Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
1:01 AM 27th January 2024

The Magic Of Glassblowing Inspired By Rockpools

A new exhibition of Joanne Kenny’s glass work opens at York’s Pyramid Gallery today, inspired by her trips along the beach at Whitby, peering into rockpools. But it has not been all plain sailing, as she tells Group Editor Andrew Palmer about her inspirational story.

Jo Kenny in her studio
Jo Kenny in her studio
There is something quite magical and mesmerising about glassblowing. Whether it is watching someone's technique, the colour, the intensity of the process, or the beauty of the finished piece of art, it has fascinated people for centuries ever since glassblowing was taken up by the Roman Empire around 50 BC.

And for Jo Kenny, she fell under the spell of glass as a small girl.

“My granny had a number of those little touristy glass animals you used to get and she allowed me to play with them when I visited her.

“It was that experience that made me choose glass and ceramics as a course at Sunderland University.

“I always knew I wanted to go to art college, and when I was looking through the different prospectuses, Sunderland’s course just popped out of the page at me.”

Jo tells me she was very lucky to spot it and was fortunate to secure a place. Up until then, she had never seen a furnace except the huge ones associated with steel making in Teesside. She moved to Redcar when she was 10 and hints that this was a fabulous age to be spending time on the beach and maybe where her love of the coast originated.

Chatting with Jo, passion oozes from her like the molten liquid she works with in her studio. In fact, she is completely obsessed with the art of glass blowing. “It’s my happy place,” she says.

As she prepares for her exhibition ‘What Lies Beneath’ that opens today at York's Pyramid Gallery, she tells me that her American tutor at Sunderland, Charlie Meaker, an incredible glass maker, encouraged her.

“He used to urge me to follow my gut instinct and to remember, ‘That technique is cheap, but your ideas are going to get you a long way’.

“I used to get frustrated; I couldn’t make things the way I wanted to, and I didn’t have the skills, but he said that would come in time, reassuring me to just practice.”

Jo and her husband live in Whitby, having moved from London, where Jo was teaching.

“We bought a house to do up in our retirement, and we realised we had to move in and start the work sooner than we thought, because my finances fell of a cliff and I found myself in a bit of a pickle. I was working part time as a teacher and doing my glass work as a self-employed artist.”

Jo’s work started to dwindle, and unfortunately, she slipped through the financial aid net offered by the then-Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, losing 80% of her income. Even trying to get supply teaching work was difficult, and it was “a stressful and frantic time.”

“One release for me was being able to walk on the beach, getting lost in rockpools. It was lovely standing and concentrating in front of the rock pools, quite similar to working in front of a furnace.”

The rockpools proved to be an inspiration. “You can be anywhere and see something you think looks lovely and think, Oh, that looks like an interesting shape or an interesting colour. My mind immediately goes to how to incorporate and express it in glass.”

“It was like being a child all over again, poking around and seeing what you could find. It certainly helped the healing process.

“I was itching to get back in front of the furnace to start experimenting with those ideas from the rock pools.”

Gordon Taylor and Jo at their first face-to-face meeting to collaborate on the 'What Lies Beneath' project.
Gordon Taylor and Jo at their first face-to-face meeting to collaborate on the 'What Lies Beneath' project.
But it was the height of the pandemic, and Jo had lost quite a bit of money, so with the attitude that nothing ventured, nothing gained, she approached the Arts Council, enquiring if there were any grants available to support new artwork.

“I was very, very fortunate to be awarded a grant to develop these pieces,” adding without realising the pun, “it’s been a blast producing these pieces that are all about Whitby.”

“’What lies beneath’ is about the rockpools, and I want the visitor to the Pyramid Gallery to explore the different pieces. You can't just leave them on the table to look pretty. One needs to handle and touch them to feel the texture and look inside. To achieve that, I have been collaborating and working with Scottish glass cutter and polisher Gordon Taylor.”

Jo's favourite piece
Jo's favourite piece
There are 26 pieces in the exhibition, all quite different but related, and all for sale, although Jo hopes one piece will not be sold. It’s her favourite piece, and she has cheekily attached an inflated price to it. It is a piece that inspires her, and she wants it to be a muse for her future work, but she quickly adds, “I'd rather not sell it, but if anybody feels the same way as I do and wants to buy it, they would be welcome.”

According to Jo, the glass-making process is quite complicated, but, like the moment she stares at rockpools, the furnace captures her imagination and concentration. “There is no space in your head for anything else; it takes up the whole of your body and all of your senses in one go.

“Technically speaking, when you're working with glass, it is a supercooled liquid.

“People think it is smooth and it can be made into shapes, but there is more to it than that. You can make different textures, combine them with other materials, or take moulds.”

Jo uses glass very much like a painter would use paint, to combine the colours, shapes, and textures to produce something that I want to show. It is lovely to explore those things, and it’s quite physical.

Jo first sketches her design on paper before moving to the furnace, where she would take a blowing iron. Here she might roll it into little chips of colour, use tweezers to manipulate it and swirl the colours together, or twist it up by blowing a bubble that would be broken off and put into the kiln to cool down.

It is captivating to learn that Jo often makes little pieces with layers of different colours that she puts in the kiln, and once they are cool, she breaks them into sections to put in a box, her equivalent of a painter’s palette.

“At the beginning of the day, when I am going to be making the pieces, I'll go to that colour box to select pieces and lay them out on a big table before deciding how I want to use them. It might mean layering a piece using different coloured fragments from my box, which I combine with clear glass."

A collection of Jo's glass craft
A collection of Jo's glass craft
The temperature of the furnace is about 1100 °C, and as soon as the glass is out, it cools quite rapidly. When it gets down to about 700 or 800 °C, it gets difficult to move, so Jo has to reheat it in a heating chamber, or ‘Glory Hole’.

"I scratch or score a line near the neck of the piece and tap the iron, which causes a vibration that travels down the iron and breaks the glass at its weakest point. That piece can then go into a kiln to be kept warm at about 500°C and kept there until I'm ready to stop for the day because if the glass goes any lower than that, the stress will cause it to break.

"It's a bit like if you pour boiling water into a cold glass, the shock will crack it. This is the opposite; if it is too hot and you cool it too quickly, the shock will make it shatter."

Jo is looking forward to the opening of the exhibition; it is all part of her exciting glass-making journey that she has fallen in love with.

Willem Heesen and his son Bernard
Willem Heesen and his son Bernard
Along the way, she had a number of key mentors, such as attending a glass conference at Fraunau in Germany, where she met Willem Heesen, who invited her to his studio at De Oude Horn, Leerdam, Holland, during the summer holidays while she was studying.

“It was incredible,” she says, working with Willem and his son Bernard.

After she completed her degree, she says she could not get a job for love or money in Redcar, so she borrowed money from her brother, hopped on a bus to London, and once there, opened the Yellow Pages to find a glassmaker landing on Anthony Stern.

Jo with Anthony Stern
Jo with Anthony Stern
“It was one of those lucky moments. His assistant had just gone on holiday, so he invited me to do a couple of weeks’ work. It was great; we just clicked.

“He then called me after I had returned home to offer me a permanent job. It was my first proper professional position, and he was the most creative guy I worked with. It was amazing, and I stayed for about 5 years.

By all accounts, it sounded fun. Four days a week were production fulfilling orders, and Friday was a playday. “We would work until lunchtime, then on our return to the studio, it would be playtime where we would just try out anything we fancied doing."

“It was a vibrant period, and that feeling he instilled in me has never left me. Anthony was a massive influence on me.”

Jo’s passion fuels her desire to keep on making new pieces, and so I am interested in what the future holds.

"I've got quite a lot of other pieces that I've been desperate to make, especially some I want to remake from when I was a student, which I never actually took further forward, and never even disclosed what the pieces were about.”

Jo tells me that just before she went to university, she had cancer, and the treatment was gruelling. She wasn’t able to go to school, and it was a struggle to be in pain.

Healing with grace
Healing with grace
“I started working on pieces that were all about that process of starting to feel like a healthier youngster. The cancer diagnosis meant it had to be cut out, so these pieces are about that brutal process and the healing.

“Like the pandemic, it was a horrible time for people, and everyone has their scars that need healing. My new work is taking these pieces that I made way back when. They were pretty, got scarred, and went back to the heat, which is the beginning of making something beautiful. I believe it will be really positive as scars do heal and something better, something more interesting comes from that.”

It is uplifting to hear Jo’s story and her work with friends Caroline White and Derek Bransfield, whom she works with, to offer people red-letter days when they can learn all about the process and make their own pieces. Jo is going to continue glass teaching, making new works, and doing something that she loves doing.

“All my artwork has some meaning for me; it is important in the healing process. Creativity is so important, whether you are baking fabulous cakes, composing music, or painting; everybody needs art in their life."

Jo teaching a student at Derek Bransfield's studio.Jo teaching a student at Derek Bransfield's studio.
(L-R) Caroline White and Jo Kenny(L-R) Caroline White and Jo Kenny
With so much criticism levelled at The Arts Council these days, you won’t hear any coming from Jo; it has been her lifeline when it was needed, and for now, I will let her get back to playing, innovating, and experimenting with the joy of glassmaking. It enabled her to build her confidence.

“Even after all these years, I'm still excited to find new ways to use glass.”

Jo will be giving a talk and showing some of her work at Whitby Steampunk weekend on 11th February more information here and also here

Joanne Kenny's work is on at the Pyramid Gallery, 43 Stonegate York. 01904 641187

Visit Jo's website to learn more here.