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Saturday April 4, 2020 | by Farah Rose Smith

INTERVIEW: Mel Douglas, who took top honors and AUD $15,000 in the 2020 Tom Malone Prize, discusses inspiration and process

FILED UNDER: Announcements, Award, News

Australian glass artist Mel Douglas, whose works (according to her own words) "explore and interweave the creative possibilities of this liminal space" has won the coveted Tom Malone Prize of 2020 for her work Tonal Value (2019). The Tom Malone Prize is a highly respected national event within the Australian glass arts community. Each year’s winning entrant is awarded AUD $15,000 and their work becomes a part of the State Art Collection where it joins works by previous winners. Now in its 18th year, the Tom Malone Prize continues with the generous support of Ms Sheryl Grimwood, AGWA Foundation Benefactor.

Mel Douglas, Tonal Value (1-9) 32163, 2019. Blown, cold worked, and engraved glass. 38”h x 195”w x 19” d. Photo courtesy of the Traver Gallery


Describing Mel Douglas’ winning piece, the prize's jury said: 

“While acknowledging a truly stunning short list, we were unanimous in our decision to award the Prize to Mel Douglas for her five-part wall work, Tonal Value. A study in colour, form and transition, balance and counter-balance, it is both subtle and strangely energetic and animated. While a quiet work, it has an undeniable, even commanding, presence as each of the unit’s two overlapping forms modulate over the work’s length; moving from light to dark the work seems to shift into presence from absence, or from light to shadow. Tracing the dependencies and interactions of line and volume, it builds on Mel’s previous work in three-dimensional form, most especially her near pitch-black objects that seem to carve out sections from their surrounding space. Composed from a type of printing and kiln fusing with glass powder, Tonal Value also evidences her commitment to creative experimentation and evolution with the always challenging medium of glass." 

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet interviewed Mel Douglas about her prize-winning work. 

Glass: Can you describe the process of making your winning work, Tonal Value (2019), from conception to execution?
Mel Douglas: Tonal Value contemplates how objects occupy space. The space that surrounds an object has the ability to hold and suspend, by tilting these objects in space and changing the orientation, each work holds on to that last moment of silence and stillness before it spills over. This sets up an ambiguous tension, a sense of anticipation and movement within a still frame. 

This work also looks at the different values of line that can be achieved through an exploration the viscosity of glass, and how the changes in the tone or colour change the quality and gauge of line. By moving this image through a series of tonal changes, from a stiff white, which gives a tight, thin and pronounced line, through to black which melts at a lower temperature, the line becomes softer and bleeds into the substrate making a thicker more painterly line. 

The tonal shifts between each work, resulted from incremental increases in pigment. Moving from opaline to soft greys and through to black. These shifts create a nuanced tonal gradation, resulting in a series of drawings which both recede and fade into the substrate, and as the drawings build in tone, move into space and float in front of the support. This restricted but graduated pallet also allowed me to explore how the nature of different types of glass, produced in the same environment, offering varying qualities of line.  

I often develop shapes that reference the vessel. I see these objects as open three-dimensional constructions that offer an opportunity to work on three planes, contrasting opposite planes and interconnecting spaces: the interior, exterior and the connective space in-between (substrate). These objects have three volumes of space—an empty space which is surrounded by a mass, this mass has a surface and a volume itself.

Tonal Value, is from my series of work "Transcribing," which is to convert a representation. This series delves into the possibilities of glass powder as a medium for silkscreen drawing. Screening glass powder onto a kiln shelf and firing the drawing, what remains is a thin flexible form. The resulting flexible line drawings illustrate the potential, versatility and mobility of glass as a drawing material, transforming a hand-drawn sketch into a solid moveable and yet malleable three-dimensional object.

The flexible glass drawing provided a myriad of ways to develop three-dimensional line drawings. The interconnecting lines become a homogenous matrix holding and hovering the line drawing in three dimensions, into a multi-dimensional matrix. By screening multiple images upon one another before firing, or by layering pre-fired images in multiple layers, I have constructed multiple layers of additive traces, that form new and complex spaces.

I set the screen onto a kiln shelf in the kiln.

I run fine glass powder over the screen, the glass powder falls through the screen onto the shelf, following the lines of my drawing.


I fire the print on the shelf at a low temperature.

Once cooled I am left with a fine, wafer thin and flexible glass drawing. 

I then adhere the glass drawing to printing paper.

All prints are individual and unique works of art. 

Glass: What can you tell us about how the work is realized?
Douglas:
The technique draws on traditional screen-printing processes, instead of printing with ink onto paper, I am printing with glass powder directly onto a kiln shelf, and firing the glass. The glass is then transferred onto and adhered to paper. Each glass drawing is taken from an original drawing, each work is individual, and these works are not made in editions.

I make a hand drawn image:

I prepare the image (photocopy and oil) and expose it onto a silk screen.

I prepare the image (photocopy and oil) and expose it onto a silk screen.

I set the screen onto a kiln shelf in the kiln.

photo courtesy of the artist.

I run fine glass powder over the screen, the glass powder falls through the screen onto the shelf, following the lines of my drawing.

photo courtesy of the artist.


photo courtesy of the artist.

I remove the screen, leaving the glass on the shelf.

photo courtesy of the artist.

I fire the print on the shelf at a low temperature.

Once the glass has cooled I am left with a fine, wafer thin glass drawing. 

I then adhere the glass drawing to printing paper using an adhesive.

Glass: In your artist statement, you say that your work “explores and interweaves the creative possibilities of liminal space, where the form is not just a support for drawing; but a three-dimensional drawing itself.” What are the origins of your interest in this approach?
Douglas: My practice investigates how studio glass can be understood through the aesthetics of drawing. Focusing on contemporary and historical ideas of drawing and Anthropologist Tim Ingold’s theories on line, my primary innovation is to conceptualise glass forms as drawings. What has become apparent is that the medium of glass offers specific ways to both conceptualise and realise the drawn line. I have explored this by submitting studio glass and drawing to a sustained analysis, through an interrogation of the spatial relationships between form and line, focusing on examining the utility of glass as a drawing material, and as a substrate for the drawn line. Drawing upon the work of Lazlo Maholy-Nagy, Susan Hefuna, Sol LeWitt, Fred Sandback and geometric theories my work aims to use line as a way to inform, define and enable three-dimensional space. Developing objects, in both two and three dimensions which spatially merge surface and drawing, where the form is not a support but a three-dimensional drawing itself.

A catalyst for this research occurred after observing Tapio Wirkkala’s design icon, Leaf Platter. This work led me to consider how my practice could be viewed as a form of drawing. Wirkkala skilfully used the grain of the wood and the lamination lines to build and reveal the leaf-like form. Looking at this method of construction I realised by using these visual elements to create a tension between the line and the three-dimensional form, he was essential drawing in three dimensions. 

This discovery led me to question and extend my practice by researching and incorporating a deeper understanding of drawing. It led me to question how the two and three dimensionalities of glass could become something more than just a separation of ideas about its form and surface. I was able to make an important connection between my studio glass practice, and the practice of drawing. This connection has enabled me to consider and use the ‘form’ as more than just a substrate for drawing—rather as a three-dimensional drawing in itself. For example, I have looked at how artists such as Richard Tuttle (and Fred Sandback (whose drawings interrogate line and space)—have also informed my knowledge of drawing. Through an examination of their work I have identified the potential for engaging with the material and technical specifics of glass practice via thinking of glass as a drawing medium. 

I have also furthered my understanding of how drawing can be achieved by applying theories of line, drawing and geometry to the distinctive material quality of glass. By ‘drawing’ these distinct fields together, I have developed distinct ways of working with the materiality of glass as line and new ways of expressing line through glass. By combining the unique qualities of the glass with the rich potential of mark making, I have developed techniques to consider how line can inform, define and enable an object as a drawing. Through testing and resolving new work in the studio, I have also considered how the transparency and opacity of glass as a drawing material can free line beyond a two-dimensional perspective. Experimenting with glass in this way has provided me with new types of line that move through the space of an object, into the substrate and back out into free space.

Glass: Your work has been described as delicate, subtle, and quiet, but also energetic and commanding. What is your perspective on the power of delicate things, particularly in glass art?
Douglas: Delicate is a hard word, sometimes implying intricate beauty and at other times fragility. It can have negative overtones: A delicate situation is a tricky one, and I have a lot of these in the studio.  

I do see power in quiet, considered and thoughtful work, particularly in glass. It takes practice, understanding a commitment to transform the unruly material of glass into something “delicate”. I also see a power in anything that demands that you stop, even for a second, to look, contemplate and observe.

Glass: Were there moments of experimentation with technique during the making of Tonal Value?
Douglas: Yes.To produce these five drawings, another 50 or so ended up on the studio floor. An exciting aspect of this series is that each drawing is completely distinctive, even if made under the same controls. Even the most minute changes in glass, kiln and environmental conditions results in unexpected and exciting results. Most of which can never be repeated. 

The tonal shifts between each work, resulted from incremental increases in pigment. Moving from opaline to soft greys and through to black. These shifts create a nuanced tonal gradation, resulting in a series of drawings which both recede and fade into the substrate, and as the drawings build in tone, move into space and float in front of the support. This restricted but graduated pallet also allowed me to explore how the nature of different types of glass, produced in the same environment, offering varying qualities of line. 

Glass: You also won the Tom Malone prize in 2014. How do you feel your approach and techniques have evolved from then to now?
Douglas: Prior to 2015 the focus of my practice was building surfaces through the application of engraved lines on glass objects. The lines applied to my surfaces created flat, textural fields. Towards the end of 2014, I began looking for new ways to integrate line and surface, I wanted to find ways to animate and subvert surfaces through line. I was seeking to find a connective purpose between my forms and their surfaces to explore space; I wanted the lines to be active and directive. Although working in the field of studio glass, I was interested in printmaking and drawing and while my practice used the drawn line, I had never positioned or thought about my work as ‘drawing’.

Over the past six years, my practice has investigated how and if studio glass can be understood through the aesthetics of drawing. I began this investigation to test how studio glass could become a drawing or expand the field of drawing, particularly as objects and drawings are often thought of as two separate entities. This direction of research has led me to find ways to interweave both glass and drawing through an interrogation of different types of line. The conventional use of line drawings is to represent two- or three-dimensional objects, either through graduations in shade, texture or shape. Whereas line used in glass are usually applied to the surface of objects after production, not as an integrated element within the work. I set out to explore the creative possibilities that exist between the two mediums in order to create new understandings of the relationship between surface and form through the use of line. 

Within studio glass there has traditionally been a delineation between artists who work in two and three dimensions, or between methods of making, ie Hot/cold/kiln. My practice spans across a range of disciplines, from hot glass, kiln forming and coldworking, always with line as an integral element.  

As "line" is a fundamental constituent of the drawing vernacular, line therefore was the necessary place for my new research into "drawing with glass" to begin. This led me to investigate three key questions: What are lines? What are the conventions of drawing in relation to object-based practice, specifically within studio glass? How can key developments in the late 20th century and contemporary drawing provide a lens through which to reconsider the formal and spatial qualities of my glass practice? 

Through this research my practice has expanded into multidisciplinary areas of printing and drawing with glass to explore space.

Read an archived Hot Sheet interview here

Mel Douglas works as an independent studio artist and has been a sessional lecturer and is currently a PhD Candidate in the Glass Workshop at the ANU. She has received several major awards including the Ranamok Glass Prize in 2002, the International Young Glass Award in 2007 from Ebeltolft, the Tom Malone Prize both for 2014 and 2020. More information about Mel Douglas may be found on her 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.