‘Glass virus’, in my old memory, used to mean the infectious enthusiasm for glassmaking. It causes you persistent interest in glass, and it is difficult to get rid of once you catch it. It had become to mean, in our studio, the enlarged virus models made of glass, ever since Brian Jones and Norman Veitch (Wearside Glass Sculptures) started to work for artist Luke Jerram developing his Glass Microbiology series. In recent years, I joined the team and worked with other scientific glassblowers realising these intricate-shaped viruses in glass.
In 2020-2021, during the Covid19 pandemic, we spent many weeks making virus sculptures for Luke. The National Glass Centre was closed to public all the time apart from a short period in the late autumn. We had no visitor, no customer and sometimes no gas (maintenance can fail when the building is deserted). Winter was cold, and we warmed up our hands at the kiln. We received many sales calls, which were at least consistent from the before-Covid world. BBC Radio2 was on all day playing uplifting music slashed by hourly news updates, which were all about Covid, lockdown life and the vaccination. Every hour, when the radio presenter started reading news, we turned the volume up and listened to it carefully and silently, then looked at the virus parts on our work bench, perhaps made a few comments and returned to work.
I hesitate to say that I enjoyed making virus sculptures during the national lockdown because it sounds too cynical, but I certainly had the ‘freedom of working’. I went to the studio instead of staying alone at home. I drove down to Luke’s studio in Bristol, delivering the special edition viruses, which were too fragile to entrust the courier. I had done necessary paperwork to travel legally – thinking that it could be quite complicated if I was questioned on motorway and found out carrying boxes signed ‘Corona Virus Extra Large’.
Despite all the inconvenience caused by the pandemic, it was my privilege to work with the master lampworkers Brian and Andy. Andy was also a scientific glassblower at the closed James A. Jobling’s Pyrex factory, and he was known for his sculptural talent from that time. They spent a decade making glass ships in bottles after leaving the factory, and today, they realise artists’ ideas in glass exploiting their lampwork skills. (Please visit my Vessels of Memory project to find the stories of scientific glassblowers and their ships in bottles.)
Skills training takes many years. Having seen the works by Brian, Andy and their colleagues, I can say that so many art projects are dependenet on their making skills fostered in the scientific glass industry. Now, the scientific glassblowing is an endangered craft in the UK, and it would not take too long until the loss of the skill will affect the art sector.
I have been liaising with the British Society of Scientific Glassblowers to develop the collaboration between artists and scientific glass industry. We are all lampwork practitioners, seeing the same technique from different perspectives. We like lampworking, we like sharing technical know-hows, we like talking about glass – we are infected with the ‘glass virus’. I hope that I can propagate the ‘glass virus’ for future and the real viruses will be subjugated soon, so that my metopher would not sound like telling a bad joke.