Our art's full-blown success

Glass art in Canberra has a fairly low profile, but in the US it's the best, writes Sally Pryor.

What is Canberra best known for overseas? It depends where you go, of course, but in a pocket of Seattle in the US, Canberra has become a by-word for glass.

The art of glass, that is - that intriguing medium that evolves out of the raw elements of sand, fire and air, emerging as something delicate and beautiful, fierce and fragile all at once.

Australia has been known for the particular aesthetic of its glass artists for at least the past three decades, and Canberra in particular has been quietly building a reputation for a kind of fermentation point for glass talent, with the ANU Glass Workshop and the Canberra Glassworks churning out formidable artists and astonishing works of art.

He may have retired from teaching 20 years ago, but we have our very own glass master, Klaus Moje, to thank for Australia's burgeoning reputation overseas, and especially in Washington state.

The renowned glass artist has been a fixture here for 30 years, but before he arrived in the early 1980s to found the ANU Glass Workshop, he was invited to be a guest lecturer at Pilchuck Glass School, just outside Seattle. Back then, the eight-year-old school, founded by Dale Chihuly, was focused more on glass blowing than other techniques, and Moje shook things up when he introduced his fused glass techniques, for which he is legendary.

He was only there a few years before Canberra came calling, but his influence is still felt there today. During his first year in Canberra in 1982, when he founded the ANU Glass Workshop, he set up an exchange program with Pilchuck that involved sending students to America to share ideas and learn new techniques.


Last month, the school honoured Moje with its lifetime achievement award - the Libensky-Brychtova - presented by Chihuly himself.

At the same time, not far away, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma opened a major new exhibition, Links: Australian Glass and the Pacific Northwest, featuring the work of 21 Australian artists. No fewer than 19 of those have been through the ANU Glass Workshop, as students or staff.

The show, which is still running, is in many ways a showcase of how the Australian story has unfolded in the glass world, through different styles and techniques.

And over in Seattle, Foster/White Gallery recently staged a major solo show of works by Clare Belfrage, the creative director of the Canberra Glassworks. She says the series of events recognising Australian artists has been part of a slow-burn, building momentum over the years.

"It's not a flash-in-the-pan thing or anything that's been quick," she says.

"One of the really interesting things about Links is that it really acknowledges an incredible connection over decades, really with the Pacific North-west. There are a number of American artists in the exhibition too, and they've come to Australia several times as well. It's great recognition of the way Australian glass is held in the world."

It seems, though, that artists in the area are used to the Down Under influence, especially come summer, when Pilchuck, an internationally recognised institution that attracts students and artists from all over the world, sees its summer classes packed with Australian artists to teach or work as assistants in the workshops.

Moje says the most recent summer was particularly Australia-heavy in the number of artists arriving there.

"We always have been there as teachers, but also as technical assistants, this next level of teaching where the teachers ask for specific artists to be assistants," he says.

"It is interesting when you think about it. I don't know what kind of impact this exhibition will have, but the exhibition is not the end of the story."

Head of the ANU Glass Workshop Richard Whitely, whose work is featured in the Links show, has recently returned from a teaching stint at Pilchuck, and confirms that Canberra artists are making waves.

"A number of people have come up to me while I was there and said, 'You guys seem to have such a great and innovative culture in Canberra. How did you guys develop that?'" he says.

"I think it's hard to say, but I certainly think way back in the early 1980s, when Klaus Moje was recruited to start a glass program here in Canberra, he started it on a very different page to what had existed, particularly in North America, until that time.

"He really empowered the individual student to develop their own voice rather than just mimic other people's processes, and that tradition was continued with the [subsequent heads] of workshop Stephen Proctor, Jane Bruce and myself."

Moje is modest to a fault when it comes to his massive contribution to glass-based art, here and overseas, but admits he feels a rush of pride when he sees the waves Canberra artists are making in America.

"Both the award and the Links exhibition are very much concentrated also on my very personal achievements," he says. He can recall establishing the lasting partnership with Pilchuck back in 1982, and the excitement it has generated ever since.

"I insisted that these students were third-year students who were able to give something as well as take home from Pilchuck. So these students went over and this created a great excitement on both sides," he says. "First of all, our students had a different education than the American students, different insofar that our students are all taught very solidly in base techniques, where the American students were floating around in groups and tried to build up some knowledge."

The schools of learning complemented each other in ways that still resonate today.

But Moje suggests that Canberra is known more as a centre for glass art outside Australia than locally. "The real knowledge about Canberra and the glass workshop is out in the world," he says.

"We are seen as a main centre of glass education - glass education that has gone beyond the normal. Normal education is that you have one stream of glass education which is focusing either on glass blowing or on casting or something.

''We are a centre that has universal education because we do provide the expertise, and what we have established is a 'third leg' of glass making, with the development of the fusing techniques for which we are known worldwide. We have set the mark in glass history, contemporary history, which is seen as such all over the world. So Canberra is really seen as the place you go when you want to be educated in glass-using techniques."

Moje says the establishment of the Canberra Glassworks was a realisation of another long-held ambition when it came to education. "One of my early aims was not to just have academic education. Academic education is a fine thing and a necessary thing, but if you don't back it up with an education that is coming out of practice - the ability to do works in practice - then it's not worthwhile," he says.

"But we have made it worthwhile with this combination of the two. This is a place in Canberra on a very special level, I believe."

Whitely says the Glassworks has been essential, given the calibre of the graduates emerging from the ANU over the past three decades.

"Students were saying, 'Hey, we've got all this talent and it goes to Adelaide or it goes to Sydney or it goes overseas because there's nothing in Canberra to keep people here,'" he says.

These days, the pull to the capital for glass artists is, understandably, irresistible.