Katie Brown dances around molten glass in a pit in the former headquarters of the Whanganui Chronicle, delicately imparting an intricate narrative into every piece.
Glass-blowing is a dangerous art. “It’s hot, heavy, and you’re constantly moving around a material at temperatures of up to 1100 degrees Celsius. You’ve got to be quick on your feet, smooth, and focused,” Whanganui-based glass-blower Katie Brown says.
Katie’s workspace, at sub-floor level in the former heart of local rag the Whanganui Chronicle, has a public viewing gallery above to allow people interested in the art to come and view her in action. It’s perhaps not what many may expect. It’s a gritty place; it’s grimy and dirty but “the glass always comes out of this gritty environment absolutely pristine,” she says.
It’s a serious business working with temperatures this high, and it’s not for everyone. However, for Katie it has been a lifelong journey that began 25 years ago when she started out in the trade crafting the hallmarks of her early work — tumblers, wine glasses, and paperweights. Over the years she’s honed her art and her pieces — particularly her bespoke lighting — now adorn architectural interiors the world over.
The pieces themselves offer a delicate and layered depth of narrative in opposition to Katie’s working environment, where light-hearted music is the key to her mood and, therefore, her art. Visit her while she’s at work and you’ll be likely to hear classic ’80s tunes by Madonna and Cyndi Lauper as Katie dances around the glow of molten glass deftly turning, rolling, and capturing the essence of her skill in every piece.
Tools of medieval origin adorn the work benches as Katie moves through the process of forming the glass, which she describes as similar in consistency to golden syrup or honey in its hottest state.
“It’s very difficult to manipulate, but that’s what I love about it. The entire process from start to finish is technically challenging and every artist approaches it slightly differently.”
A particular style Katie favours in many of her bespoke pieces is using the technique of ‘canes’, which has its origins in Murano.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with thin lines and using them to create patterns and movement; lines that intersect and overlap, almost like lace,” she says.
Often combining glass, metal, wood, and brass, Katie’s lighting pieces are both an artwork in their own right when not in use and functional forms that cast the lace-like intricacy of her work across a space.
The juxtaposition of the clarity of detail in her finished products and the gritty, grimy process of manipulating material at extreme heat that presents a real danger is what has inspired Katie’s passion over the years.
“It’s a fast, exhilarating dance, glass-blowing. A piece might take me an hour to make, but it’s an hour and the 25 years I’ve spent learning the dance and understanding the complex technical elements and the different glows of glass as it heats and cools.”
Katie’s studio, Brown & Co Lighting Design in Whanganui, exhibits and sells the work of 15 other artists as well as her own glass sculptural work and lighting range.
“Recently, we’ve noticed a real change in the market, with New Zealanders seeking out local artists to support. People are putting more energy into their surroundings; they’re not travelling overseas and instead we’re seeing so many more Kiwis visiting Whanganui and engaging with local artists. Who knows about the future, but for now it’s a positive place to be.”
The dance continues.