Emsie Sharp: glass act
PUBLISHED: 14:48 09 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann visits the studio of a glassblower at the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills
Glassblower Emsie Sharp and her colleague, Jo Stephen, work out of Emsie's hot glass studio at the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills in the hamlet of Farrington, a few miles north of Blandford. I'm at this studio, and watching Emsie making a wine glass. She goes from furnace to her bench or from bench to a second furnace, the glory hole, with a blowpipe on whose end is a glowing mass of molten glass that is being twirled and moulded into a wine glass. She relies on Jo to bring her more molten glass on the end of an iron called a punty as, sitting at her bench, stem and base are added to the bowl of the glass. Emsie uses various tweezers and shears to fashion the hot plastic glass.
The two girls move around with the molten glass in a kind of ballet. Few words are exchanged. Speed is everything. The back door is open to a cold winter's day but inside it is as hot as hell. The minutes go by. The glass is finished, the alchemy is done and the glass is placed in the annealer where it will slowly cool. Jo proposes a cup of tea. It is thirsty work, glassblowing. Now I am able to chat to Emsie about her life and work.
Emsie tells me that she was born in Cambridge in 1970. Her father was an insurance underwriter; her mother very much a mother since Emsie has four sisters, of which she is the youngest. The family moved when Emsie was still a young child to Great Bardfield in Essex to live in the lovely 18th-century Brick House, the house which had once been the home of the celebrated 20th-century artist Edward Bawden.
Here's Emsie: "Growing up in Brick House meant that I was immersed in the world of Edward Bawden. His studio was our drawing room and because my father was very interested in art, I grew up looking at paintings and drawings and talking art and artists."
As a teenager, Emsie became interested in stained glass but instead of taking up that ancient craft she shifted her allegiance to glassblowing. "It's a bug with me. I went to the West Surrey College of Art and Design where I did a three-year degree course in glassblowing," she explains. "After college I worked in glassblowing studios in London. It was a good apprenticeship but I felt I wanted to learn more. I packed my bags and went off to Murano, Venice, the world centre of glassblowing. The Italians are the masters, it's in their blood. They work hotter and faster and have astonishing technique. It was damned hard work. It's a man's world and a secretive one too, and they didn't take that kindly to a female coming in, especially one who wasn't Italian. I worked in two studios, stayed for three years, and came back in 2002."
Back in England, Emsie found her way down to Dorset where she got a job glassblowing in the studio of William Walker. "I was approached by Rob Buckley of the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills," says Emsie. "Rob wanted to have a glassblower at the centre. I saw it as a great opportunity to set up on my own and here I am."
I ask Emsie to try and put into words what it is like to work with molten glass. "It's temperamental stuff," she explains. "Things can and do go wrong. You have good and bad days. You've got this window of time in which to work before the glass goes solid. If it gets too cold it cracks and falls off the blowing iron. You have to be methodical. I'm obsessed with technique, it is so complicated and you are always learning."
Emsie makes sets of wine glasses, plates, tableware, bowls, vases, even door knobs. She works to private commissions and work comes largely by word of mouth. The beauty of what she produces is plain to see, not least in her coloured pieces whose plastic shapes, coruscating colour and fragile delicacy seem to hint at a desire on Emsie's part to produce less functional work. "Glassblowing is a craft," she insists. "Having said that, though, I am moving towards less functional, more sculptural pieces."
I ask if there is such a thing as 'art glass', a way of working that is more about abstraction than function. "The answer to that is yes," says Emsie. "It began in the '60s in the USA when Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino began making blown-glass art. Most famous in their field today is probably Lino Tagliapietra who is from Murano."
As to the future, Emsie cannot see the time when she will not be glassblowing. "For me it is a kind of obsession," she says. "I just wish I had more time to do it. I have a 20-month-old son called Luca and so at the moment I find myself having to juggle time between looking after him and working. When he is settled at school things should get better. At the moment I seem to go round in circles. Glassblowing is a passion. I'm good at it and I can't imagine life without it."
Yes, she is good at it, one look at her work is enough to confirm that, and with her questing nature, her desire to push herself technically and her obvious creativity, there seems little doubt that we can look forward to ever more stunning work from Emsie in the future.