Cornwall-based artist, Abigail Reynolds, first exhibited in The Gallery at Plymouth College of Art in 2013 as part of the South West Showcase, beginning a long-running relationship with our staff and students.
Working in a hand-build furnace at Kestle Barton, Cornwall, Abigail led the team as they revived medieval glass recipes and attempted to create glass tied to a unique geographical area, through combining the ash from burnt kelp and sand from the beach.
Abigail has documented this unique process and the results of her efforts to draw upon forgotten historical techniques to create kelp glass:
I am in love with a place. The eye of this place is at the end of the road I have lived on for 14 years, where the Atlantic meets the granite cliffs. Of the people I have seen come and go on the beach, a large percentage are photographers. Many of them carry tripods and cases of lenses, but the more ordinary phone photos are almost as frequent. The people who live here, like me, hardly ever take a photo of the beach. Observing this has raised so many questions. Why do we need to continually excrete place as image? Why do we want an image, rather than a physical, embodied experience of place, which might come by swimming or climbing the rocks, or just gazing rather than focussing on the cliched photo subjects of sunset, of slow-shutter water moving. Why are we content not to seek an understanding of the place, it’s names and uses? And finally, the most obvious question – why do I care so deeply? Why does it hurt me to see the beach caught in the webs of photography.
I can’t fully answer any of these questions, though I often try to work through them in writing. My most clear answer has taken form as a physical object, a refutation of the attitudes I discern in the photographers, and is itself an embodiment of place. The object is a sheet of glass.
Last summer, a series of coincidences brought me to make this glass.
I was camping on St Mary’s, the largest of the islands. In the library there, I found a book titled ‘Lessons in Photography’ that promoted the type of landscape photography that I find most distancing and uncomfortable. Although the glossy colour photographs in the book show different places, including Porth Nanven, the beach at the end of my road, they somehow all look the same.
Soon after this depressing experience, I came across three shallow granite-lined pits on Toll’s island, near the campsite. At the museum I learn that these are kelp-burning pits and were used for two hundred years from 1680. A cottage industry in west Cornwall and the Scilly Islands supplied the glass furnaces in Bristol with the kelp ash needed to bring down the melting point of sand to transform it into glass. I am astonished. There in the museum in Hugh Town, crowded with wet tourists, I feel such a tangible round of connections in my mind that they are almost audible. It’s like hearing a lid snap off a container.
Sand looks and feels different on every beach I visit; Porth Nanven has fine grey sand, Porthmeor (where I rent a studio) has sand like golden caster sugar. The sand on Portheras is coarse, and sticks to skin in flakes that must be prised off with a finger nail. Right here on these same beaches, seaweed was once harvested to make glass. Kelp is the most obvious of all the local seaweeds; the fleshy hands and round rubbery stems of ‘forest kelp’ are constantly tumbled onto the beaches. It would be easy to gather this mass of material. If the melting point of sand can be altered with the addition of seaweed, low enough for the sand to vitrify in a furnace, it should follow that the basic materials PARTICULAR TO a single beach could simply be melted together to become a glass. A sheet of glass could have a precise address. It could be possible for me to make this glass. I could hold it in my hand, I could look through it.
Here then was a simple inversion. The inverse of the generic address of the photographer’s lenses positioned across the sand and seaweed of the beach, would be for the beach to image itself as glass. Almost like a manifestation, I imagine the sand and kelp of Porth Nanven rising up and combining, as in a tornado, becoming a glass that is not a representation of the land, but is itself the land. The beach would be transformed into glass - a synthesis of itself.
From this moment last summer, I set out to make a lens of my own, starting with guessed-at recipes for medieval glass that I gleaned from forensic archaeology papers. No written records remain, so the archaeologists worked by trial and error. From the papers, I had a certain amount of knowledge but no skills, no equipment. I applied to the Arts Council and got funding to develop work in glass for a year. I set some money aside for the kelp glass, because through the reasonable side of me knew that it would be a huge waste of my time and energy, I felt irrationally compelled to try.
I asked Karen at Kestle Barton Centre for Rural Arts if she would help me. She added my project into her annual plan of gallery activity for the last weekend of the summer holiday, and allocated funds for it. I called the weekend of glass at Kestle Barton ‘Estover’. Estover is an ancient right to gather what you need from the land. Originally this would have been dead wood from the forest floor, to use as firewood, but I meant it to be the right to what I needed; to connect to the land through physical work and by that means to arrive at a deeper understanding of it in place and time.
I had assembled money and a deadline, but I still had no resources. I rang many glassworkers, and organisations, but in the world of glass there seemed no interest in the basic principles of glass. It’s completely unlike the world of potters, who often care deeply about where their glazes and clays originate. People said glass cannot be made with beach sand, that I’d never manage to make anything but a poor glaze. Something in me didn’t want to listen. A Plymouth friend suggested I talk to Amy Whittingham, Glass Workshop Coordinator, at Plymouth College of Art and a glass-worker at Flameworks. To my relief and astonishment she was excited by the idea. I felt as though I had been walking along a corridor trying locked doors, and finally one had swung open. Amy came with me to work on new techniques in glass at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. She gathered kelp and sand with me many times. In fact, since I rang her from Dublin airport on my way home from working in Abu Dhabi she has been my constant companion in glass.
Our biggest obstacle was the furnace. Amy asked Ian Hankey, Fab Lab Plymouth Principle Technician at Plymouth College of Art and formerly glass workshop manager at the RCA, to help us. He had worked with Imperial college at the V&A to interrogate crizzling in ancient Venetian glass while based at the RCA. Ian is a master glass-blower and a decade ago, he had built his own portable glass furnace. Ian was prepared to resurrect it, and to blow the glass, if we could make any.
Now I was part of a team, but we still didn’t know exactly how to make the glass. There were too many unknowns. The largest of these were what material the crucible should be made from to withstand the chemicals in the kelp ash (the first test melted the porcelain) and also which beach sand would be most likely to melt. I asked my children to sieve sand with me on beaches to gather only the finest grains, then asked Robin Shail, a geologist at Cambourne School of Mines, to assess which sand would melt most readily, based on its composition. We were guessing, but at least with a geologist’s eye. I spent the summer feverishly foraging for kelp, carefully drying it, and then burning it. The operation took over all my days and the entire backyard of my house, overwhelming my family in the constant smell of seaweed.
We were running out of time before ‘Estover’. All our crucible tests had failed dismally, and I still hadn’t managed to sieve enough sand to the right gauge, nor grind up the solid lumps of kelp ash to a fine powder to mix with it for the batch. I tried to do this in a pestle and mortar. After 5 hours of hard labour and bleeding fingers I only had 600g of ash. Ian had told me we needed a 50kg batch (the mix of kelp ash and sand) to have the mass needed for a melt. More feverish calling around – this time to potters who might have a ball mill. In the end I found Mike Dodd, a potter near Glastonbury. He said I could try using his grinder – an old agricultural mincing machine called ‘The Colonial’ that a friend of his had fitted with a motor. I packed the ash into the car with my kids and drove to Somerset for a day of grinding. From there I drove straight to Kestle Barton where the furnace was being built and tested by Amy and Ian. I spent the next three days drying and sieving beach sand with four willing Falmouth photography students. The sieves are very fine, less than 500 microns. After many long patient hours we had 35kg of batch. How much glass would this make? I didn’t know. ‘Maybe 3 small sheets?’ I said doubtfully, when people asked me, but I didn’t know if there would be any glass at all.
All the papers I had studied were only for 10g melts, which are glazes rather than true glass. There was a huge gap in the information we needed. Ian put a kilogram of our batch into a glory hole using a crucible designed for metal. After four hours at 1250 degrees the sand was only blackened, hardly vitrified at all. It is very hard to understand the chemistry of heat, though Ian does. He said that to have any chance of getting the mass of heat we would need to initiate the chemical reaction that would transform a batch into a glass, we would need much larger furnace and a huge crucible. So rather than melt the batch in his furnace, we should melt and then frit the glass off-site. They set up an overnight melt, using half the batch. When I hadn’t heard from them by ten the following morning I was in despair. With the failure of the ash and the sand, so painstakingly and slowly gleaned, I lost an entire summer of hard labour. It was all wasted. Finally, unable to wait any longer, I called Ian. ‘Didn’t Amy tell you?’ he said, ‘It’s turquoise!’
The hand-built furnace at Kestle Barton was temperamental at first, but once solidly lit the glass frit melted overnight. None of us slept well; what we were doing was so unlikely to work. At 3am I gave up on sleep and went to stand in the tractor shed by the roaring furnace. Ian also came to check it, and we watched the breathing of the furnace for over an hour. In the morning, with a large audience who’d come to see the kelp glass and hear the speakers I had ambitiously assembled for ‘Estover’, Ian gathered the molten glass and blew a muff. He kept exclaiming ‘I can’t believe the quality of this glass, it’s like Murano – it’s so handleable.’ A day of making muffs filled the lehr and the following day, once it had annealed, we opened it and held the fragile cylinders of kelp glass thinly drawn out. The kelp had transformed the sand from Porthmeor beach to a clear glass the colour of the Atlantic. It’s precisely as when the sun illuminates the pale sand of the sea bed, to shine through the covering brine. It’s a colour to make the heart leap.
Golden metallic crystals had formed in the glass and had to be broken out. They look like chalcopyrite, which means the aqua tint in the glass is probably owed to the sand not the kelp, and betrays the remains of copper mining on the Atlantic coast. We only melted half the batch; the second half is from Bosahan cove on the Helford near Kestle Barton, and might be a different colour. I hope so.
We all use our actions to draw us closer to the things that move us, or compel us. Artists are given permission to do this in a more extreme way than most people can. I always use my work to bring me closer to an understanding of place and time. Not out of some academic interest, but because I need to. It grounds me.
I decided to act on my desire to make the kelp glass, because I understood that even in failure, the attempt to grapple mentally with the history and physically with the seaweed would be therapeutic and could restore my sense of the place I love. To engage more physically, even chemically with the beach would balance my frustrations with the disengaged photographers. Their images disappear into the global soup of digitized images sitting meaninglessly in data banks, being trawled by businesses for data. My sheet of glass represents an embodied and specific engagement through time. More than represents; in fact it is that engagement reified.
As I worked over the summer the word ‘flux’ came to have a special importance for me. The landscape, and us within it, are in constant flux. Though a piece of glass or a photograph appear to give it fixity, this is an illusion, a figment of our desire to move beyond time. In another, chemical sense the flux of kelp transforms sand into glass, but the act of making the glass itself acted as a flux on my emotions. Over the weeks spent collecting kelp and sand I realized I had stopped caring about the photographers. Now I have a shard of the kelp glass in my pocket, I have moved beyond caring. The work and the understanding that came with it operated as a flux to soften and transform the relationship between me, the photographers and the beach. It looks a little different through the glass.