Emily Williams is the artist behind these stunning glass sculptures emulating complex plant and sea life forms. We recently interviewed Williams to find out more about where she got her start and where she pulls inspiration from. Here is what she had to say:
When did you begin making glass sculptures? What made you decide to make these?
I first began working in cast glass back in 2006. About 3 years ago I decided to explore flameworking. Flameworking with a glass torch is much more spontaneous and direct than cast glass. With glass flameworking and various glass torches I am able to create complex works within a shorter time span.
My first impulse towards this use of the hand torch was to capture a spontaneous, direct method with the glass. I wanted the ease of a hand welding torch and metal, except to work with glass. I wanted to capture the feeling of my sketches and drawings. So I really wanted to draw with glass. I love the way I can layer line patterns and structures. As I have become more proficient with this special process, I thought about what if I was to make some intricate coral patterns. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was making a lot of ocean creatures. I am on a glass reef that feels just like paradise!
I have lived on the water all of my life. I grew up mostly on the Chesapeake Bay in the Northern Neck and Tidewater area of Virginia. I was lucky to have daring parents in the 60’s so we traveled a lot around the country. At one time I lived in Huntington Beach, California. Back in the late 60’s the coast was really so unspoiled and beautiful. I loved exploring coastal caves, tidal pools, capturing sea potatoes, or swimming in a kelp forest. In a deep sense, these sculptures are very autobiographical. They celebrate the happiest times of my life living in a coastal area whether it is the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Chesapeake Bay, or Mobile Bay.
Is there a reason you chose glass for your medium?
My father was quite an accomplished glass artist working in stained glass. He also worked a lot in fused and slumped sculptural glass forms. He was Neuroradiologist and often created science-inspired glass forms like sculptural human brains. Some even had lights inside of them! Growing up in a house with an eccentric artist-doctor shaped my interests in certain types of art. I prefer works of art relating to science and discovery. I love to draw and have kept drawings and watercolor studies of my sculpture projects for decades. When I first began this Flameworked glass I wanted to emulate my drawing process through the layering of fluid, spontaneous glass line. Transparent glass when built up into a form creates an internal light source of its own. The sculptures just seem to glow from within. With this flameworked glass I have been able to combine all of my passions for marine science, drawing, and luminosity.
Is there a special technique to your work? What is the process from start to finish?
I use a special type of glass called “borosilicate” glass. People use boro everyday in their life. It’s also called Pyrex. This type of glass is used for chemistry lab ware and also in the technology sector for fiber optic cable. Most people just know it as the kitchen glass! I use small hand held glass torches to construct free form sculpture. So yes I think that it is definitely considered a special glass technique in the glass world. Most flameworkers use a large single bench torch. I on the other hand use a very un-macho mini torch (smiley face.) My glass is shipped to me in 25 lb. cases of 4-foot glass rods. I have many cases of glass rods in my studio covering diameters from 3mm-12 mm. The first thing I determine is the size of the sculpture and the size diameter rods that will best express the life form.
Right now I am very interested in several coral species. The way I begin a piece is usually months and sometimes years in advance. I begin by collecting dozens of macro photographs and historical scientific illustrations about a particular creature. Ideally I would prefer to view the species in real life. Often I begin by trolling through the images until one strikes a chord. It can be a combination of things that draws me to a particular creature. I might be fascinated with the movement, textures, and the color patterns.
An image or series of images can help me visualize a sculpture. I then create enlargements of macro images and illustrations. These will be mounted on the wall near my glass bench. Before beginning a large work, I always create test studies in glass. This way I can test out my ideas about how to build a particular form in glass. I then run the small sculpture test through the glass kiln annealing process. In all of the sculptures I create, I anneal the glass periodically to remove the stresses that build up.
Just like a drawing on paper I begin with the prominent contours and structures of a form. For example in the Glass Seaweed sculpture I built the entire length of frond stems from the base upwards. Then I added temporary glass supports around the top edge to hold everything in place. Using supports keeps everything stable while working. I then began at the very base joints adding all the seaweed tendrils one by one. I gradually moved around the form in an upward spiral motion. This can take many weeks to complete. The luminous splendor of the Glass Seaweed sculpture comes from this intense focus and dedication of time. I only work on one piece at a time, but while I work I am already building new sculptures in my mind. For months I have been installing new glass torches and stockpiling transparent colored glass for new coral sculptures.
Where do you get inspiration?
I love to go to museums and look at objects. I have spent decades visiting various collections in art museums and natural history museums in the U.S. and abroad. I spent a lot of time as a child visiting museums in Washington D.C. where my grandmother worked as a docent as the Smithsonian. I loved the old Smithsonian Science and Industry displays, the Museum of Natural History, and the Insect Zoo. I prefer to view all creatures in the wild. I have done some snorkeling in the Florida Keys but no serious scuba diving. I would love to learn how to scuba dive so I could visit our state of Georgia’s amazing Gray’s Reef.
I get inspiration from photography, historical scientific illustrations, and historical scientific glass. Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka were a father and son team of glass model makers from the 19th and early 20th Century. Originally from Dresden, they created thousands of amazing scientific glass models that were collected for educational purposes by universities and museums around the world. I find this work to be both fascinating and influential in my sculpture. While I am not using many blown forms in my glass sculpture yet, I have a lot of ideas to incorporate blown elements. I think if the Blaschka’s were here today they would definitely be using a lot of macro photography to create their marine life models. They were very innovative and made voyages to different places around the world to study, draw, and document different types of plant and life forms. Harvard is famous for their collection of Blaschka flowers seen at hmnh.harvard.edu/glass-flowers. Cornell University has a very impressive collection of Marine Invertebrate glass models seen here at blaschkagallery.mannlib.cornell.edu
What is your favorite piece?
My favorite piece is probably the Glass Seaweed sculpture. I do have other favorites as well. Favorite sculptures are always the ones you are currently working on (smiley face.) You could call the Glass Seaweed sculpture a sort of breakthrough piece. It was the sculpture that made all the ideas and direction of my current ocean series fall into place. I love the overwhelming profusion of details and the serpentine movement of the seaweed fronds. The whole piece appears to be moving in an invisible ocean current.
What can we expect from your future work?
Expect a lot of brilliant, luminous color in my future work. After the current sculpture is done I will be creating a series of colored coral sculptures and other types of ocean life. I have been setting up special new torches and testing a palette of borosilicate glass colors. For now I am intensely focused on reef life forms such as corals, sea anemones and feather stars. I would like to get back into doing some colorful jellyfish and maybe an octopus. The octopus if definitely one of my favorite sea creature.