A love affair with glass

  • A love affair with glass image

Many years ago—perhaps before the Kingston Foreshore or its arts precinct had even been thought of—a young sculpture student at the University of Illinois walked into a glass hot-shop and had an epiphany that would set the course of her life in more ways than one. That young student was Ann Jakle, and today, she is the CEO of Canberra Glassworks. We ask Ann about her own journey, the role of Canberra Glassworks and the importance of this art form to Canberra’s cultural landscape.

Most Canberrans will tell you they feel proud of our status as the Nation’s Capital. Whilst some may express less enthusiasm for other titles that have been bestowed upon our fair city, it is true that most of us are aware that for one reason or another, we have been known over the years as the fireworks-capital, the porn-capital, and even the pot-capital to name a few, and that most if not all of these dubious titles have had an element of truth to them.

What may come as a surprise to many of us though, is that amongst the international community of serious art collectors, we are mostly known as Australia’s glass-capital. In her own softly spoken and charming way, Canberra Glassworks CEO Ann Jakle conjures Wizard of Oz imagery in one’s internal zoetrope when she calls Canberra “the city of glass,” but adds that most of us don’t know it yet. The “yet” floats in the air for a minute; betraying her dream of a greater appreciation of the importance of this art form to Canberra.

She is sitting in the public gallery of Canberra Glassworks’ hot-shop, and seated just below her; a group of primary school students are watching a glass artist at work. They are engaged—completely and utterly—while the artist, Ruth Oliphant, manoeuvres the blowpipe like a snake charmer; and their little faces follow her every move.

This type of public access is quite rare in other arts facilities in Canberra, so the opportunity to actually see the art being created is one of the major drawcards for the Glassworks.

Ann has been at Canberra Glassworks since its inception and is still fascinated by the work. “From the moment I became involved in glass art, at the University of Illinois, I had the feeling that the hot-shop was an amazing place to be,” she says. “The glass blowers were fascinating. On the one hand they were pursuing aesthetics to the very highest level, and on the other, they were working with this material—sometimes wrestling with it—that was really hard and didn’t necessarily want to do what they wanted it to do. They had to be part physicist, part engineer and a lot alchemist to make their artwork.”

It seems that amongst the physics and the alchemy, there was a little chemistry thrown in—this where Ann gives full disclosure—as one of the students in that hot-shop was to become her husband, and current head of the glass workshop at the ANU, Richard Whitely.

“We moved to Canberra because my husband took up the position of Head of the Glass Workshop at ANU,” says Ann. “My first degree was in Political Science and Organisational Behaviour, and I guess there are halves to me. One half is very much interested in how organisations and people can work together to achieve success; and the other half is very much interested in the arts, in keeping art visible for the artists who practice it and for people who want to enjoy it.”

When the position of CEO for Canberra Glassworks came up, Ann successfully applied, so in many ways this must be a dream job for her.

“In Canberra, you can go to the National Gallery or the Portrait Gallery and have these wonderful experiences with finished artwork,” she says “or you can come here and see all of the steps that are involved in generating ideas, and then visit an exhibition space and see the finished artwork. It’s more of a holistic approach.” Ann points to the layout and architecture in place in the building. “There was a very strong plan to create public spaces and walkways that allow the art-making to be very visible,” she says.

Although the public access is what makes this glass centre a compelling destination for visitors, there is a far more practical purpose to the existence of the facility and certainly, for the reason it is located in Canberra.

“For 30 years, the ANU has been graduating artists that have gone on and had great careers,” says Ann. “That Glass Workshop is considered one of the most prestigious in the world—it is highly regarded—and because over 75 percent of those graduates actually go on to practice their art, there was strong impetus for this. The idea came from a student that realised when she finished school, she wouldn’t have access to the equipment to continue her work. There was a group of maybe 10 to 12 artists over a period of about 10 years that pushed the argument for this type of facility.”

Whilst a facility that allowed artists to work could have been achieved without the public access component, ultimately it would not have given the artists the visibility they now enjoy.

“The artists can work here, there is an exhibition space and retail area for their work; and all elements of the centre support artists careers and livelihood,” says Ann.

Whilst there have been some hard yards since the GFC made a significant impact on the landscape of collecting, Ann sees some green shoots and is enthusiastic about the future of the art form and the work Glassworks is doing.

“In October, a group of around 20 to 30 American collectors is coming to Australia, specifically to visit places like Canberra Glassworks and the ANU, and specifically to look at and purchase Australian art,” she says. “In the art world, Australian glass artists are treated like superstars,” says Ann. “Right now, the summer program of the Pilchuk Glass School—Seattle’s acclaimed international glass school—is full of Australian artists, many of them from Canberra. We can feel so proud of this wonderful cultural collateral that is well respected internationally.”