It’s a case of better late than never for an artist who is creating a stir with her glass creations, as JULIE ROBINS discovers.
At a relatively young age Noreen Todd knew she wanted to become an artist, but concerns at home and a lack of interest from school took her down a more academic route and into accountancy.
“My parents were really worried that a career in art would mean I could not support myself financially and my grammar school in Hertfordshire pushed ‘pure subjects’, so I dropped art in favour of maths and contented myself with sketching on the beach on our annual holidays to Cornwall.”
All that was 40 years ago and in a complete turnaround Noreen has managed to realise her childhood dream and achieve two long-held ambitions: to move permanently to Cornwall and to open a centre of excellence in glass.“It has been quite a journey to get this far, but one that keeps carrying on and is just getting more interesting and challenging,” she says.
Tucked away in rolling hills just outside Helston, she and her husband Roger have completely remodelled an old homestead, converting stables and a piggery into purpose built studios. It is here that Noreen, now in her 60’s, is intent on building on the reputation she has made for herself in the highly competitive world of contemporary craft and glass.
As a mature student at University College Falmouth her talents were soon recognised as her degree progressed and she was shortlisted for the coveted national Bohle prize for her work with kiln cast glass.
This was swiftly followed by the distinction of becoming the highest selling degree show student in the history of the craft courses. She had created Cinderella style glass slippers, but with her trade mark twist of wanting to shock, she modelled them on the ancient Chinese tradition of foot binding. “I was told I couldn’t possibly charge the amount I was asking, and I thought why not, they are worth double that”
Until then her abilities were mainly acknowledged within academic circles, but a chance recommendation at a meeting of the Contemporary Glass Society led to national media coverage when she appeared on Paul Martin’s Handmade Revolution on BBC2 . The programme launched a campaign to get Britain back in touch with proud traditional skills and featured five different talented amateur craftspeople in each of ten programs, competing to be named judge’s favourite. Although she was not chosen, the experience led to nationwide interest and some valued commissions.
Not content to simply produce a beautiful piece of art, Noreen cannot resist the impulse to cause a bit of a stir. “I do like to shock”, she confesses “and I sometimes think the real art is seeing people’s reaction to my work. The piece I had to submit for the programme was reasonably conventional in design but inside I embellished it with a fairly wacky naked Adam and Eve, complete with a serpent. Technically it was extremely difficult and time-consuming, but I was aware it would not be everyone’s cup of tea.”
Many of her influences come from a strong sense of justice and fair play, exerting a compelling desire to produce conceptual pieces based on her interests in political comment sex and women’s issues.
“When I was halfway through my arts foundation course ‘’I realised I was very figurative and had a natural talent for sculpture.” During the first year of my fine art degree, it was all about ‘installations’ and I just didn’t get it”, she admits, ‘’so I opted to transfer to the Contemporary Crafts course.’’
Firmly fixed on this new inspirational path Noreen intending to spend a year attending every workshop she could. The course of true art did not run smooth at this stage and juggling a home life and husband in Welwyn Garden City, working as a full-time chartered accountant specialising in American tax and travelling several times a week from her holiday home in Mullion to Falmouth, unsurprisingly took its toll.
“It was exhausting”, she explains, “but I am not a quitter and I ended up staying on for the full three years where I was really happy to gain ceramicist skills while exploring and discovering glass.”
Everything about working in this medium fascinates her, from the alchemy of the processes to the unpredictability of firing. In her studio – named Bal Maiden Studio Glass after the old Cornish word for mine (bal) and the female workers who laboured in the county’s mining industry a century ago – she has a range of different sized kilns where she can experiment with methods of fusing and casting and explore new styles and techniques, pushing the boundaries of her art.
The work is absorbing and not without its difficulties, one slip in concentration can lead to disaster at any stage, but particularly when trying to make the pieces blow out evenly. “You can’t substitute experience but I do have some happy accidents, say when a colour becomes translucent in the kiln and I think, oh that’s really beautiful,” she says.
One of her favourite techniques is called ‘roll-up’, an intricate process which incorporates a combination of hot and cold working for glass blowing, but does not require a furnace full of molten glass – ideal if she is working on her own. For this she uses hand-rolled sheets of bullseye glass, imported from America, where each colour is compatible with the others when fused or melted.
Although her work requires skill and talent in equal measure, one of the reasons she loves sculpting with glass is that it can be kept simple and still achieve stunning results. To prove the point she now runs workshops, in conjunction with fellow graduate Rachel Newham, who between them have over 15 years experience in all forms of glass working and teaching, and have exhibited nationally and internationally.
The classes are generally held over a weekend for a maximum of six people and can cover anything from basic techniques of cutting and handling glass to jewellery making, sculpture, firing schedules and painting on glass; in two days each student can make four or more individual pieces to take home with them.
At a stage when many of her contemporaries are gliding gently towards retirement she is busier than ever.
“Although I arrived late at this creative place, I have gathered skills in every area of glass making and decorating, and I am determined to put these to good use in both my own work and in introducing students to the wonders and excitement of working in this fabulous material.’ ‘
You can see more of Noreen’s work at http://www.balmaidenstudioglass.co.uk or by visiting the St Ives Contemporary Gallery – scheduled to open on 3rd December. Commissions and classes can be discussed with her on 01326 574693. Just be prepared to leave a message as she might have a handful of glass when you call.