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Thursday July 8, 2021 | by Andrew Page

CONVERSATION: Alison Kinnaird on the expansive possibilities of the ancient art of glass engraving

Copper-wheel glass engraving, an ancient technique that has defied forecasts of its imminent obsolescence, is a highly-expressive type of shallow rendering in glass that dates back to Roman times. The technique reached its peak of popularity in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which it was eclipsed by less labor-intensive processes such as cutting or etching glass. Though not as widely practiced as it used to be, the contemporary art of glass engraving is not only proving to be continually relevant, its artistic potential continues to be expanded by artists such as Alison Kinnaird. Aspects of the copper-wheel technique, such as its limits in scale as the glass must be small enough to handle precisely under the engraving wheel, have continued to push Kinnaird to find innovative solutions to challenges she regularly encounters, even after her own 50 years of experience in the process.

Though she primarily works on fine-art installations, Kinnaird was recently approached to work on a 15-foot-tall window, a liturgical project for the Dornoch Cathedral in the north part of Scotland that dates back to the 14th-century. Instead of turning it down as far too large-scale for her engraving techniques, Kinnaird listened to her husband, Robin Morton's, encouragement. "Big windows are made up of lots of small windows," he told her. And so she figured out a way to design and engrave smaller sections, which were leaded together to make the large expanse of window.

As Kinnaird has won acclaim for her public-art installations such as her engraved portrait of donors to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, she has developed a name as an artist willing to take on challenging commissions in a variety of settings. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently caught up with Kinnaird to discuss the technical hurdles of a just-completed commission in a historic church in Kent, England, as well as her career-long quest to expand the applications for copper-wheel engraving in glass. 

Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: How much of a limitation in scale does the glass-engraving process impose on your work, and how have you been overcoming that through technology?
Alison Kinnaird: 
Over the past years, I have found ways of extending the "canvas" so that the engraving can also be presented on a larger, even an architectural scale. In 2002, I began working on Psalmsong, a glass-and-music installation now in the Scottish Parliament Collection. I layered sheets of optical glass, edge-lighting them with optical fibers and transmitted dichroic color.  It uses a simple principle, but each part needs a great deal of planning and accuracy, and every time I use it, the details of each project have to be worked out again. 

Interface (installation at the Hotel Murano, Tacoma), 2007. photo: robin morton

I later moved to using LED lighting, and these large layered panels, such as the 2007 commission Interface for the Murano Hotel in Tacoma, have been very well-received. They can be placed in any architectural or domestic situation, because they do not require natural light behind them. However, glass in a window, against the changing light, will always look beautiful. 

Hot Sheet: When did you begin searching for solutions that would allow you to move into larger formats? 
Kinnaird: The first time I was approached about a commission for a 15-foot-high window for the 14th-century Dornoch Cathedral in the north of Scotland, I was about to say that I could not tackle anything so large. But with my husband's encouragement, I designed and engraved it in manageable sections, which were leaded together and installed by Patrick Ross-Smith. I eventually created three windows for the Cathedral. 

Praise Window, 2005, Dornoch Cathedral, Scotland. H 16 1/2, W 3 1/4 ft. photo: robin morton

The first Praise window, which commemorates the late organist and choirmaster, shows musicians and singers surrounding a silhouetted figure with its arms raised. It was pointed out that to depict the figure looking outwards from the Church, is extremely unusual. The convention for stained glass windows is to have any subject looking inwards, toward the congregation. 

The other two windows, in memory of a couple who loved to dance, show dancing figures, male and female, dawn and dusk, land and sea, and include many examples of the local flora and fauna. It may be the only church with jellyfish in the window! The theme was "Let All Creation Dance."  Neither of these subjects is particularly ‘liturgical’ – instead they celebrate music, dance and the natural world, and I hope that any viewer can relate to them.

Hot Sheet: You were challenged, as well, by the window you did for the national portrait gallery in Scotland, weren't you? 
Kinnaird: It was an honor as well as a challenge, to be asked to create the Donor Window for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The portraits of important patrons who had contributed to the Gallery’s refurbishment were to be included in a new window side by side with the original Victorian donor window. I was asked to match the older window’s layout of leaded circles and squares, but otherwise, I was given a free hand. 

Donor Window, 2012 (detail). Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. H 47 1/4, W 63 in. photo: robin morton

I realized that engraving on clear glass would not show up against the Scottish sky, which we have to admit, is usually pale grey. So I worked out a new method of engraving the portraits on flashed glass, deeply engraving the modelling on the clear side, and gently removing the color on the other. This allowed the detail of the faces, and the floral tributes for corporate and charitable donors, to stand out clearly, even at a distance. This new technique proved to be essential in another project at a church in England.

St Mary’s Church, Kenardington, Kent, England. photo: alison kinnaird
Some years ago, Sir Michael Uren, a generous benefactor, visited St Mary’s Church in Kenardington, Kent, a beautiful little Anglo-Saxon church. He was so struck with its special atmosphere, that he decided to donate funds for its upkeep and renovation. A pentice - a long room – was built along the side of the 1000-year-old church, to accommodate gatherings and meetings, and windows and doors were to be commissioned, linking the old and new areas of the building. As the Church was dedicated to St Mary, the doors were to show the Annunciation, the large window to depict the Nativity, and the smaller window, the Resurrection.

I was invited to submit proposals. After my first visit, I sent initial sketches, which were met with a 10-page letter from the Chairman of the Committee (himself an artist), telling me in detail what he thought it should look like. At this point, I withdrew from the process. To my surprise, a few months later, I received an invitation, along with four other artists, to show my designs to the Church Committee who were to make the final choice, and they were selected.

Hot Sheet: Did this project, like the others, present unique challenges that required new approaches as well? 
Kinnaird: There were a number of practical problems that had to be tackled. Initially, engraved glass, leaded in the usual way, had been visualized. However, the slope of the new roof, immediately outside the frame of the Nativity Window, would interfere with the view of the imagery, if clear colourless glass was used. It was also obvious that the doors, if leaded, would have to be protected on both sides with toughened glass, and would have been impossibly heavy.

Annunciation Doors (exterior view), 2018, Kenardington. photo: robin morton

I had worked with Derix Glasstudios in the past, and know that they have exceptional skills to help an artist realize their projects. Lamination had been discussed as an option, but the generally accepted wisdom is that engraving cannot be laminated, as the frosted image is lost when adhesive is applied, so this had been rejected. However, my designs intended to use the double-engraved flashed glass that I had developed for the Portrait Gallery Donor Window. I asked Derix to try laminating the colored side, thus reversing the usual process, and to everyone’s surprise, it was entirely successful. This meant that the doors are safely constructed in one layer, with the art glass laminated to toughened glass. It also meant that the figures in the Nativity Window would show up strongly without interruption from the architectural features beyond, or the structural divisions necessary to support an expanse of leaded glass.

Each part of the project was designed as a jigsaw of pieces, of the size that I can engrave comfortably at the wheel. I took my drawings to Germany, reviewed the cutting-lines at Derix and chose the colors of the glass. Erik Pfeiffer expertly cut and ground each piece to fit with its neighbor. The several hundred pieces were sent to Scotland, where over some months, I engraved each one in my home studio, repacked them and returned them to Germany for lamination to the carrier glass. The whole project lasted around 5 years – which included frustrating delays caused by the original architects’ inefficiency in securing and keeping the necessary permissions from the various official bodies, as well as problems caused by Brexit and Covid, but the Church committee and congregation were enthusiastic and supportive throughout.

Annunciation Doors (interior view), 2018, Kenardington. photo: robin morton

Hot Sheet: How is it different working on liturgical projects? It sounds like you have to work with committees or groups of people, which I imagine can present its own challenges.
Kinnaird: Every commission has its own purpose, restrictions and possibilities. I enjoy discussions where we find a solution which pleases the client as well as satisfying myself, as the artist. In the Annunciation, the chairman told me that Mary should be smiling and delighted, as she had just received wonderful news. I suggested that we imagine how a young girl might feel, to be told that she was expecting a baby in these circumstances, and I was pleased when they accepted my reasoning!

When tackling a religious commission, of course one must be respectful of the beliefs of those who will see it.  Tradition is something that I love in my music, as a player of the Scottish harp, and in my artwork, and I find that in the most meaningful of old stories, myth and legend, there is almost always a core of truth. So whether it is the news that you are to have your first baby, or the feeling when you first cradle that child in your arms, there are universal emotions that we can all recognize, no matter what your cultural background, and these are what I try to focus on in telling the story. I do like to bring in some contemporary and local references – the shepherd’s flat cap, the Romney sheep, and the particular style of manger which was requested by Sir Michael, as found in his barn. These details give personal links to the commission. 

Nativity Window, 2017. Kenardington, H 5 3/4, W 10 3/4 ft. photo: robin morton

In the Resurrection Window, the congregation specifically asked to keep the view across the valley to another old church beyond. It is a lovely outlook, and at one point I said, "I may be talking myself out of a commission here, but the view is beautiful – do you really want a stained glass window there?!" Sir Michael was adamant that it should be done. He was in his 90s and had very definite ideas about his vision for that window, but I managed to persuade him that an image on glass needed to be treated differently from a painting or photograph.

Resurrection Window, 2021. H 9, W 4 ft. photo: robin morton
Most of the left-hand side of the window has been left clear, while the art-glass curves round the other side. It shows a triumphant angel announcing the Resurrection of Jesus, and, as requested by Sir Michael, the tomb and a suggestion of the rocky entrance. Sir Michael sadly passed away before he saw this last window, and he now lies, appropriately, in the churchyard outside it. I included daffodils, which spring up every year with their golden trumpets of hope, as a secret symbolic detail. By allowing the landscape to connect with the artwork, I hope that it links the present with the old story of returning Life.

Without having discovered these new ways of working – the double engraved flashed glass, and the reverse lamination – I would not have had such a successful outcome for the Portrait Gallery Window, or the St Mary’s project. As a wheel-engraver, using a technique that has not changed over a couple of 1000 years, it is good to show that an ancient way of working can have an immediate relevance – that technique does not have to limit your artistic expression.

Hot Sheet: Having discovered these techniques around liturgical projects, were you able to incorporate them in your own work? 
Kinnaird: I was lucky enough to be given a Creative Scot Award in 2019, which allowed me to incorporate truly contemporary imagery in three large panels which could be set into a window or door, or free-standing with a light panel. Again, I had technical assistance from Derix Glasstudios. 

This series has as its focus the theme of time. The first –- Subway Photographer -- shows how quickly people pass through our lives. In the 14th century, the average person met 100 people in their lifetime. These days, we see as many, passing us by, in the blink of an eye, or the click of a shutter. The 63 small portraits came from lightning sketches that I did on the NY subway, often on the A-Train. 

Astronomer, 2019. H 47 14m W 23 1/2 in. photo: robin morton
The Astronomer is also built round a real lens (from my time teaching at Corning). The figure looks through the telescope at the wider universe, where time has no meaning, and gives us a perspective on ourselves. The Graffiti Artist links the other two panels. The motifs in the background are adapted from the celestial calendar and star maps of the Neolithic tombs of Scotland and Ireland, but look just as relevant today, given a contemporary treatment. We are all trying to understand our place in the great scheme of things, no matter how short a time we are here.

My husband, Robin, who has been a source of support and inspiration throughout my career, followed each of these major projects on camera, and the results, giving more detail about their development, can be seen on the video Art in Glass, which can be viewed on my website.

Ossian’s Lament (detail), 2021. H 8 5/8, W 6, D 1/2 in. photo: shannon tofts
The "Timepiece" panels, and other new work, including a series of pieces based on an old Gaelic melody, Ossian’s Lament for his Father Finn, will be shown at my open-studio exhibition at our home/studio in Temple, Scotland, during the month of August, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We hope that people will be able to come in person at that point, but we always enjoy visitors throughout the rest of the year.

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Find out more about Alison Kinnaird's unique art practice via her extensive Website.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.