Art in Lockdown: Masterclass reaches global audience

Matthew Szosz

Matthew Szosz workshop

Matthew Szosz with Anna Mlasowsky, screenshot of Zoom live glass inflation demonstration.

The Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries have been using innovative means of engaging with their Glass and Ceramics students during the Covid-19 crisis – and in the process have reached a global audience.

Every year the Mike Davies Fund Visiting Artist masterclass presents some of the world’s most innovative glass and ceramics artists to Sunderland students. This year due to the global pandemic the masterclass, by acclaimed US artist Matthew Szösz, was moved onto social media platform Zoom, with the aim of engaging with Glass and Ceramics students – but the impact of the talk was much wider than expected.

Dr Jeffrey Sarmiento is Associate Professor in Glass, developing conferences, curating and jurying exhibitions and masterclasses with National Glass Centre and other partners. He writes about how they organised one of the “best-attended live lectures given by the Glass and Ceramics team.

At Sunderland kiln glass is a key area in teaching and research, evidenced by the number of PhD studies and amount of studio space devoted to the subject.

Kilnforming is one of the essential approaches to creative making in glass. Requiring little equipment, and no furnace, it is accessible to a wide audience of amateurs and professionals and does not require the same physical interaction as blown glass. At the same time, it is flexible in scale and can be stretched from the making of domestic products such as coasters through to architectural windows and public sculptures.

However, students, staff and the public had been locked down from the closed National Glass Centre and from much of normal life. With that in mind, an innovative approach to running and distributing a masterclass remotely was used to host an equally innovative artist working in glass.

Matthew Szösz, based in Seattle USA is an American artist who has used his experience working with architectural glass designers and his unique methods for making sculpture to reinvent kilnforming.

His two-day masterclass consisted of two lectures, a studio tour, and a live demonstration of his technique of glass inflation through kilnforming. All the activity was conducted via conferencing app Zoom.

It was agreed that while the priority was on student learning (the masterclass was scheduled to fit within Glass and Ceramic students’ schedules), we decided to open up the masterclass to our international network of glass educators on an email thread, and advertise the Zoom artist lecture through social media and the University’s webpage. We garnered a huge response to our post, and decided to additionally offer the activity through Facebook Live as Zoom conference capacity was limited to 100 screens.

In Szosz’s first lecture, he discussed his approach to artwork: “material experimentation as an aesthetic strategy” described his constant experimentation with glass as a combination of artisanal techniques and a constant search for alternative methods to fabricate glass.

The way in which his artwork is produced involves elements of performing making techniques, and interactivity with materials as a key component. Therefore video footage of his events, installations and making of ephemeral glass objects was an important part of the artist talk.

Weaving glass fibre using a rope making tool and solidifying it into form through kilnforming was one technique to produce three dimensional forms, as is the expansion and inflation of glass, which he went on to demonstrate the second day.

After a brief Q&A session through Zoom chat, Matthew took the audience on a tour of his private studio in Seattle, which is filled with custom made kilns and machinery designed to perform specific tasks. He stated that some of his invention was born out of the lack of a hot glass furnace, and therefore he was forced to come up with his own solutions for creating three-dimensional glass sculpture. He then described in a series of images the sequence for building his forms out of layers of cut float glass and ThinFire fibre paper in preparation for the live inflation demonstration to follow.

The second day began with a lecture, with a focus on Matthew’s work as a designer and fabricator for architectural glass artists Nikolas Weinstein. This talk was primarily technical in nature, and considered various mechanical innovations in kiln glass to produce large commissioned works in notable buildings including a bank building by Frank Gehry in Berlin.

Szosz described his role as a problem-solver within a team that included Formula 1 engineers and CAD specialists. The day and the workshop concluded with the inflation of two objects live on camera. Szosz and his studio mate (the renowned artist Anna Mlasowsky) suited up in fire-proof gear and appropriate PPE. With the glass kiln turned to 870C, extremely high for a kilnforming process, the glass structure was pulled out whilst hot, and inflated using a compressed air gun into a small brass orifice. It could be seen as a reinvention of glassblowing, without the furnace and additionally without some of the restrictions that the traditional process entails. Further Q&A followed, with students asking questions.

This was one of the best-attended live lectures given by the Glass and Ceramics team, and social media and conference apps helped us to do it.

The video broadcast via Zoom had capacity for 100 simultaneous viewers, and on the first day the event was over capacity. An additional 40 live streamed the event via Facebook Live. On the second day we welcomed 55 Zoom participants and 25 on Facebook live.

These numbers indicate great interest in the artist as well as a solid level of engagement from undergraduate students, postgraduate researchers, staff, alumni and the public. The audience included people from the North East, Scotland and the London area. International participants included callers from Korea, Hong Kong,

California, Denmark, Netherlands, Canada, the USA, France, and Israel. Students tuned in as well as eminent British glass artists Colin Reid and Carrie Fertig. No other method of delivering this lecture could have garnered such a broad response.

Facebook activity on the Sunderland Glass and Ceramics page increased greatly over the course of advertising and broadcasting the event.

It is hoped that the activity has energized the student body who are currently confined to their homes, providing them with the possibilities of what they might do when they return to the National Glass Centre, or in fact develop their own working processes from a home studio. Senior Lecturer Colin Rennie, a proponent of digital craft, has reached out to Matthew for further collaboration in research projects involving bubbles and igneous rock.

Ultimately this Mike Davies funded event was not only an appropriate masterclass at a difficult time. It also explored the possibility of new ways to deliver content online and to engage students on a potentially global scale.

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