Amy Cushing is a prolific artist specialising in kiln formed glass. Based in London she works from her meticulously ordered studio at the bottom of her beautiful and blossoming garden. We were able to meet up with Amy to collect her exquisite debut collection for Smithson, and discuss her scrupulous practice, life-long affinity for colour and light, and her magpie like tendencies.
Hello Amy, it’s so nice to meet you in your wonderful colour drenched home! We are speaking to you just as lockdown restrictions are easing, I wanted to start by asking how you are and how your practice has adapted during this time?
We have all been well thank you, I am very lucky that my studio is at the bottom of the garden so I could continue working. I did a lot of experimentation and I taught myself a new glass fusing technique, a process in which you can squash the glass, a compression technique with which I could achieve new effects, colour fusions and overlays, so that was rewarding.
I also spent a lot of time nurturing my garden and my plants which is something I don’t often have the time for. For me there was a real sudden need to be outdoors and connecting with nature, I grew vegetables and took care of plants that are a bit more challenging or needy and I got them to thrive which was nice. Yes, it felt enriching!
What a wonderfully productive way to spending time, to actually be making new creative discoveries! It must have felt like a nice holistic activity to be tending to your plants as well as your art.
Yes, I’m not tech phobic, but I don’t like the accelerated pace at which the world is going, so I was happy to pull back and use my hands, connect with my garden and make interesting food. I like the tangible, I guess because I use my hands, it’s something really fundamental both to me as a person and my practice.
Completely, I think that this recent pause has enabled us to understand ourselves better; how we operate and what feeds our souls, whether that’s interacting with others and putting things out there digitally, or pottering about in the garden, making things grow, and making things with our hands. Looking at your magnificent colourful interior it also appears that your home is a creative project in itself?
It is, it’s really important to me. Every single room in my house is a different colour and what I like to do is take one colour from a room and lead it into a neighbouring room, so there is always two colours in a room but one has travelled from elsewhere. The walls up my stairs for example are Marjorelle Blue, from the Jacques Marjorelle gardens in Marrakech, and the other wall is pale pink, so the different colours lead you as you’re going up the stairs. My sister’s house is the same, and our childhood home was too - the front of house was crazy - I mean it was the early 70s but at one point our mum had the front of our house painted bright red and yellow and it was known as the rhubarb and custard house! It was a beautiful house with a period façade and really interesting decorative features but everything was painted either red or yellow.
"Yes my mum called me ‘Magpie’ because I was obsessed with anything that sparkled and it immediately went in my pocket."
Brilliant! What a strong inspiration! What other inspirations would you say feed into your practice?
I am slightly obsessed with gemstones, I love them. I guess it’s obvious why as they are very glass-like and the colour range is infinite, but the cut and polished element not only makes them become even more glass-like, but also creates a geometry that interests me. I also love uncut gemstones, interesting bits of rock or mineral, anything that sparkles really. I think as a child I had a bit of a problem…
Like a magpie!?
Yes my mum called me ‘Magpie’ because I was obsessed with anything that sparkled and it immediately went in my pocket. I still keep these sorts of things now, halfway up my stairs there’s a shelf with a collection of odd shells, stones, bits of glass. It’s random, there is no theme to it apart from everything is a found object and it has a sheen to it, it’s pretty, it glints… My mum and dad were always collecting things too so we had lots of decorative arts and lots of interesting objects amongst the foliage in the garden for example, my mum actually worked with vitreous enamels and stained glass in the 60s so there were always samples of experimental processes, and bits that she’s kept for years that hung around the house.
I can imagine growing up in that creative, highly visual environment had a huge impact on you creatively, how it was that you first came to discover your creativity?
It’s a classic story of it’s all I’ve ever done, creating work is fundamental to my existence really, it’s been there right since the start. I showed an aptitude at a very young age and I was very lucky to have a very creative mother who went to art school herself in the 60s. She was also an art teacher at one point so she really encouraged creativity, by the time I was 7 she had bought me really high quality artist materials which I was constantly experimenting with - I particularly loved collecting and painting stones. I’m really pleased that I didn’t grow up with tech, or constant children’s television because it just meant that I created work all the time.
Art was always my strongest subject during school and then the natural progression was art school, so I did a two year BTEC level Art & Design course and then onto a degree in Public Art at Chelsea Art School which enabled me to train in all disciplines which was important to me because but I like moving in different materials. I then specialised in ceramics and glass and was lucky enough to be put down in a small annex, which was almost like having my own studio space. I had all the help of the technicians but not much interference from lecturers so it was a time of real independence and self-discovery. I made the most of all the facilities and enjoyed recording all the results - it was then that I started playing around with different materials in the kiln and working out what was compatible and what wasn’t, and what was interesting when it wasn’t compatible, and what firing cycles and temperatures you needed to go to get different effects.
"The effect was exactly the same as light hitting a swimming pool, or the Caribbean sea, and that’s my thing, I love that - I could just sit and watch light hitting water all day long!"
And although you are now known for your glass works, you were also often working with clay at this point?
Yes, I really love working with clay and that’s a big part of my background. I dropped that halfway through my professional career because the studio space didn’t allow me to be set up with both ceramics and glass - in order to work with kiln formed glass you need quite a clean environment which clay doesn’t really allow for. So I sort of dropped the ceramic side, but every now and again I work with clay just because I love the ability to manipulate it. Although clay and glass are fired in a similar way, they behave very differently as materials. You can really manipulate clay with your hands, and you can’t do that with hot glass, you have to control it in certain processes and then allow it to do whatever it’s going to do when it’s hot, and then if need be control it again when it’s cold and then rework it hot - so it comes in and out and in and out of the kiln which is why it’s so laborious, it’s a tricky material!
Despite its complexity and the laborious nature of the medium what was it that really cemented your love for working with glass?
The luminosity of the colour is just so intense and you just don’t get that from any other material. When I was working with clay, as much as I loved it, the glazes that were available to me at that time weren’t particularly vibrant and I needed that vibrancy. At that point in my life I was young but had already done quite a lot of travelling, I had travelled Mexico and the intense colours had a huge impact on me as a person and on my work. Looking back through my portfolio you can really see it coming through. I was melting and crushing glass, creating slab rolled forms from ceramic, carving them and fusing glass into the recesses. Certain glass would burn out, go black, or crack, but when it didn’t the colour was so vibrant, so pure. The effect was exactly the same as light hitting a swimming pool, or the Caribbean sea, and that’s my thing, I love that - I could just sit and watch light hitting water all day long!
You mentioned Mexico, can you tell us about other places that have been of particular influence?
I was born and brought up in and around London but from the age of 10 I went back and forth to Los Angeles due to close family ties. I have spent a lot of time documenting Californian landscapes where there is an extraordinary quality of light and vibrant colour. I have also spent a lot of time on the southern tip of Cornwall where the clarity of light is incredible because you are surrounded by ocean and that’s why it is so popular with artists. Clarity of light completely dictates my moods in fact, I have an abundance of energy on a bright sunny day compared to a grey day, it totally controls me.
I travelled extensively again in my early 20s including through the Tropics, and that intense heat, light and colour, is just incredible! I would love to be travelling again now, but I have had the commitments of raising my daughter, running my household and my studio. I feel free and liberated when travelling and I err on the side of heat. I am drawn to places where the clarity of light is very intense which creates this amazing contrast, texture, light and shadow, so everything that you are absorbing visually is high contrast, and it enhances colour to a great degree. I am a highly visual person, my mind’s eye is constantly capturing little abstract images of colour, geometry and pattern, I guess that it just all gets stored and emerges again through my work.
Do you use any other form of documentation other that your vivid mind’s eye?
I do, I take photographs and I’ve always sketched to a certain extent, but my mind’s library is really vivid, my mental visual memory is very intense, I remember everything visually, I dream in intense colour. I sometimes think I have the ability to see in enhanced colour because the saturation of certain things mesmerizes me and I can spend a long time appreciating and observing colour intensities and saturation, or more interestingly sequences, the contrast between two colours, or the play between three, four or five colours.
I am really interested in multiple colour combinations, how they behave with each other and what colours can do to one other, the language that they communicate, or the vibe and dynamic they emanate. I really think you can completely change the look of something by altering the colour ratio or sequence, and that has always played out through my practice. Although I love creating new work and tend to move onto something new quite quickly, it would be of great interest to me to repeatedly recreate the same art object in different colour palettes to prove to the viewer how powerful colour can be and the way it can change an object or evoke certain emotions.
"Glass is a very independent substance, it has spirit and can be naughty!"
Yes, and there are so many endless combinations and states that it’s a world of everlasting discovery!
It is yes, my mind is constantly taking mental photographs of combinations and what they do, for example when you put orange next to pink it does something completely different from when you put it next to blue or green, and that is infinite, it just goes on and on and can become really complex. There’s been many a project or artwork where I’ve sent myself down the rabbit hole of deliberately using a controlled palette that I wouldn’t normally go for, and exploring what that can bring out and how comfortable I am with it. It’s really interesting, I don’t think you could ever get to the end of that and go ‘tick! done!’, it just continues.
Fascinating! The way you talk about your work and all of the combinations and complex processes involved, your endless experimenting and recording, makes me wonder whether you consider yourself more of an artist or an alchemist?
Well I would have to immediately say artist, because as interesting as the journey is in terms of the knowledge of technical processes, and understanding how you heat and cool glass, or how different materials behave, which can often be a really long journey and can go on for months, but these processes are only ever a journey to get to the end result which is always aesthetic. What I have in my mind’s eye and what I’m trying to create is very clear to me, and I’m never ever happy until a piece of work is completely finished and it looks, or it has the essence, vibe or colour palette for example, that I initially envisioned. So all those technical processes really are just a journey to the end result, and the end result is always about composition, colour and aesthetic appreciation.
And how does the element of the unknown come into your practice if at all?
Glass is a very independent substance, it has spirit and can be naughty! Whilst there is definitely a strong science behind glass, and if you do your learning then in theory you should be able to predict what it’s going to do, you still can’t control it completely when it’s hot or even cold for that matter. When glass is cold it’s really brittle, and when you cold-work glass, you have to work with water because otherwise it will heat and crack. When you are heating glass, whether you’re kiln forming glass or blowing it, you are working hot and fast, and you’re hoping that it’s going to do what you want it to do. When you kiln form glass, all of the hot work is done inside the kiln and although you might have a peep hole to check it, it’s out of your hands, so the knowledge is in how you control the kiln and what you programme it to do, and that really only comes with experience and a set of recorded results on previous firings, but it will invariably do certain unexpected things or certain colours will react with each other in a different way, some are soft some are hard, some stretch more than others etc. So you have to be open to that, and when a piece of work takes its own direction, although the initial reaction can sometimes be disappointing because you’re expecting one thing and you open the kiln to find another, if you are open to it you can embrace it and then control the next stage and usually the end result will be closer to what you want it to be.
Yes, and I guess whatever unexpected discoveries are made along the way can be recorded and may come in useful down the line?
Yes and that’s why in my studio I have plan chests full of fragments and sections of glass - globules, squashed pieces, square pieces, triangular pieces, edges of things, broken pieces - I can’t throw any of them away because they are like jewels and they also serve to remind me of unexpected discoveries.
What a fantastic treasure trove of inspiration!
Yes absolutely, the only frustrating thing really as an artist is that I have so many more ideas, techniques, samples, things that I want to put into practice, than I actually have time to do, and that frustrates me. I often have to remind myself however that it’s actually a very positive position to be in, because the worst thing I can imagine is not having any ideas, but the prospect of that is unfathomable to me because I have so many more ideas than I have time to execute…
So you’ve never experienced ‘artists’ block’ then I imagine?
No I have the opposite - I have artist’s frustration! I’m trying to create things and I either don’t have the time, don’t have the money or it doesn’t suit the project, and you don’t get the window or gap in between commissions to actually be experimental, but that is the beauty of working from home, because if you have a dull day, or a day in the winter or all of a sudden everybody goes out and you’re on your own and the mood takes me, I can just go into the studio and see where it goes.
So if time and money were no object what is it you would like to create?
I would like to refine one of my experimented ideas that sit patiently waiting, and create a collection of the same object, sculpture, artwork - whatever it may be - in a carefully selected palette of colours. It would be nice to have a solo show with multiple artworks executed with the same method but in diverse colours and ratios to emphasise the strength, sophistication and complexity of colour combinations.
"It’s not meant to be easy, otherwise it wouldn’t be artwork!"
You often work on a commission basis, creating site specific sculptures for corporate or private clients, how do you retain your agency over your practice?
I’m lucky because most of the commissions I get are people who have seen an existing piece of mine and say, ‘I like that’. Everything I make is entirely bespoke and unique and I never recreate anything. I wouldn’t want to do that for the client or for myself, because that’s not why I do what I do. One piece of work may resemble another, but it will always be a different dimension, colour palette, or design. Whilst the scale, the space, the budget, and the client will shape the outcome it’s always lead by me and my creative choices.
Some of your commissioned works have been large scale installations, how does scale inform your work, and do you have a preference for the scale you work at?
I had a run of creating large scale artworks for corporate spaces, which was overwhelming as I was creating huge artworks made up of thousands of handmade sections of glass, and it’s not just designing the work, creating the glass, the colour palette, and working out all the mathematical calculations etc.., but when I suspend artwork I also have to cold work, hand drill and then hand thread every section, before I then finally go on site and install, so all processes are really time consuming. There have been moments where I have felt completely overwhelmed, but then the challenges that come with it are so exciting and that rush of energy that you have when working to a deadline, and not wanting to let anybody down, that’s an exciting way to create work. There’s also something quite nice about knowing exactly what you’re doing and just getting on with it, bringing in assistants and feeling really productive, which I get a buzz out of. That’s the upside of doing that sort of work, but then I did so much of that sort of work that I missed working on something smaller, more indulgent, decorative, more personal, so I pursued that direction as well. The ideal situation is to have the two running parallel.
That leads us on nicely to the incredible Smithson collection you are creating especially for us, which are smaller scale mixed media wall works for the homes of private collectors. Can you just tell us a bit more about the collection and the process of creating it?
The Chroma collection, which I refer to as mixed media paintings, are constructed from plywood, glass, gesso and acrylic. Each piece is essentially a painting that can be hung on the wall in exactly the same way as a canvas or a print, but it’s sculpture and a mixture of different materials and techniques coming together. I really enjoy the hard lines and geometry of the different components coming together at different levels and depths with either very contrasting or complimentary colours. I have created nine pieces in total in three different colour palettes, some are very soft and pretty and some are much harder and more vibrant and dynamic, but there is a cohesion between all of them.
The works are born out of linear drawings, which are inspired by angles and shapes created by highly contrasting areas of light and shade, and then these evolve into three dimensional works. Each composition is primarily made up of jigsawed sections of wood that are then hand painted in beautiful colours, which is a real challenge because I want each section of colour to be perfectly flat and highly coloured and highly contrasted. At least one section is textured using a specific gesso and sand mix, a technique I developed at Chelsea Art School eons of time ago. I work with a palette knife to create deep ravines and recesses, and then inlay bespoke handmade sections of glass. There is also a small recess on each panel where I bond in hand-cut sections of mirror. I tend to always incorporate some sort of precious metal or dichroic in my work because I really love the glint or highlight of metallic, I think this harks back to the image of light hitting something and literally gleaming, like you see when the sun hitting the sea, that is where this comes from in my mind’s eye. This metallic highlight is a sort of signature I suppose that is important to me.
What a fascinating and complex process, it’s always so incredible hearing about the painstaking work that goes into each piece, have you enjoyed creating them?
Absolutely, I have really enjoyed making them and there have been days where I’ve wanted to cry, but that’s usual, that happens with everything I make, I always get that “What am I doing, am I mad?” moment because I often make things quite difficult for myself, but working through that barrier and that challenge is all part of the process. It’s not meant to be easy, otherwise it wouldn’t be artwork! I really hope that resonates with the pieces.
Absolutely! You have put so much into them physically, emotionally, technically, spiritually, and that brings all the more value to the works, and they are also finished so meticulously!
It’s so important to me that my works are finished perfectly, the surfaces are painstakingly painted, the glass is really glossy and the paint finish is really matte. Then they have been meticulously cleaned with cotton buds! It’s so nice for a work to be completely finished and for me to say, “YES that’s exactly what I imagined”.
Wow, so special! We feel so honoured to have these beautiful and labour intensive pieces as an exclusive collection and can’t wait to reveal them to our collectors. Having talked in depth about the process behind them, what would you say is it that you are trying to communicate with your works, perhaps more conceptually?
From a technical point of view, I’m looking for some sort of harmony or cohesion across contrasting colours and materials. It’s about finding the perfect balance, ratio and sequencing to create something harmonious. From a more spiritual or emotional angle I guess I am trying to communicate what it is that I get out of making my art personally, which is joy and visual enrichment. It’s not trying to be really clever or political obviously, it’s just something beautiful that enhances your day, your life or your environment. The nice thing about that approach is that it crosses all boundaries and demographics, it doesn’t matter if the person viewing my works is three or eighty years old, they can still hopefully get something out of it - a little lift, buzz or connection.
I’ve learnt as I’ve got older that unless you are completely fully invested in what you’re doing, unless you are really enjoying what you are making, and unless you are getting that exhilaration at the end of it when it’s complete - how on earth can somebody else? It’s like making bad food and expecting someone to enjoy it, you have to love what you are doing and it has to hit all the right buttons for you in order to do that for somebody else.
Thank you so much for sharing your world, your work and your incredibly visual mind with us Amy. We absolutely get a lift out of your beautiful sculptural art objects, and we know others will too.