Following an incredible residency at the internationally renowned Pilchuck Glass School, we catch up with crafts grad Alex Derry to hear all about the once in a lifetime experience.
Hi Alex, so how did you get onto the Pilchuck course?
Well firstly, you have to send in an application containing an artist statement with reasons why you would like to do the course selected, along with photos of work you’ve made over the past two years.
Once you have done this, a panel at Pilchuck select people that they feel fit the course objective and anyone they think would gain a lot from the course.
So it’s a very selective process.
Yes definitely and the college was really helpful, having a scholarship scheme for each course means there is an amount of money set aside that can go towards helping students go on specialist courses in the UK and overseas, like Pilchuck.
"If I could explain Pilchuck in one way, it was like ‘Hogwarts’, but for glass..."
My Programme Leader was great, she brought up the idea of applying to Pilchuck with me and within two days I had professional photos of my work taken at the college, along with a very well written statement with all the skills I had gained over the three years I had been here.
What was it like at Pilchuck Glass School?
If I could explain Pilchuck in one way, it was like ‘Hogwarts’, but for glass... the facilities were amazing, the people were so generous and helpful, and there is just non-stop glass action.
It's a glass artist's dream to be there. The campus of Pilchuck is situated in the middle of a tree farm, surrounded by forests and nature, with everyone being able to talk so openly and freely about glass.
Famous glass artists and younger emerging artists work together in the same spaces making it a really collaborative and strong learning environment.
"I can’t wait to try and get back out there, I met so many new friends and people from all over the world."
Sounds incredible! What did you get to do there?
The main objective of my course was to create work in the hot shop, take those forms into the cold shop and alter them using different machines, like engraving wheels and lathes.
We were also encouraged to work in a minimal way, using the print shop and enamelling to create prints and marks and taking inspiration from our surroundings.
Sean O’Neill was our teacher for the course, he’s an incredible studio glass artist and he emailed all his students a letter about what the course would involve beforehand and how we could start to participate early on.
He encouraged us to use the #masteringminimal on Instagram in the run up to the course, so we would take pictures of something that we thought was based on a ‘Phenomena’, the name of which was the Session 5 title.
What was a typical day like for you?
A usual day for me started at 7am, we’d wake up and get ready for our blow slot in the hotshop.
We had a class of 10 people, with five glory holes which meant we had the perfect set for teams of two, working for two hours each.
The first person would blow from 7.30-9.30am with a 15 minute break inbetween, maybe grabbing some leftover breakfast and water, and then swap.
"Hopefully I can use the college’s incredible facilities to their full advantage and create some amazing work, collaborating with others from the college and further afield."
9.45-11.45am was the next blowing slot, with your partner assisting the whole time you are blowing.
At 1.30pm there were slides presented by one of the glass artists there and from 2-4pm we had a hot shop demo from Sean O’Neill learning a variety of techniques on form and also plenty of different variations to colour application.
4-6pm gave us free time to choose what work we wanted to focus on but most would either be in the cold shop working on their made forms or in the print shop or studio.
6pm was dinner and then from 7-10pm onwards we once again had free time to make our own decisions on what we wanted to do.
Personally I would be in the cold working shop till around 9.30/10pm, after cleaning up as a team we would normally have some drinks and watch whoever was in the hot-shop.
"Whether it's making a piece in the hotshop or cutting up parts of it in the cold shop, don’t be scared to push the boundaries."
Sometimes the gaffes, Brian Corr and D H McNabb were working or it was other students working on their pieces.
It was great because everybody at Pilchuck is a glass artist, we all had so much to talk about so most of us ended up going to bed at around 1am!
What did you learn at the school?
It was like learning almost everything from scratch again, despite having three years glassblowing experience. Even the starter bubble process was taught a different way.
I knew the techniques were going to be different from the UK to the US, but I was surprised at the amount of differences there were between countries.
"I loved the people, the atmosphere and basically everything about Pilchuck. The amount of crazy glass things going on every day blew my mind."
Being on such an intense course meant I learnt a lot in a very short amount of time. Having the two hours blow slot time meant that when we were learning to create the perfect shape for the lesson objective, we had more time to improve.
Creating the same shape over and over, similar to a production setting, can really help to improve your skill.
I was lucky enough to be around several different glassblowers with varying levels of experience, so I could easily ask anyone for advice on a technique and they could help me understand what I might be doing wrong or where I could improve.
Things like, colour overlays, Swedish overlays, feathering and stuffing colour cups, most of these I have done before, but I learnt lots of different ways to achieve a final outcome.
"I’m still a massive fan of colour, as my work has shown over the past three years, but my MA will be a chance to increase my technical ability in both the hot shop and the cold shop."
I also learnt that mistakes are not mistakes. Embrace them, more often than not, they can set you on the path to bigger successes and better pieces.
Whether it's making a piece in the hotshop or cutting up parts of it in the cold shop, don’t be scared to push the boundaries.
What did you like the most about being there?
I loved the people, the atmosphere and basically everything about Pilchuck. The amount of crazy glass things going on every day blew my mind.
It’s incredible seeing all of this in person instead of watching it on YouTube or somewhere online.
There were even little things that added to it all, like when meals were served the buffet bowls were all huge blown glass bowls made in the hotshop in previous years.
There were sculptures and installations all over the campus and in the forests for people to find and experience.
I can’t wait to try and get back out there, I met so many new friends and people from all over the world.
It has really boosted my confidence and motivation to get into the glass world.
What are your plans for the Master's programme here at the college? Are you going to explore any of the things you learnt at Pilchuck?
The plans for my MA have changed slightly, seeing the amount of emotion and experience in glass from so many people has made me think about what I actually want to look at while studying an MA.
It has also opened up a lot more options, for example I would love to become a Technical Demonstrator at the college, helping out Lawrence West in the hotshop, assisting the first, second and third year students.
I’d love to continue with some of the work I was doing at Pilchuck, creating forms in the hotshop made of layers of different colours and clear glass, to then working in the cold shop, cutting and carving into layers of glass to create new patterns and shadows.
Just the chance to explore new and different mediums to express these forms and interests and show what I’ve learnt whilst at Pilchuck.
I’m still a massive fan of colour, as my work has shown over the past three years, but my MA will be a chance to increase my technical ability in both the hot shop and the cold shop.
Hopefully I can use the college’s incredible facilities to their full advantage and create some amazing work, collaborating with others from the college and further afield.
Anything else you want to mention?
I just want to give a huge thank you to the college, Laura Wasley and Glenn Carter, and everyone else at PCA who has helped me get this far with my work.
Also a huge thank you to everyone at Pilchuck for making me feel so welcome. If anyone at the college would like to talk more about Pilchuck please feel free to come chat to me or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.