JAmes Maskrey

James Maskrey in conversation with North Lands Creative Director Karen Phillips.

PROJECT ACTIVITY - glass nexus forum

PARTNER - north lands creative

YEAR - 2019

Firstly I’d like to iterate that this talk is based only on my own views and observations as an individual. It by no means reflects the thoughts of any institutions I’ve had, or still have affiliations with. It is an honest personal reflection as to what I have witnessed over the 19 (or so!) years that I have felt blessed to be involved in both education and the creative industries.

1. Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to work with glass?

I got into glass quite by accident. A year spent travelling had inspired me to continue with my adventures whilst writing so my aim was to study journalism and travel off the back of that. In the interim I got a job with a glassmaker and a combination of working with him and working with Neil Wilkin who hired his studio set me on my path. I think there were two turning points, the latter end of working Neil, where I saw different facets to working, the joy of it and being actively encouraged to pursue it, and the moment I chose to go and study my BA in 1997, that was the ‘commitment’ part….

2. How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?

Very narrative. I’ve always enjoyed stories and the chance to tell them through my work has become quite a part of it. The subject matter varies but tends to be a combination of obscure facts, acts of heroism (or some may say, recklessness) and certainly a great deal of historical exploration thrown in along with some social and natural history. I like to show people a glimpse of something, the outer periphery of a story and hope that through their own inquisitiveness they are drawn in to find more, to peel back the layers if you like.

James Maskrey demonstration at Glass Nexus Forum 2019

3. Has there been a shift or change in your life or work that has led to what you’re making now?

There was a real shift that occurred after completing my MA in 2004. I had been struggling to find a voice. I had spent years trying to emulate existing techniques and pushed myself to make more and more complicated work that was in fact, rather boring. At the same time I wasn’t getting selected for exhibitions that I was applying for and became rather disillusioned with my own direction. I had an experience in Novy Bor during the International Glass Symposium in 2006 when I made work directly in response to my situation which was a real turning point. Shortly after this I started to read a great deal about historic travels, of expeditions, mostly inspired by my late Grandfather’s collection of books. I started to make work loosely related to the stories that really interested me, really to just make work for myself and my own interests. As soon as I started this, rather bizarrely, other people became interested.

4. You currently work as the Senior Technician in Glass at Sunderland University? So how did you come to be there? What’s been your career journey?

My career in glassmaking began some 20 years ago. After completion of my A levels I decided to travel extensively for a year or two. On my return to the UK I joined a small glassmaking studio working with William Walker where I was persuaded to undergo an employment training scheme, not unlike an apprenticeship. During this period, many other glassmakers used the studio I worked for and I became part of the furniture for hire. The most influential of these was Neil Wilkin, when I saw him blow glass, I thought ‘I want to be able to do it like that’. I stayed for 7 years and latterly was responsible for making production ware and for training and teaching skills to my successor. This was when I first recognised the joy in disseminating skills and techniques to others. 

I left to undertake a BA in Glass at UCA Farnham. As a relatively experienced member of my student cohort I regularly helped my colleagues develop their skills and fabricate works that were otherwise beyond their capabilities. On graduation I was invited to stay on as artist in residence for a year, where the major part of my role was teaching skills to students of all levels. The satisfaction gained from these experiences further underpinned my desire to pursue a career in education. In 2001 I was successful in my application to become hot glass technician at the University of Sunderland, National Glass Centre. Since my role has grown to encompass demonstrator, sessional A/T and facilitator for artist’s projects both through University access schemes and latterly National Glass Centre.

5. How did you get into teaching?

Much of the technical role surrounds teaching through dissemination of skills so the evolution of the technical role and various secondments to academic roles (visiting lecturer/academic tutor) have been paramount to it. In my educational lifetime the expansion of the technical role has evolved to now officially include demonstration (teaching skills in particular). This has been a big move in universities. Unofficially, technical staff have always been the first port of call for advice on many technical matters, but during mine and many of my technical colleagues earlier careers we were much maligned for sharing skills and ideas from many different angles. Sadly I witnessed this as a student on many occasions too. I can distinctly remember once being told it was not our place to share skills and ideas, merely our duty to show safe use of equipment, any sort of teaching was the job of academics. Fortunately we have had some forward looking academic colleagues who supported, encouraged and appreciated this holistic approach and input and therefore

the role positively evolved into what it is today.

Now more than ever the role requires a much broader knowledge, with most technical appointments now carry the new title of technical demonstrator or technical instructor meaning a large part of that role includes a large taught demonstrative commitment and hence a broader knowledge and skills set.

Additionally other facets of education have also played their part in this evolution such as academic commitments to research and the introduction of academic workloading that have moved the technical role into a more instructional and demonstrative position. This is where the role of the technical demonstrator is of real importance, on the shop floor to supervise, guide, advise and demonstrate, both in groups and individually, assessing students needs and working holistically and independently but in a real close association with academic staff to make sure the approach is consistent with the desired outcomes of the lecturers, the department and the programme, it’s an all round team effort that generates a successful outcome.

What has been rewarding has been having the opportunity to structure and develop my own approaches and methodologies through running independent workshops at the University and external skills classes and masterclasses beyond.

6. Working in education, what does it mean to you?

To me it is the whole positive experience of sharing, being able to give someone else the benefit of years of acquired knowledge of skills, strategies and ideas and delivering these in a concise time period, whether that be through a masterclass, a short course, an individual workshop, a minutes advice in passing, or during the length of a degree or post graduate qualification. Seeing someone get the ‘bug’ and seeing their joy in their achievements, their growth, are really heart-warming experiences. I am a committed and passionate individual who believes in the core values of craft skills and have spent many years finding the best way to share those skills through how I deliver sessions to students and professionals, whether through my role as technical demonstrator, a gaffer or as a masterclass leader.

Teaching at Bildwerk, demonstration and workshop on image transfer

Demonstrating during North Lands Creative masterclass, 2015

7. Can you tell us about the department and courses?

We run a course called ‘Artist, Designer, Maker-Glass and Ceramics’. We also run a post graduate MA in Glass and Ceramics and MPhil and Phd programmes.

We have a fantastic range of facilities. In ceramics this includes large throwing and hand- building rooms for ceramics, a slipcasting plant, a Ceramic 3d printer, mould making facilities including plaster-turning lathes, numerous electric ceramic kilns, 2 gas kilns and facilities for Raku firing and a dedicated glaze and glazing room. Our glass facilities include a fully equipped hotshop with two furnaces and four workstations (benches and gloryholes), two large casting kilns, pick-up and colour kilns, four lehrs, a fully equipped flameworking studio with 7 torches and dedicated kilns, an architectural glass studio, a mould making studio for glass and ceramics, 17 glass kilns of various dimensions from small to very large, fully equipped coldshop with flatbeds, lathes and air tools, a dedicated print studio for glass and ceramics and an industrial scale waterjet cutter. We also have access to FabLab which houses CNC equipment and 3d printers, Laser cutters and access to a metal and wood workshop.

The BA course itself embraces all the facets of the course title. It covers both traditional and contemporary craft skills and there is a dedicated digital element which covers new technologies including modules on 3D programming. We encourage everyone to be an

individual and to embrace fine art, design, traditional crafts, and new technologies either as specific elements or as a mixture. Basically you are taught many different facets through the three year full-time undergraduate course and eventually pursue your own path. The post graduate paths are understandably more self-directed but with constant support from both academic and technical staff.

8. What other projects might students be able to work on?

We have always sought to keep links and create experiences that provide real world opportunities. As a department we have facilitated external projects involving our students for many different platforms, mostly through being approached through reputation or through many of our own networks. These have included Northumbria University, Durham University, The Bowes Museum, Tynemouth Metro Station, UNICEF, Bombay Sapphire, Daum, Nissan, Hell’s Kitchen, Harry Potter, Big Brother, Game of Thrones, and Frankenstein’s Chronicles. This gives our students real life experiences in project management and facilitation and some real esteem.

We have also given our students real travel opportunities through the relationships developed by staff with fair trade companies. This has meant organising internships and taking students on design and technical consulting projects worldwide as far afield as India, Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Peru and Bolivia.

Since 2002 I have been involved in the facilitation of artist projects both through access schemes instigated initially by the university, and latterly through the closer working relationship we have developed with National Glass Centre., I have worked with over 50 different artists, researchers and organisations (both national and international) as a gaffer (lead facilitator of glassworks), collaborator and technical expert over the past 16 years.

Many of these have involved organisations such as The Bowes Museum, MIMA, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Sunderland Museum and Wintergardens and The National Glass Centre. The results of these projects have been artworks that have been shown in national and international exhibitions from the Venice Biennale to the Woman’s Hour Craft prize at the V&A. I have encouraged and organised paid student participation throughout these projects. This has given student participants ‘hands on’ experience. It has promoted responsibility, given insight into management of artistic projects and given experience of co-operation and integration of work with that of other artists. It has provided peer support, developed communication and practical skills, built confidence, promoted teamwork and disseminated contemporary working practices. It has provided opportunities for student/artist dialogue and has helped develop professional relationships between students and artists that can only be possible through such an activity. This has been an ongoing development through the University and National Glass Centre.

9. Please describe the changes that are being made in education to support the next generation of glass artists.

There are many changes and new strategies but most importantly we need to recruit more students, so this means attracting them in the first place. Judging by the statistics this means trying to bring back the popularity of creative arts subjects in schools, or, at least, giving schools the opportunities to access creative facilities to learn the facts of the positive growth in creative industries. We have invested a considerable amount of time developing particular recruitment experiences that have contributed to the continued growth in our student applications and reflect what we do as a department. The fact that we have continued to maintain and marginally increase numbers pays testament to this. We are targeting year 10s and upwards for hands on practical experiences and informative tours of our studios and exhibitions to highlight the virtues of the creative industries as a possible career path.

We have to be pro-active in attracting new cohorts by giving memorable and professionally delivered experiences that both enthuse and inspire potential students.

Additionally, with National Glass Centre we have been working as a partner on the Design Lab Nation project with the V&A, bringing schools into our university departments on specific making projects in lampwork, hot glass, digital crafts and ceramics. We have also. been working with young people (14-18) on the Creative Dimensions projects the aim being to enable young people to develop fine hand skills with leading, international specialists.

Historically we worked with The Sorrell Foundation’s Saturday Club, bringing together students on a Saturday to deliver creative experiences.

From working on the inside I have noticed there is a real passion and belief for a broad education, much energy is put into keeping going under increasing financial pressures and a lot of effort into keeping programmes open and constantly improving them. The general modular structure of educational courses has remained pretty constant structurally, but the modules themselves have evolved to keep our delivery up to date in response to an ever changing market. Publicising what we actually do has been incredibly important. That fact that programmes may offer digital elements, that they embrace fine art, that they embrace design, that they embrace craft skill has always been the case, but publicising it has helped to streamline the offer and give prospective students some clarity to what the offer is. This has resulted in a change of programme title of ‘Artist/Designer/Maker’ that more reflects what we actually do.

Many University glass departments have also expanded their reach, perhaps through necessity, encompassing facilitation for other departments such as design, or external projects through enterprise. Personally I have continually expanded my workload with students from all other disciplines of glass and ceramics, fabricating components across disciplines and developing approaches that utilise the attributes of a great hotshop such as warm billet casting techniques for kiln casters and bespoke flashed glass for architectural installations. We have also facilitated projects for many different creative cohorts across our faculty from Fine Art to Film and many external projects with partners mentioned earlier.

As the creative art world has changed we as a whole have become more accepting of facilitation to a way of expressing oneself. An understanding of material and process is incredibly important but investing a lifetime to honing one individual skill one may not wish to use everyday may seem to some like an inefficient use of time. However, understanding what a material is capable of and making judgements apon that I think gives the individual a right to have work facilitated by a technical expert.

For every person that has that view there will be others that insist they need to make everything themselves, and hence a parity between the two can be reached where there is plenty of work to be had by craftspeople, from making their own work to facilitating it for others.. We just have to make sure we are still producing these craft based practitioners aswell so, as our industries (glass factories) slowly disappear, we can continue our national craft legacy. From my own perspective as a practical instructor this means teaching skills and making experiences in a way that will hope to secure a new wave of contemporary glassmakers and arm them with the tools they need to make revolutionary work, both for themselves and others.

In my view, a department that embraces these approaches with a balance will work effectively as a creative community that can be echoed as a model beyond education.

Additionally there are the experiences I have previously mentioned, external projects with institutions, organisations and artists and offers of internships with partners coupled with opportunities to travel through these and exchanges with international universities. As universities a key part of our goal is employability hence we need to understand that opportunities for internships, overseas study, extracurricular activities and active learning can all contribute to the development of skills such as teamwork, adaptability and resilience and enhance the experience of our student cohort.

10. How do you benefit from your time teaching and supporting students?

Every day is a school day. I find I scrutinise my own practice far more through my role in education, breaking down and self analysing the ‘whys’ behind the ‘hows’. This really helps to improve an educational delivery in skills provision and to use these strategies and acquired pieces of knowledge through my own practice. Working in an environment with many other creatives from all walks of life makes you keep an open mind and an ever expanding resource for inspiration and development, diverse sounding boards and critics and plenty of opportunities for some amusement, normally at my expense!

Running an overlay workshop at University of Sunderland

11. What are the similarities of students from the UK and the rest of Europe and what are the positive differences?

One aspect I have noticed has been the quality of draftsmanship amongst many of our European students, which may be linked to a better provision of art education through schools and colleges, or students showing talent in the arts being actively encouraged to pursue them – although these are just personal presumptions – many of our national students are similarly gifted. Many overseas students are incredibly driven, I believe the commitment it takes to study abroad is a great one, so these students tend to be really committed to their studies, perhaps with a feeling they are representing more than just themselves. Similarly our students who choose to study on an exchange programme overseas are equally driven and committed. There are corresponding talents shown by our national cohort, a great variety of skills and dexterity in making and expression and a fantastic diversity of demographic in ages and backgrounds and a real sense of dedication. These days with an education costing (someone) in the realm of £50,000 it requires some commitment to pursue. At the end of most working days it is reassuring that it takes some effort to extract many familiar faces from our department at 9pm.

Each student whether national or international bring their own individual qualities which is what makes working in education both diverse and delightful.

12. How would you define contemporary glass in the UK at the moment?

I don’t think you can define contemporary glass in the UK, the work is so diverse in style, inspiration and technique, I don’t believe there is a definitive recognisable movement. I would say UK glass is ‘diverse and exciting’. I’m from the UK and want to promote the fantastic variation in creativity we continue to nurture here.

13. What are your favourite European artists, studios and/ or places?

Frantislek Skala, a Czech artist, I just adore his work. I love Bildwerk in Frauenau, Germany as a creative study centre, such a warm, diverse and bohemian place (it has a beer machine!). I love France and the Pyrennes, have had great experiences in the Czech Republic

(Prague, Nizbor and Novy Bor), Poland (Krakow), Belgium (Lommel, Antwerp), Spain Madrid, Segovia, The Pyrennes), Italy (Venice in particular!) and there’s North Lands Creative in Caithness, Scotland, my first love of course!

14. You communicate with artists, studios and educators in the UK and other European countries. What is the prevailing mood currently?

I don’t want to get into politics too much, but I feel creative industries, that is all the arts should be supported through these times. I feel both blessed and thankful that my role in education has remained consistent. Despite an initial general feeling of fear and foreboding amongst most creative communities, there has also been quite an upbeat and positive approach amongst many. I know we hear the expression a lot, but we are living in extraordinary and unprecedented times, however, many creatives are finding ways to carry on and create different opportunities. Alternative ways of working, meeting and communication through virtual conferencing platforms have been good sounding boards and hotlines for sharing not just strategies, but emotions. The success of the Contemporary Glass Society’s ‘Together on Wednesdays’ has been testament to that, creating a real sense of supportive community.

Even prior to this recent pandemic there were increasing concerns and difficulties related to filling courses, be that University degrees or external masterclasses. However, adopting positive and active recruitment strategies have certainly helped us in education, and my hope is that as long as we are still recruiting and nurturing creatives, we will still be producing inspired, creative and driven individuals wishing to spread their wings and indulge themselves in extracurricular activities in external short courses and masterclasses.

15. The contemporary glass world is built on mobility: artists and their projects are not subjected to national borders, they travel and work in different countries, and their works are exhibited globally. How do you think the international glass scene will change after this crisis?

Lets hope this doesn’t define us and become the ‘new normal’, but if that is so, we must learn to adapt.

The situation has helped bring communities together ‘virtually’ through exhibitions and online lectures and events, perhaps giving exposure to previously unknown audiences.

Individuals are still travelling, creating real experiences and live shows. However, it has also shown that we can access culture through virtual platforms to wider networks, how effective this is may still remain to be seen. There is no real substitute to enjoying artwork in the flesh, it gives us the different perspective of witnessing and enjoying work at first hand and being able to indulge in the whole experience of being moved by that, it brings us closer, it becomes a ‘living encounter’ that goes beyond the object, encapsulating the event,

experiencing the occasion.

From a personal perspective, I love to travel, I miss the face to face. I so enjoy the company of others, expressions, quips, nuances, there is no substitute. However, we must evolve and adapt our practices in line with our current circumstances in order to keep ourselves afloat, enthused and moving forward with positivity.

James Maskrey demonstrating at Glass Nexus Forum 2019 assisted by Emma Baker


Stemware demonstration at University of Sunderland

Shackleton’s Scrimshaw (image Colin Davison)

Victoriana Obscura: ‘High Society’. (image Michael Daglish)

James Maskrey

James Maskrey has a career in hot glass spanning over 25 years. He has exhibited widely internationally and has been recognised for his own work with inclusion in many public and private collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Crafts Council.

 As well as being recognised for his own work he has made work in glass for numerous international artists. These have included Richard Slee, Bruce McLean, Magdalene Odundo, William Tillyer and Nicholas Pope.

 He has a passion for teaching and for the dissemination of glass skills and has led masterclasses throughout Europe. He currently works for the University of Sunderland at the National Glass Centre as a technical demonstrator/instructor and facilitator for artist projects.

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