourough Sounds in 1963, Kempton set up a studio and churned out hundreds of glass works from his oil-and-coke-fired kiln. His knowledge of glass came from having worked, since the age of fifteen, at his family-owned glass factory in London. However, without a large team, he relied on his wife Ellen Kempton to assist his work. She was the "punty boy" to his "gaffer" - and also helped him market his work, which sold from Auckland to Dunedin.
The seventies saw a burgeoning number of local artists working with glass; this new wave of glass artists were trained at art-school, rather than in glass-works. Keith Mahy (b. 1947) graduated with a Diploma in sculpture and design from Elam School of Fine Arts in 1970 before beginning to design products for the Crown Crystal Glass Company, which included award-winning ranges, Anker (1970) and Aragon (1971). In 1975, after half a decade of designing, Mahy left to pursue his interest in the material by setting up a studio in Otonga, Northland. A year later, John Croucher (b. 1948), following his experimentation in glass, with only a book on American glass making as a guide, set up Sunbeam Glassworks on a Queen Elizabeth II Council Grant. A co-op of several makers, Sunbeam enabled Croucher to experiment his personal exploration of blown glass, which at that time he believed himself to be the only one working in that medium in the country. This was changed when Croucher visited Tony Kupfer, who taught and blew glass from his studio in Inglewood, Taranaki.
American born Kuepfer (b. 1947) trained at Portland State University before immigrating to New Zealand in 1973 where he converted an old church into a studio and showroom a year after his arrival. Kuepfer was a pioneer not only in his use of natural glass in glass blowing, making sinuous and delicate vessels, but through his teaching that inspired and stimulated later glass artists. It is the net of connections he cast on other glass artists, both local and international, that sets him apart from other early makers working with glass. Although Kempton claimed he taught glass to over a hundred people, he was unknown to other glass makers across the country.
The sense of community Kuepfer, and Croucher, built through their teaching and co-ops, provides a turning point for New Zealand studio glass as a movement. Kuepfer's Inglewood studio was the base for many fledging studio glass artists, including John Leggott (b. 1957), who would later form Gaffer Coloured Glass in 1993 with John Croucher. They are now a major international supplier of coloured lead-crystal glass for artists. Coucher's Sunbeam glass-works attracted glass makers, including Gary Nash (b. 1955) and Ann Robinson (b. 1944) who became business partners in the 1980s. Although Nash carried on the tradition of glass blowing, Robinson is known for her mastery of cast-glass seeded within a local aesthetic. Croucher's Sunbeam glass-works attracted glass makers, including Gary Nash (b. 1955) and Ann Robinson (b. 1944) who became business partners in the 1980s. Although Nash carried on the tradition of glass blowing, Robinson is known for her mastery of cast-glass seeded within a local aesthetic.
Robinson initially majored in metalwork and sculpture. In 1980, she returned to Elam, this time she graduated with a Diploma in Art, which included skills in glass blowing. After leaving school and departing from Sunbeam, she begun pushing her knowledge of lost-wax casting, traditionally reserved for bronzes, but using glass instead. No teachers taught lost-wax glass casting, so Robinson's initial experimentations yielded mixed results as she pioneered her own processes. She overcame obstacles through persistence and innovation that has gained her an international reputation, becoming a doyenne of the genre. Drawing inspiration from her surrounding environment, the landscape of Aotearoa, Robinson's large glass forms evoke objects found along the coast or forest canopies. The hues Robinson selects mimic the natural environment around her, tones such as paua and nikau are embedded within her works.
Building a Community
The inclusion of glass blowing within art school curriculum represented a shift in the formalisation of the medium as a creative medium, one that Mel Simpson (b. 1948), facilitated. Simpson, started with a degree in Fine Arts from Elam before going on to train glass-blowing at the University of California, Los Angeles. He would later return to teach at Elam, setting up a glass studio and program using funds from a Queen Elizabeth II Council grant. The availability of training in glass at art schools, meant that local artists, including Robinson and later Peter Raos (b. 1957) now had comparable access to those, like Kuepfer and Simpson, who were internationally trained. Beyond education, Simpson contributed to the promotion of homegrown studio glass through founding the New Zealand Society of Artists in Glass (NZSAG).
Established in 1980, the goal of NZSAG was to promote and advance the artistry of glass in the country through education and workshops. Through the society, members, whether self-taught or formally trained, could learn new skills through demonstrations by local glass artists. Perhaps more importantly, the society was able to invite internationally acclaimed glass masters who imparted valuable expertise, technology, passion and vision for the medium - often with a lasting impact. One visiting international artist was Richard ‘Dick’ Marquis (b.1945), a pioneering American glass artist in the Italian tradition. Marquis is one of the first Americans to have trained in a Venetian glass factory, after receiving a training fellowship, where he learnt the cane and murrine technique. This method of glass blowing was previously unknown by studio glass artists in New Zealand, and came to inspire a number of makers, including Stephen Bradbourne (b. 1969).
Formally trained in ceramics, Bradbourne begun his journey into glass after graduation under the tutelage of Nash, and was introduced to the murrine technique after partaking in a workshop held by Marquis. This skill continues to dominate his works as seen in his solo exhibition, Redux: 25 Years of Glass by Stephen Bradbourne at Masterworks Gallery in 2017, which showcased pieces based on the murine technique. Like Robinson, Bradbourne is inspired by the landscape around him, not surprising when his studio looks out a verdant sub-tropical garden, but his interpretation is more abstract. His pieces draw on his imaginings of the skeletal structure or patterns of plants, a nod to botanical specimens collected and presented in containers in science.
Alongside his artistic practice, Bradbourne, along with his business partner Isaac Katzoff, also a glass artist, expanded into commercial production through their workshop Monmouth Glass Studios. Following a large scale fit out of local restaurant Ortolana with 150 hand-blown lighting domes in 2016, the pair have received an increased demand for their bespoke lighting fixtures, and their expanding range of homeware has a growing fan base. In July 2019, Bradbourne and Katzoff opened their first retail store in Grey Lynn, Auckland. Framed within the history of glass making in New Zealand, the commercial side of Monmouth Glass Studios appears as a nod towards the manufacturing origins of the medium in the country, and with it similar concerns. In an interview with Urbis on the eve of their retail store opening, Katzoff reflects that “there’s a real shortage of glass blowers in New Zealand, especially of people who are learning to blow glass.” However, unlike the isolation of yesteryears, it appears that the solution is already at hand. Monthmouth, in the community, offers workshops and studio time for aspiring and established glass artists.
Towards the Local
In the early years, local glass artists had to rely on their own ingenuity or independently seek out experienced mentors to develop their own practice. Artists that followed had options to learn through apprenticeships or gain formal training at art schools at a local level. Connecting practitioners from all different backgrounds, from practitioners who are self-taught, art school trained or acquired their knowledge through apprenticeships, the society NZSAG has built a community that is ever more connected. The limitation in material and knowledge that local glass workers originally faced is no longer an issue, positioning New Zealand Studio Glass on the path towards the next phase of creation and innovation.
Header image: John Croucher / Sunbeam Glassworks. Glass bowl (1988). Sandblasted and etched glass. All Rights Reserved. Auckland Museum,