Cast in glass

It is hard to describe artist Mike Crawford’s work without seeing it. He tells Rebecca Fox about the  art of cast glass sculpture.

It is not unheard of to find Mike Crawford in his shed, crouching over a heater, holding a wax figure, willing it to soften.

Dunedin winters are a bit harsher than the Napier ones he is used to.

Not that Crawford is complaining — Dunedin’s good surf more than makes up for the extra challenges involved in creating his cast glass art.

The cooler temperatures have meant Crawford has had to amend a few of his practices to combat the condensation and cold.

He has put an extraction fan in his backyard workshop, formerly a shed, to remove the steam created when melting wax and is hoping that the installation of a heat pump will ease the other problems.

Creating cast glass sculptures is a many-stepped process similar to bronze casting. It requires the sculpture to first be created in wax, before it is covered in a cast. Any changes in the thickness of the wax have to be phased  in incrementally to prevent breakages in the glass when cooling.

Next, steam is used to melt the wax out of the cast.

"I have a love hate relationship with wax — it goes everywhere."

All of this is done in his "creative room", aka the shed. But for the noisier, messier parts of the art he has a workshop with a kiln in an industrial area.

The cast is  placed upside down in his kiln with glass bullets — he uses lead crystal glass for its clarity — placed in a crucible on top.

Cast class artist Mike Crawford has made his backyard shed a workable space to create his...
Cast class artist Mike Crawford has made his backyard shed a workable space to create his sculptures creating them out of wax (right) to start with but it takes a long time to get the final glass result (left). Photo: Graig Baxter

With the kiln at a temperature of 800degC, the glass melts into the cast forming the sculpture. Once the glass has been slowly cooled over five to seven days in the kiln, Crawford cracks it open to see the sculpture for the first time.

"Getting the cooling right is important, otherwise the glass will crack.

"It is a bit like a opening something that has been sent from overseas and not knowing if it will be whole. Lots of things can go wrong, you just have to mitigate them."

It  takes many more hours to carefully sculpt the glass into the final shape before it is sandblasted and acid-etched to give a satin finish.

"The sandblasting hides the grinding marks and helps give the finish that captures the light."

He uses diamond tools, used in the tile finishing and concrete industries, to create the final shapes.

"It is such a process-orientated craft, casting. Because there aren’t really any precedents. Often you are inventing tools and ways of working as you go."

The long process does not  faze Crawford, who describes himself as a hands-on person.

"I was never a good drawer. I’m a maker of things."

He uses a "rudimentary" sketch to start with but most of his designs are a work in progress.

"I do most of my "drawing" in the wax. I make it up as I go along.

"The key is to get it right in wax. You can only refine in glass so you need to have the central form right in wax."

He also uses moulds to create some of the basic shapes, but each sculpture is unique as he does not re-use the casts.

"There are lots of differences about each one which makes them more unique."

It also gives him the chance to improve on a design.

"It keeps it interesting for me as well. I think they’re better each time as I refine my ability."

Crawford admits to being a bit of a perfectionist.

"Every piece is as good as I can make it. I go over the piece and if there is part I’m not happy with I’ll fix it. There are things I can’t control, like bubbles, but that’s part of it."

For his latest exhibition at Milford Gallery, he has concentrated on birds — getting his inspiration from taxonomic drawings of bush and sea birds.

He has found since starting the project, he has become more aware of the birds around him.

"Suddenly you see them everywhere. You drive by the harbour and you see all the wading birds."

Crawford has always been inspired by Maori art and craft traditions and has created a bird vessel — a ceremonial vessel. It is one of his larger works.

He has also used Maori folklore for inspiration, especially the "Battle of the Birds", a battle between sea and bush birds where the ocean birds decide to "go bush" for the better food only to be chased back to the ocean — although a few birds, such as the mutton bird (titi), managed to stay.

"It’s fascinating stuff. A nice relationship to the way humans work with its underlying moral message."

So, for this exhibition he has created five bush birds and five ocean birds. His interest in exploring the Maori side of his heritage also led to his interest in sculptural vessels.

Research into hue (gourds) and their traditional use as storage for preserving birds has seen the evolution of his practice to forms that combine both bird and vessel characteristics. His exploration of vessel forms has led him to research other Maori vessel forms, such as the kumete, carved wooden bowls that at times had stalk or beak-like ends.

Seeing his creations go to new homes can be difficult but is part of the process, he says.

"All that time you spend working and living with them. They’re like a baby in that way. Then you send them out into the world."

Crawford fell into glass casting by accident. After completing his bachelor of design, sculpture, from Unitec School of Design in Auckland, he was looking for work when he heard of a job opening with glass casting pioneer Ann Robinson.

"I was into making things and I was into surfing, so Karekare fitted nicely."

He spent eight years working with Robinson as a technician doing what he calls an "apprenticeship".

"There is a lot of grind, messy heavy work."

One of the jobs he helped with was making a one-tonne glass font for Holy Trinity Cathedral made out of four 250kg slabs.

"It was crazy, but a good challenge. Ann could really see what was possible even though it took a month for each block to cool and it took eight blocks before she got four all the same colour."

He then realised he had the skills to go out on his own and, in 2009, began to work for himself.

The decision was cemented when, in 2011, he and partner Lucy Hammonds had their first child.

"It meant I could be a stay at home dad and then when Sam was sleeping do some work out in my workshop with the baby monitor going. It’s especially good as we’ve got two now."

It was while the family was living in Napier that Hammonds got a job at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and the family moved south.

Finding a house was a challenge because Crawford wanted a workshop at home. When they discovered a house with a decent-sized shed in the backyard they snapped it up.

"It sold us really."


See it

"Battle of the Birds", Mike Crawford, Milford Galleries Dunedin, 18 Dowling St.

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