Portrait

A visit to the studio of glass sculptor Emma Camden. By Romy Ash.

Glass artist Emma Camden

I watch Emma Camden through her studio window. She’s water blasting and she looks fit for a storm: bright yellow plastic pants and coat, gumboots, a face mask and industrial green gloves that reach above her elbows. When she’s finished she carefully sloughs off this protective skin and clocks me. “Is it one o’clock already?” she asks, running her hands through faded pink hair. “Sorry, I should have dressed up.”

We’re in her studio/home, an imposing two-storey building with an entrance framed by cabbage trees, a native that grows prolifically here in Whanganui, on the North Island of New Zealand. This grand entrance is interrupted by the domestic. Washing dries in the sun, a huge ginger cat drapes across the doorway. It’s the old Masonic lodge, bought by Camden for a song 18 years ago.   

Camden is a glass artist, but the work she does is more akin to bronze casting than glassblowing. Like bronze casting, she uses a “lost wax process”. “Anything I can make with wax, I can turn into glass,” she says. “I’m known for all my angles and a lot of glass people don’t do angles because they think in the round. Glass blowing is …” She makes a rolling motion. Her work has a heaviness to it; usually large, it looks almost geological. Here in her studio she rubs the dust off one of her pieces to reveal the shine beneath.

“I was just always hampered with the hot glass because I really wanted to make more sculpturally inclined pieces,” she says, motioning with her hands a physicality that would be impossible with the heat of liquid glass.

She shows me where she works the wax. “Feel this,” she says. I lay my hand on a piece of sheet wax that’s been poured into a mould. It’s smooth, warm and the colour of white skin.

“Now, this can be basically whatever I want,” she says. She pulls the sheet of wax out of the mould – it’s about one metre by one metre – and slaps it down on the bench. “At this stage it’s malleable.” Beside her is the beginning of a 3D construction. “People don’t see this,” she gestures to the internal structure that’s holding the wax together. “This will be solid glass.”

She grabs a metal ruler and a waxy old knife and cuts a shape by eye. “I know what I want,” she says, “but if it doesn’t work, it’s very easy to just put it back in the pot and start again.” She points to a pot of molten wax on a slow-burning stove.

A collection of hulking kilns fill a corner of the room, framed by a wall of chopped wood ready for the fire. She shows me the raw material, the glass that will be melted in the kiln and drip into the mould she’s made around the wax, the wax disappearing in the process. The glass fills a towering shelf, there are boxes of it, labelled by colour: light yellow, pale emerald green, fuchsia, cobalt blue. She hands me a half-sphere, the colour of topaz, that’s heavy and cool in my hand.

The second floor is her home. We walk past bedrooms and into a room where our voices echo. Along the edges of the blue and gold ceiling are words in relief: wisdom, strength, brother, truth, honour, faith, home, charity. In the centre is a gold star punctuated with the letter “G”, and on the floor beneath it is what she calls the “ceremonial carpet”, a tiled section with a matching G. She says it stands for Greater God but she makes a joke about it now being G for Glass. “Women weren’t allowed up here,” she says with a wicked smile.

There’s not much in the room – a freestanding hammock and a television made tiny with the scale of it all – but built against one wall is a skate ramp, a present to Camden from her partner on her 50th birthday. The ramp suits the room – it’s made of shining wood and large enough to seem just right. 

When Camden, who’s English, first came to New Zealand, she “fell in with a lady called Ann Robinson. She does the most beautiful cast glass bowls on a monumental scale. She’s one of the few people in the world who can pull off these incredibly large pieces. Most people do small castings, but I was exposed to this lady who was actually breaking significant technological ground in our field.” Camden says she always wants to make bigger work but is constrained by the size of her kiln and her body.

The last process of glass casting is a hydrochloric acid bath and she explains you have to lift the sculpture in and out of the acid. “I can probably max out at 35 kilograms that I can safely lift in and out – I’ve done bigger work – 50 kilograms is the biggest but it was a very simple shape. You have to think, ‘Yes, I can actually fit my hand here and lever this piece up against my body.’ ” She holds out her arms.

“The older you get, the more scars you get – the silica – if you get cut and work down there with silica and plaster you tend to get more scarred. It’s the atmosphere – you have marks.” She shows me the backs of her forearms, and they’re white with scars.

“Glass is hard,” she says, with a shake of her head.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Art of glass". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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