Vibrant and vivid, Gerry Reilly’s fluid freeform glass sculptures, installations, ornaments and tableware are shot through with brilliant colours that swirl and eddy. Nina Levy took a step in the multi-coloured maelstrom to find out more.
Glass designer and artist Gerry Reilly likens glass-making to playing a musical instrument.
“It’s all in the timing,” he explains.
One of the biggest challenges of glass-making is learning how to cope with the heat of the furnace, to concentrate while every pore of your body is saying, ‘Step back from the fire, you’re standing a little too close’.
“With a lot of materials you might say, ‘walk before you run,’ but with glass you need to learn to work with it while it’s hot. You can’t just work with it warm until you’ve got more experience. You’ve got to step right up and learn fast. And it’s all in the timing.”
“I liken it to a musician who plays a song that takes three minutes, but there’s years of learning how to play that instrument and the chords and the various other things you need to know before you can string all that together into that three minute skilled sequence of moves that people think of as the song.
“Glass-making is similar in that you’ve got all that background of practice, and skill building. When you’re executing a piece of glass, it’s all happening fast; all those years of training are compressed into minutes.”
If you’ve visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia design store, Fremantle Arts Centre’s shop or Aspects at Kings Park, then you’ve probably seen Reilly’s vibrant glasses, bowls and vases.
But that’s just one aspect of his practice.
At the Melting Pot Glass Studio in Margaret River, Reilly also creates large scale commercial and private commissions, runs workshops for members of the general public and manages to squeeze in his own work too.
“I’m very lucky, my partner in life and the business, Margot Edwards, is a very good organiser and helps keep me on track,” he says.
The pair’s schedule is heavily influenced by tourist season. While the warmer weather brings an influx of tourists to the Margaret River area, and an uptick in demand for workshops, the quieter winter months allow Reilly time to take on larger, more time-consuming commissions.
“We recently did a commission at a house in Mount Pleasant, with a large north-facing wall of glass,” he says. “We’ve done an installation of about 30 pieces of glass in the shape of leaves falling; it’s like the zephyr of wind is picking them up and they blow sideways.”
A recent commission for Optus Stadium’s VIP lounge saw Reilly liaising with the sponsor, Coca Cola.
“We came up with a theme of effervescent big glass bubbles spraying across the roof from the bar,” says Reilly. “It had to go back and forward to Coca Cola headquarters in America. We had to sort out the ‘Coca Cola green’, the colour of original glass bottles. It’s almost like a Pantone number.”
When I speak to Reilly, in late August, he tells me he’s splitting his time between working on commissions and preparing for the upcoming Margaret River Region Open Studios (MRROS). As the name suggests, this event will see 168 artists in the Margaret River area and surrounds opening up their studios to the general public this September. A regular participant in this popular annual event, Reilly likes to treat visitors to a demo of his work.
“There’s an English glassmaker who’s been living and working with me here for the last couple of years during COVID. He’s very highly skilled. So we’re thinking we’re going to challenge ourselves and demonstrate making really flash goblets during the Open Studios. And they’re always fun to watch, and challenging to make.
“So in between the commission work, we’ll make wine cups and practise our goblets. And before Christmas, we’ll make a couple of 100 baubles for the Fremantle Arts Centre’s Christmas Bazaar.
“So yeah, it’s a bit strategic rather than just feeling inspired and wandering over to the workshop.”
As well as demonstrations, the Melting Pot Studio offers all-ages entry-level glass-making experiences.
“We can make about about four or five baubles an hour, with a family,” says Reilly. “And people can make wine cups – they need to be a bit older, about 15 years – and they take about half an hour each. People are guest designers; we do all the tricky stuff and they get as hands on as we can safely let them.”
Because, of course, there’s a furnace and molten glass involved. Dealing with heat might seem like a downside to glass-making, but Reilly has been fascinated with fire since he was a child growing up on a farm in rural Victoria.
“I rebuilt the incinerator at the back of the house a few times to make it burn hotter,” he recalls.
It’s not surprising, then, that as an art student he was drawn kilns and ceramics, before discovering glass.
And fire isn’t the only fascination that dates back to childhood. “I’ve always been aware of loving the bush and the beauty of the natural world,” Reilly continues. “The Western Australian landscape has been an influence on my work.
“Robert Bell, who was a very influential curator at the Art Gallery of WA, always used to say, there’s something really special about the light in WA. It’s really bright and sharp.
“I’ve always felt that that as glass-makers we can use [that light]. When I was in Europe, I noticed that the glass-makers use a very muted palette of colour or transparent glass, because you’re trying to catch the watery light over there. Whereas here it transmits strongly, it’s brighter and lighter, and we play with some really bright colours.”
Reilly says his teachers and mentors have also played a significant role in shaping his practice, naming Tasmanian potter Les Blakeborough, Venetian glass artist Lino Tagliapietra and Czech glass artist Martin Janecký.
“In New Zealand, in 1990, I saw Lino Tagliapietra, a master of Murano. It was one of those experiences where you watch this glassmaker and you think, ‘I thought I knew how to make glass, but look at this fella.
“At the workshop I was attending, the local New Zealand guy who was assisting Lino got sick. It was lucky for me – I was there early that next morning, and they said, ‘Do you want to help us today?’ I said, ‘Okay’. So it was very hands on. 30 years later, when I’m making things, I’m still thinking, ‘how would Lino do that?’
“Flash forward a few years, to maybe just three years ago, I got to a glass symposium in the Scotland where they had the Czech maestro sculptor Martin Janecký. Just go and have a look at his latest sculptures. He sculpts the glass from the inside out. So that was another insightful and inspirational moment.
“And isn’t the internet a wonderful thing too? You can Google and there’s some fantastic glass institutions around the world that you used to have to save and travel to get to visit.
“Now you can sit down with a good monitor and take some technical instruction and watch maestros at work. There’s a place in New York, the Corning Museum of Glass. It’s like Netflix for glass blowers, they have all these videos of the maestros that have demonstrated in their museum over the years.”
UPDATE 2023! Melting Pot Studio is having an open studio day, Sunday 17 December 2023, 10am-5pm. If you contact the studio beforehand you can book a place to blow your own Christmas bauble! Contact Melting Pot Studio for details/bookings or head to Melting Pot Studio’s Facebook Page to find out more.
For more information about Gerry Reilly and Melting Pot Glass Studio, head to https://meltingpotglass.com/
Pictured top are some of Gerry Reilly’s popular tumblers and jugs. Photo: Rob Finestone
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