Now in its eighteenth year, the annual Tom Malone Prize showcases the skill and ingenuity of some of Australia’s most accomplished glass artists. Canberra artist Mel Douglas was awarded the Prize this year for her five-part piece Tonal Value, a complex work which demonstrates her ongoing interest in a kind of “three-dimensional drawing.” The work’s elegant gradation from white to black explores how the intersection of objects and drawing can create a new form of mark-making. We caught up with Mel to hear more about the work and how her practice has developed since first winning the Tom Malone Prize in 2014.
Tell us about your ‘drawing with glass’ approach and what this involves on a technical level?
Over the past six years, my practice has investigated how and if studio glass can be understood through the aesthetics of drawing. I began this investigation to test how studio glass could become a drawing or expand the field of drawing, particularly as objects and drawings are often thought of as two separate entities.
The technique draws on traditional screen-printing processes – instead of printing with ink onto paper, I am printing with glass powder directly onto a kiln shelf, and firing the glass. The glass is then transferred onto and adhered to paper. Each glass drawing is taken from an original drawing, each work is individual, and these works are not made in editions.
1. I make a hand drawn image. 2. I prepare the image and expose it onto a silk screen. 3. I set the screen onto a kiln shelf.
4. I run fine glass powder over the screen and the powder falls through the screen following the lines of my drawing. 5. I remove the screen, leaving the glass on the shelf. 6. Once the glass has cooled I am left with a fine, wafer thin glass drawing. I then adhere the glass drawing to printing paper.
How does incorporating drawing into glass art offer new creative possibilities?
Investigating how and what ‘drawing with glass’ could be, I applied theories of line, conventions of contemporary drawing alongside ideas and rules of geometry to the distinctive material quality of glass. By combining the unique qualities of the glass with the rich potential of mark making, I have developed techniques to consider how line can inform, define and enable an object as a drawing.
By taking an interdisciplinary approach to developing work that looks beyond the disciplinary confines of one material, I have combined ideas and theories from the wider fields of the visual arts, anthropology and the sciences, extending the potential of glass to be understood as drawing. I have taken the approach, that to better understand a material, I needed to push its limits to see where it crossed over with other materials.
What do you think glass can offer that’s different to any other medium?
Glass may be an unforgiving medium, but it’s extremely versatile. It can be blown, cut, cast, flameworked, kiln formed, filled with neon gas, and illuminated. Artists’ approaches to working with the medium have become increasingly multifaceted—combining glass with video, exploring 3D printing and other emerging technologies.
Glass as a means for exploring lines spatially offers abundant and unique avenues. Being an amorphous material that changes viscosity depending on temperature, a line can be drawn out freely into space and immediately sets into a drawn form, it can hide and conceal line, it can cast shadow lines which move through and in to the substrate.
What was the intention or concept behind your work Tonal Value and how did this develop as the piece took shape?
Tonal Value contemplates how objects occupy space. The space that surrounds an object has the ability to hold and suspend, by tilting these objects in space and changing the orientation, each work holds on to that last moment of silence and stillness before it spills over. This sets up an ambiguous tension, a sense of anticipation and movement within a still frame.
This work also looks at the different values of line that can be achieved through exploring the viscosity of glass, and how the changes in tone or colour change the quality and gauge of line. By moving this image through a series of tonal changes, from a stiff white, which gives a tight, thin and pronounced line, through to black which melts at a lower temperature, the line becomes softer and bleeds into the substrate making a thicker, more painterly line.
Mel Douglas Tonal Value 2019. Glass on paper, 5 units: 71 x 71 cm each. Courtesy the artist. © Mel Douglas. Photo: David Patterson.
How does the physical positioning of a glass work change how it is perceived?
There are so many physical changes that occur when you move an artwork from the studio into a gallery setting. Private to public, it transforms a playful idea into something more defined and absolute and the transformation of glass that occurs under different lighting conditions can be extreme.
Sometimes taking a work from the studio into a gallery setting removes the intimacy: the viewer loses the ability to take in all of the subtleties. However, in opposition, displaying work in a gallery removes all of the mechanics behind the work. It provides a clean defined space for the work to be seen and interpreted.
How do you feel your practice has evolved since previously winning the Tom Malone Prize in 2014?
Towards the end of 2014, I began looking for new ways to integrate line and surface, I wanted to find ways to animate and subvert surfaces through line. I was seeking to find a connective purpose between my forms and their surfaces to explore space; I wanted the lines to be active and directive.
My practice has also developed by my need to extend the potential of thinking about glass within a conceptual framework. Until recently my work has been viewed primarily within the studio glass discipline. Through a critical examination of the potential for glass to be understood as drawing this research has led me to reconsider how my new work might be received outside of a studio glass perspective.
Where do you feel glass art sits in contemporary art practice?
The modern movement of studio glass began in America in the 1960s and is still recognised within visual art and craft disciplines. When a number of artists in the USA (such as Harvey Littleton and Martin Lipofsky) began to work with glass as a creative medium it created a significant shift between designer and maker. Disciplines, like ‘studio glass’ have been highly focused on understanding the material, and in doing so have made it possible to delve deeply into one subject, to learn everything possible from one set of tools and to develop new tools based on discoveries.
While my practice has developed from this modern history of studio glass, I am looking for a different kind of pathway as a contemporary practitioner. Just as craft theorist Glenn Adamson has observed, “in the last fifteen years contemporary studio glass has begun to expand its horizons, focusing less on technique and more on the artistic expression of ideas.’
Read more about the Tom Malone Prize and view this year’s catalogue on our website.
To find out more about Mel Douglas’ work, go to meldouglasglass.com