The 2012 Ranamok Glass Prize is a stunning exhibition and annual award for glass artists from Australia & New Zealand. Emma Varga is one of the talented artists who’s contributed to the exhibition – and the complexity and intricacy of her work will simply amaze.
Hi Emma. You were born in Yugoslavia … how much do you feel your upbringing there influenced your decision to study art at university level?
I was born in a region (Mid Europe) that is rich with tradition, the interwoven cultures of 23 nations in the immediate neighbourhood and a history of art stretching back 3,000 years − it all boosts imagination.
I studied at the University of Applied Arts in Belgrade 1970 – 75 … a tough school, up to the European standards of, for example, the Royal College of Art.
I went to university for 5 years, 6 days a week and completed periodical practical work (design projects) in factories. I joined the emerging studio glass movement in Europe at its very beginning in the mid ’70s.
We often hear of artists struggling to survive financially – and it’s a definitely a difficult life choice for some. How difficult was it for you to transition from being a graduate from the University of Fine Arts in Belgrade, to a working, practising artist?
Not too difficult. As a young artist, among the best graduates of the university, I was immediately ‘adopted’ by Sebastian Gallery from Dubrovnik, who established a range of design stores (around 100) in Yugoslavia. I collaborated with this gallery (1979 – 91) on glass design series produced in factories and had quite a steady income from royalties.
The other source of income came from sales of my art works (glass sculptures) over the past 35 years. It was a sufficient income for a freelance artist to keep working, travelling overseas and raising family − I had not one single day of regular employment!
If I need to point out the downside of this lifestyle, it is the wild irregularity of income … the ups and downs. Still, I wouldn’t do it any other way. The upside is complete freedom in creating my work − when I want, and how I want.
You mentioned your medium is glass. Why glass in particular – what first attracted you to this substance?
I started to study ceramic, but I wanted to do transparent objects and found a perfect medium in glass, as a third-year student. I literally fell in love with this magical and unique medium, as it offered a vast range of possibilities.
Explain the technique you’ve developed to work with glass – multiple layers fusing. What’s involved with this process?
Perhaps the best way to explain the process is an excerpt from a catalogue describing my work:
“The technique of ‘multiple layers fusing’ has been gradually developed by Emma Varga during the past 14 years. It enables her to create and to gain control over three-dimensional images inside large transparent glass objects.To make each of these sculptural objects, it is necessary to cut thousands of tiny glass elements from clear and transparent coloured glass sheets and combine them with glass frits and stringers.
“The sculptural glass objects are made from 20 – 400 thin transparent glass layers; glass mosaic elements, colored frits and stringers are assembled on each sheet, according to a complicated three-dimensional plan.
“These are then fused together in stages. It takes two weeks to fire and slowly cool down large sculptural works, then a further two weeks to grind and polish all of the surfaces to perfection. Only then it is finally possible to see the inside; all the fine details and veil-like structures floating in the sea of clear glass”.
Your work involves many hours of painstaking skill and concentration. What limitations are there on the objects you can create – is your only limit imagination, or are there technical constraints?
My only limitation is time. A lifetime is not enough to create all the ideas I have. Glass offers such a wide range of possibilities and various techniques (which I learned very early, as a young artist), that almost anything is possible to create.
Your awards and accolades are too many to mention, but if you had to nominate an artistic achievement you’re particularly proud of – what would it be and why?
Awards come and go. I am very happy that after 39 years working in glass, I can still play with glass with ease and have a great joy in the process.
How do you come up with an idea or concept for your pieces … do you sketch your ideas, for example, or create as you go – almost visualising your ideas in 3D?
I have an ever growing crowd of new ideas in my head. The more I work, the more new ideas are born (this can be frustrating at times!)
I make very few sketches; however, creating my ideas in glass, using my multiple layers technique, requires me to make complex diagrams − similar to the way an architect has to dismantle a building and draw a separate floor plan for each floor (layer, in the case of my glass).
Your work will be on display in the Ranamok Glass Prize exhibition in the Glasshouse throughout November. Please describe the piece/s you will have on display?
It’s experimental work: playing with a combination of different materials, using unusual methods of glass application to create objects ‘out of the square’. I’ve used the process of pâté de verre to create ‘buttons’ fused from coloured fine glass frits, which are then sewn onto organza with thin monofilament (fishing line). The term ‘pâté de verre’ can refer to a paste made of glass, but also includes other methods used to melt glass together. I did not use a paste; I used dry fine frit #1 (which looks like coarse sugar).
Where can people go to view more of your work?
My work is displayed at: Kirra Galleries, Melbourne; Sabbia Gallery, Sydney; Imago Galleries, Palm Desert, CA, USA; David Richard Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM, USA; Hodgell Gallery, Sarasota, FL, USA; Masterworks Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand; Gallery of the Museum of Applied Art, Belgrade, Serbia; Gaffer Studio Glass, Hong Kong; and Vitria Gallery, Singapore.
Interview by Jo Atkins.