Glass Lives Interview: Glass Society of Ireland

Posted On: 09/11/2020

The Glass Society of Ireland

Glass Society of Ireland Chair Róisín de Buitléar in conversation with North Lands Creative Director Karen Phillips.

network organisation 

1. Firstly can you introduce The Glass Society of Ireland (GSOI)?

The Glass Society of Ireland is a professional all-island, non-profit association that opens a window onto the contemporary Irish Glass Community, both here in Ireland and abroad. The GSOI is a volunteer and member-run organization open to practitioners, educators, artists, curators, collectors, academics, gallerists, enthusiasts and clients of all levels and diversity with a specific interest in glass. Membership is also open to the Irish glassmaking diaspora and international artists who have decided to call Ireland home.
The contemporary wing of the GSOI was founded in 1995 by Róisín de Buitléar and Mary Mackey originally known as The GSOI contemporary makers, it worked as a partner organisation bringing a contemporary viewpoint to a historical society. The association is much older and founded by Mary Boydell in 1991 who was president for many years. After her death aged 89 in 2010 the GSOI slowly ceased activity and the contemporary makers remained, rebranding as GSOI.

2. How has the organisation and craft more widely changed over that period?

In ’95 there was a healthy industrial workforce of glassmakers in Ireland spread over three factories. Despite this there were very few hot working studios in Ireland, Jerpoint glass, and Kerry Glass were producing table and giftware. Only a handful of studios were creating work by kilnworking. Stained glass studios were in abundance, creating both restoration works and commissioned works for contemporary buildings.  The government percent for art scheme provided important budgets for artists to create larger scale works in public buildings, including stained glass installations. Crystal manufacturing dominated the commercial glass market, but individual artists such as Maud Cotter and James Scanlon were being commissioned regularly for public buildings. Today there remains only one commercial crystal factory and the individual artists have taken the place of the commercial producers. More conceptual, abstract and site specific work is being made than blown objects for domestic context. There are no apprenticeships, and a minority of students are opting to study glass at university level. Until the crisis, student exchanges, erasmus & Leonardo programmes  were very central to glass education for Irish students. An overall majority of students have historically emigrated in pursuit of a glassmaking career. Currently in studio practice, artists are working between disciplines, mixing materials, contexts and ways of exhibiting. There are no specific glass dealers or galleries for exhibition spaces that promote glass specifically. However since 2018 The national museum has shown two major exhibitions of glass at the Museum for Decorative Arts. There is no national center for glass in Ireland, and artists exhibit alongside other mediums. There is only one open access studio offering all areas of coldworking. Artists are working in all disciplines, including performance, installation, site specific work, sculpture, lighting, and a variety of small craft businesses which concentrate on homeware and giftware. 

Róisín de Buitléar in the Hot Shop

3. 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?

People are finding ways to work together either by working in bubbles or by working remotely depending on trust and knowledge using technology to help straddle the gap. Interestingly communication although remote has allowed groups and individuals to meet regularly even though they are in different areas around the country. This could lead to greater communication, pooling of ideas and combining resources more freely than before. The glass society of Ireland has actively looked to build on national and international partnerships in order to encourage global thinking and cohesion amongst artists working in the field. This includes arts advocacy orgs, educational & national institutions, and national glass orgs such as GAS, GAAC, GCS uk, Aus glass, This opens possibilities to learn from each other and build on our communities and integrate diaspora, to arrive at solutions which may allow a different kind of thinking to emerge to cope with this pandemic. Holding world based conferences, exhibitions, and live workshops can all be on the table for discussion. This is important when the world seems like a more isolated place and travel is less possible or impossible. 

4. Do you think project such as ISGNE make a difference to Ireland and European glass? And if so, why?

Yes it certainly does. It brings communities and individuals together, through meetings, collaborations and partnerships. Visibility is an important issue to smaller countries like Ireland, and working with an organization like Isgne brings visibility globally to our artists and practices. It offers competitive and noncompetitive opportunities to artists, stretching and flexing the artistic scope of working in isolation. It offers many opportunities for making, and showing activities that do not exist in Ireland.  Isgne also offers a window into the possibilities of glass as a material for expression, a virtual exhibition space, significant to contemporary artists particularly those at the beginning of their careers. Seeing collaborations and activities happening in different parts of Europe is an important beacon when other opportunities are not open to them. Isgne has shown the versatility and diversity of work being produced in glass which is important to a small Island nation isolated on the edge of Europe, it helps to feel included and inspired by a larger community connected by a fascination for the material of glass. 

5. Has the relationship with European glass makers changed over recent years?

Not really, Glassmakers are one big family, ready to share, experience and hand on knowledge and experience to the next generation. Our doors virtually or otherwise are permanently open to travellers. 

6. In your opinion, what are the positive differences of the glass sector in Ireland from the rest of Europe? Can we use this as an advantage to foster growth for the Irish community?

Isolation and lack of national support for the craft has led Irish glassmakers to be self-reliant, innovative, and internationally connected. They work for the most part, individually in small studios in isolation. 
Lack of access and community has led to working with the material in ways that are not driven by technique or iconic mentors, but by personal investigation with concept and an enquiry into the process. This has led to diversity within their practice to encompass other materials or expression if the subject allows, A particular focus on the narrative within Irish glass practice is a strong cultural identity which straddles both stained glass and sculptural work. As a nation of storytellers this is not unusual but a cultural norm. In recent years storytelling has been used in glass for literary, political and personal expression.
Lack of national exhibition possibilities also drive artists/curators to stage their own solo /group shows, in galleries or other site specific spaces, or exhibit internationally in competition with other artists. Despite the difficulties this brings, the result is a greater engagement internationally and national recognition for work being created in Ireland which is often greater than national recognition. 
With a deep connection to glass historically in Ireland there are great opportunities here to reach a wider public, to educate and bring about a new engagement with glass with younger generations.
Currently during covid Ireland is experiencing a new phenomenon, one where community involvement and an appreciation for local business has been taken on as a national mission. Having had time to create at home during lockdown members of the public are now looking to find a new focus and engage with the handmade with a deeper understanding of its intrinsic value. Individuals are seeking out authentic artwork and investing in buying and supporting creatives as part of a national supportive surge towards struggling businesses. This has led to craft based makers having a stronger year of sales than anticipated and possibly better than ever, as people shop local and shopIirish. This is not isolated to gift ware or homewares but has also impacted on artists working in commissioned work in public and private fields. This is an opportunity to further engage with the public, open the doors of the studios virtually to share these positive experiences and encourage more personal patronage and investment in the arts. 
In this regard, the glass society decided to publish an online gift guide to showcase makers who were open to selling and where the public could see a variety of work within a number of clicks. This guide, hosted on the website has driven traffic to the GSOI website and been shared by the community national agencies and supporters of buy Irish across social media, bringing a wider reach than we have seen before. Interestingly it also spurred new members of the community to join the GSOI and bring people together as a collection of artists from very established to less established which has bolstered those who may not have dared engage before. This will hopefully lead to greater engagement from them in the future and ultimately lead to better quality work. Thematic collections like this could lead to greater understanding and engagement in the future, leading to greater visibility, commercial sales and commissions in a variety of ways.  
Roisin Debuitlear glass artist hanging glass sculpture

'Idir dal agus dorchadas' - Róisín de Buitléar

'A Game of Power and Control' - Sinéad Brennan

7. Tell us something we definitely won't know about GSoI.

Of the 128 members, 90% are women. 

8. How has Covid-19 affected GSoI members?

Initially it was devastating, but in the last few months, gsoi members have reconfigured their practices and adapted to working in different ways, using the time as a reflective time, or as time to catch up on maintenance work, establishing a stronger online presence and sales. Lack of international travel to an island community is very impactful, however this has led to more discovery of local places and appreciation of what is on the doorstep. It has encouraged members to reach out virtually to each other, 

9. What's been keeping GSOI busy during lockdown?

With a new board in place just prior to lockdown this has been a very formative and busy number of months, We have established a series of new initiatives with an overall aim of creating a distinct identity for Irish glass. 
We overhauled our website as a first port of communication with our community and public. We established a members page with links to personal websites and contact details, with a mapping facility to connect members & the public geographically. 
We increased our membership from 
On the website we established a members specific area, offering information and services, including important information on covid aids etc. Our news blog updated any changes and information available form a number of different sources, catering for different areas straddled by our membership. Information was also sent out in our monthly newsletter, including any grant aid, opportunities for international activities and exhibitions.
 We lobbied successfully on behalf of the GSOI to government agencies for more support in grant aid to the members and GSOI. We worked with other national arts organizations to lobby to bring about significant government aid to artists nationwide. 
We started a series of video interviews on our youtube channel with artists working with glass under #glasschats.
We increased our social media engagement by 50% with running various campaigns such as #myglasslife and #stainedglassnearby, extending our reach nationally and internationally. 
We ran online meetings both community based, technical and social through zoom. Social events were an important way of presenting our board members and having a safe space to talk about glass and life. They provided some much needed levity in a time that was very dark. 
As part of supporting younger artists, we instigated the only end of year celebration for our glass graduates 2020 (only two colleges in Ireland who teach glass) from Crawford College in Cork and NCAD Dublin, This included promotion on social media and a zoom meeting where students presented thier own work and had a chance to interact with the community. They were attended by our community, undergrad students, gallerists, national agencies, curators, and journalists.
We have engaged a professional editor to create a new publication Glass Ireland which will be published in December. 
In focusing renewed attention on the publication, the aim is to provide a platform for quality content that not only documents what happens but is also a catalyst for thought and action. Reflection, critical review and research are key to stimulating new ideas and directions for glass. Our hope is that this publication will be a touchpoint for makers and those interested in Irish glass, providing insights and perspectives that spark dialogue. Glass Ireland is funded by the GSOI, supported by DCCI, Kugler Colours, Glasma, His Glassworks and the National Museum of Ireland. The publication is free to members, and will be on sale to the general public via the website, and will be shared with major glass institutions in the world. Isnge and North Lands Creative are featured in this edition.

Islanders digital projection of glass slide render, MURANO

10. How resilient is the glass sector at this time?

 As an island nation we are a resilient people. Without significant support glassmakers have had to be resilient in finding ways to survive anyway. We are seeing more communication and engagement with our society which is only a good thing. Working together will lead to more cohesion, and moral support is as valuable in the right circumstance as fiscal support. we will continue to work towards creating an opportunity for both. We as a people have lived through much harder times than this, survival is part our dna.    

11. In what ways do you think technology and the digital pivot will continue to push craft, and vice versa?

Already we are seeing the benefits as an organisation, having a truly nationwide board, we have met regularly and progressed with aims and objectives though lockdown, with a full board attendance. This has moved our actions on faster and more cohesively than would have been possible in live meetings. Recordings of all meetings are minuted and kept. 
Virtual society meetings are more challenging, but nevertheless have brought a national aspect to our events. The graduate shows were particularly successful giving individual platforms to students to a particular clientele which they may never had had and engagement with.
Current marketing on social media television and radio #buylocalireland and #shopIrish is having a positive and wide reaching effect, never seen before. 
International liaisons are growing. Isgne is helping in this regard. Discussion Forums, coworking etc has all been facilitated by zoom, Information relationships and learning by osmosis can not really be nurtured electronically, much of this kind of meeting advances work significantly but feels like interim activity until we can actually physically meet again. There will be a need to do that as soon as possible 

12. You communicate with artists, studios and educators across Ireland. What is the prevailing mood currently?

Upbeat, hopeful, resilient and community focussed. 

13. Where can people find out more information on GSoI's work and opportunities? and Glass Ireland publication in December. 


'North Skies Evening' - Sophie Longwill

9.Balloon Tree reception

Balloon Tree, reception


'Sisyphus Lighting Piece' - Laura Quinn

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