It's a given that artists, throughout the ages, have been inspired by their surroundings, natural or otherwise. But what if your environment, your local community, included a couple of suburbs-full of foreign diplomatic missions, many of which came with their own art collections and centuries-old traditions?
It's an opportunity that was too good to miss for the Canberra Glassworks, which has paired eight artists with eight different embassies, with the aim of producing a body of work linking the different cultures with modern techniques. The resulting exhibition, which opens next week, is as eclectic as the eight countries represented – France, Italy, Malta, Japan, America, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Finland.
Curator Ivana Jirasek, who has a long association with the contemporary glass community, says matching the right artist with the right mission was her biggest challenge. Once she had decided on the exhibition structure – one artist per country – she canvassed the local and national community for the best fit.
"I was looking at perhaps the technical strengths in glassmaking of each of those countries, and was looking at artists who were either working in that vein, or that had an aesthetic, a cultural kind of predisposition to work with that culture," she says.
Fortunately, inspiration and reference points are pleasingly fluid when it comes to long cultural traditions of glass – even those that are relatively young, such as the US and even the 20th century glass renaissance in Malta. It soon became clear to Jirasek that certain artists were made for such pairings, even if they didn't know it yet.
Recent ANU School of Art graduate Hannah Gason had been working for some time with the technique of pate-de-verre, which translates directly as "glass paste", and looks like coloured sugar that would melt in one's mouth.
"It had its revival in France during the Art Nouveau and the Art Deco [periods], with Lalique and a whole suite of other artists who are exploring the pate-de-verre style," says Jirasek.
"It's a very nice connection for France to have, but she's not only using the pate-de-verre style, she's done the research to see how the technique was initially applied in windows."
Gason has been inspired by the artist early 20th-century artist Francois Decorchemont, who used pate-de-verre in stained glass windows.
"Decorchemont fused chunks of glass together to create large windows with colourful facets, which generated a vibrant interaction with light," Gason says in her artist statement. She has created her own stylised window, made of floating fragments attached to a metal frame, combined with "architectonic forms" inspired by the Australian landscape.
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of artists and their oeuvre, glass master Klaus Moje – still a towering figure in the local, national and international scene – has taken on America as his natural fit, although, as Jirasek points out, his work is so diverse that he could have been paired convincingly with any one of the eight countries.
The German-born artist, who founded the School of Art Glass Workshop here in Canberra, has many facets to his career, but one of his longest associations has been with the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State. He was invited to be a guest lecturer there back in 1979, when he introduced the school to his recent works in fused glass – a revelation for a tradition defined by glassblowing. One of the students there at the time was Boyce Lundstrom, a partner in the Oregon-based Bullseye Glass Company, which would go on to develop a glass specifically for fusing.
"They've essentially enabled the compatibility of different colours in such a way that the palette is much more diverse than it ever was previously, and Klaus has maintained that relationship with Bullseye on an ongoing basis ever since," says Jirasek.
"He's a very natural partner for the US Embassy, and he really pushed the technical ability of that fused glass technique that is so refined, and took it from what were quite flat forms into three-dimensional forms, for which Australia really has a huge part in helping develop."
Another natural fit, at least from Jirasek's point of view, has been the work of Canberra artist Elizabeth Kelly with the Finnish Embassy. Her work is essentially driven by industrial design, with a passion for how glass products are produced, and thus her work for this show "references the strong design idiom of the Finnish glass".
For the exhibition, she has responded to two signature Finnish works – Alvar Aalto's Savoy vase and Aino Aalto's Bolgeblick tumblers – both designed and manufactured in the 1930s – and created her own Ana vase.
"It's very much a Finnish model but she doesn't have the benefit of the great industrial partnerships that Finland has – she does everything on her own," says Jirasek. Kelly has created and blown a mould to make a prototype set of tableware – a project that took five weeks, from initial design to polishing the lips of the vessels, which in turn reference the curves of the Martin Boyd Pottery of Sydney in the 1950s.
"I'm very interested in a model of the Finnish (and European) glass industry that separates design from production, and invests a great deal of time and capital to bring the product to market, thereby cultivating a national design identity," Kelly says.
Meanwhile, Sydney artists Ben Edols and Kathy Elliott – partners in glass and life – have long been recognised for their interpretation of Italian techniques of glass-blowing – blown by Edols and reworked with surface decoration by Elliott. They are particularly inspired by the designers of the Venini Factory that was set up in the 1920s in Italy, a tradition that revived several older Venetian forms.
"We take these skills and without the burden of European history we have been free to find fresh ways to use the combination of hot and cold techniques," Elliott says in their artist statement.
Also benefiting from old Venetian techniques, Adelaide artist Andrew Baldwin was inspired by stories of lace-making in Malta, a country that also has its own long tradition of glassmaking.
"It was just such a nice connection with a particular style of glassmaking that he had," says Jirasek.
"In some ways, you could say that that lattice work is a Venetian-style technique, and Malta and Italy are not that far away from each other, so it's not impossible to imagine the sharing of techniques in the region."
For the show, Baldwin has created three vessels to symbolise the islands of Malta, in lattice work. While the High Commission in Canberra did not initially have any examples of traditional Maltese glasswork in its collection, it had several pieces made by leading glass manufacturers and shipped over for Baldwin to reference in his own work.
Having grown up in the former Czechoslovakia, Jirasek says the body of work that is particularly close to her heart is by Melbourne artist Lienors Torre, paired with the Embassy of the Czech Republic. She spent her first year out of art school in 1991 in the Czech Republic, learning to engrave glass and walking each morning through the fairytale landscape – literally the setting for many well-known children's stories involving forests and glades.
"This work references this period and extends it into the fairytales of my childhood in Canberra," she says.
Collaborating with Edols, who blew some glass goblets for her, she has engraved them with motifs that reference her experience in the atmospheric forests – birds and fairy-tale figures mobbing between woodland and Australian oceans.
Meanwhile, Canberran Helen Aitken-Kuhnen was a perfect fit for Japan, with a spare and serene style that harks back to the glowing red enamel jewel box that forms part of the embassy's collection here. She has studied enamelling in Japan – a different kind of glasswork – and has been working with enamel and glass for the more than 30 years.
"Helen is producing three wishing bowls - very serene cast bowls that have little flecks of metallic sheen through them, so they have a slight kind of glitter within, quite reflective and contemplative pieces," says Jirasek.
And, finally, Queanbeyan artist Erin Conran has taken on Belgium, a place she has never visited, nor are there any example of Belgian glass in the embassy's collection.
"Belgium has a very eclectic tradition of glassmaking - they really cover a lot of the many styles that other countries represent. What I felt was probably going to work in the case of Belgium was for the artist to respond somehow to the cultural influence," says Jirasek.
Conran has found inspiration from all over the place - images, books, conversations, art and imaginings.
"It is the home of Flanders Fields, the original red poppy of peace that Australians are so familiar with," she says.
"It is this red poppy that first resonated with me as a familiar motif, and its petal shape and line details have formed the basis for the abstracted linear patterns in this body of work."
Like many of the artists in this project, Conron has had the benefit of close consultation with members of the diplomatic missions to provide feedback.
"I know that many of the embassies, I'd say the majority, were able to come and see the artists' work at Canberra Glassworks and the making of the pieces," Jirasek says.
"Interestingly, when he saw Lienors Torre and Ben Edols collaborating - Ben was blowing and she was directing - the Czech ambassador declared to Ben that he'd actually like to come and do a glass course," says Jirasek. He wouldn't be the first observer to be converted.
Diplomacy: Translations in Glass opens at the Canberra Glassworks on February 11 and runs until April 16.