Four glass artists tell us why they chose the medium and what inspires their unique creations.

When design historian and current manager of the Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins said in a NZ Listener article late last year that the contemporary glass movement in this country was "in danger of imminent collapse" due to an overpopulation of hobbyists and fly-by-nighters it fomented much heated discussion among those in the industry. Viva meets four young glass artists who are taking their chosen vocation seriously - but having fun at the same time.

When you hail from a city known for its snowstorms, you probably spend a lot of time indoors. Perhaps that's why Katherine Rutecki, who grew up in Buffalo in the United States (notorious for its winter blizzards), found a cosy escape in art. "As a little girl, I remember drawing all the time - mainly horses," she says.

At 18, her imaginative skills won her a scholarship to the School of Art & Design in Alfred, New York where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in sculpture. Credit, though, also belongs to a friend who recognised in Rutecki the "meticulous nature" that would allow her to become a successful glass artist - and steered her in this direction.

"It's such a challenging medium," she explains. "Casting glass is extremely technical but freeing at the same time in that you can make anything once you've figured out specifics and fully understood the process."

In layman's terms, Rutecki uses a series of rubber then plaster and silicone moulds into which, ultimately, glass frits (or particles) are poured and then melted in a kiln to form a luminous piece. She then "cold works" the surface to smooth out the glass. "I like to leave some tool marks and fingerprints and not grind away everything."

Tall, slim with distinctive white-rimmed glasses, she came to New Zealand with her partner, glass artist Luke Jacomb, two years ago. In their eponymous design studio in Newton, she's enjoying one of the most creative periods of her life.

Her fine art work centres on a collection of birds, an idea that was born when Rutecki read an article about migrating flocks at night. Birds, who navigate by the stars, became disoriented by our urbanised landscape and the lights in tall buildings were causing them to plummet straight into them.

"I became obsessed with the idea of 'the confused flock', of one bird smashing into another. I see it as a personal narrative, about how we do what we have to, to get through the struggles in life."

These cast-glass sculptures include dual birds in two different stances - either breast to breast (Embrace) or on top of each other (Tandem).

Rutecki, whose work has been accepted into the Ebeltoft Glass Museum in Denmark, says that some viewers may interpret them as sexual or even loving, but for her they represent the chaos that can happen without warning.

"Once glass gets a hold of you, it's impossible to break free," says Luke Jacomb, who must have crystalline coursing through his blood. His father, John Croucher, is a well-known glass artist who, in the 70s, started one of the first glass-blowing co-op studios in New Zealand.

A chip off the old block, Jacomb (32), is a master of glass blowing, an under-appreciated art-form that embraces thousands of techniques.

"You never, ever learn everything about it. Some days I hate it but glass is still my teacher," he says.

Known for his impossibly beautiful, intricately detailed blown-glass paddles, Jacomb brings a breadth of experience to his work.

With a solid grounding in glass chemistry from his dad, he lived for eight years in the US where he was fortunate to spend summers working at the Corning Museum of Glass. There he was classically trained by virtuosos such as Elio Quarisa, a primo maestro of Murano glass work.

"I got to see by far the best glass collection in the world and spend time in the company of great curatorial minds."

Among other things, he learned how to blow delicate Renaissance-look goblets.

"I figured out that I could cross-pollinate that Venetian style with other aesthetics."

Luke worked on a way to achieve a juxtaposition of these 15th, 16th and 17th century methods with a contemporary Polynesian flavour - and his 1.4m-long waka paddles are the result. "I used to go canoeing as a boy scout in the Orakei Basin and also on Lake Washington," he explains. "One day, the idea just naturally came to me."

For Jacomb, the paddles speak of a shared heritage. Some centre shafts, for instance, feature reticello, an advanced cane-working technique which may have been invented in Italy in 1549 but looks like fishnet, hence the Polynesian references. Other techniques resemble lashing and weaving.

For a touring museum show which opens in Otago in April next year, he's going to "explore more crazy Venetian techniques".

After his time in Seattle - "the new Murano of the world" - Jacomb brought Rutecki to Auckland to set up their studio in Newton where the atmosphere is one of supportive camaraderie.

Jacomb, who has work in museum collections in the US, Denmark and India says: "I can get up at four in the morning naked to blow glass and no one is going to say 'yuck'!" He says it's a blessing to work with good friends every day.

"With my hands and a few crazy-looking medieval tools, I can make something perfect. That why glass and I are still married."

Remember those interminable childhood roadtrips when we slouched in the back seat and counted the power poles as the family car made its way through the countryside? Well, Simon Lewis Wards has turned this particular youthful memory into art in the form of luminescent cast-glass power poles that are a signpost of how far he has come.

Wards (31) admits he was something of a rebel at school. He dropped out of Auckland Grammar and later "had a good time" at Selwyn College. At 16, he became a drainlayer. "I liked the physical work," he explains. Other incarnations saw him as a plumber, signwriter and chef. "But I lost a few jobs by turning up with a hangover - or not at all," he grins.

Like many teenagers, he was searching for something to stop him in his tracks. "I never felt that I had fallen into anything I loved."

As a youth, Wards was a keen graffiti artist. He liked the close-knit fraternity and the sense of being part of an underground movement.

"When graffiti became trendy, it lost its fascination."

Luckily his friendship with Jacomb, who he met at secondary school, put him on a path where he could explore his creative side. He had worked as an assistant at a glass-blowing shop on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne and, when Jacomb and Rutecki set up their Newton studio in October 2008, he helped them unload a container of equipment and then, at the couple's encouragement, stayed on.

"I was taken by Kate's cast-glass sculptures and appreciated the incredible detail you could achieve."

Until then his experience of this technique stopped at bowls and vessels - objects that didn't spark any feeling. Realising he could move beyond these forms was a revelation.

"I'd had some T-shirts spraypainted with power poles as I find them a beautiful part of the urban landscape," explains Wards.

It was just one small leap of imagination to cast them in glass. He used a pool cue to mould the shape of the pole and relied on selling the first versions to friends as a means of buying materials for the next stage.

"It took me a year to get my head around the technique and refine it," he explains. "But now I'm happy to put my work out into the world."

Working at Jacomb and Rutecki Design has inspired him to advance his art. In July, he will travel to the US to attend a three-week camp at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood to train in the Pate de Verre technique.

Wards looks forward to returning to the studio to share his newfound knowledge.

"I always heard people say that once you found your passion, it wasn't like going to work anymore. Now I know what that means."

*Find Wards' work at Piece Gallery, Matakana; The Poi Room, Newmarket; Mana Gallery, Parnell; Statements Gallery, Napier; Real Aotearoa in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland; Milford Galleries, Dunedin, Queenstown.
Vicki Fanning's home is a renovated Matakana farmhouse she shares with her partner, artist Mike Petre and their 21-month-old son Sam. Visitors who drop by are often surprised to come across her glass art gracing a towel rack, slipped into a toothbrush holder, hanging in a kitchen tool rack or thrown over the back of a sofa.

"They don't always see it straight away," she laughs, "until it sparkles from a corner and catches their eye. I love that element of surprise."

Fanning creates flexible, tactile glass art. She starts by actually making the object she wants to cover with hundreds of hand-made glass hooks.

With a dad who was a practical man, and a mother who was "a knitter, sewer and maker," Fanning always had a leaning towards the crafts.

"I can remember knitting dolls' clothes or booties - quick result things."

After school, when looking for something to get her teeth into, she studied at the Wanganui Glass School where she majored in glass blowing and casting. Yet it was only after she left, clutching her diploma, that she realised her heart's desire lay in this particular technique of flameworking.

"I am inspired by glass in the everyday," she says. "The way we interact with it, be it a computer screen or a window."

Also compelling are the divergent attributes it has. "It protects us, yet it can be dangerous. It is strong but also fragile. It can be solid and liquid. It shields us but does not offer privacy."

For her work, Fanning uses robust German-made scientific Schott glass. She was basically self-taught in the process - a painstaking one that transforms glass rods using an LPG and oxygen flame into hooks, each one crafted individually.

"It's a finicky process but I like it. I enjoy the repetition and I don't count the hooks - I don't want to," she laughs.

Next she sews these hooks on to a gridded mat which, in turn, is used to cover a utilitarian item that we'd find in any New Zealand household - blankets, cushions, teddy bears or hats and scarves.

"I like the idea that glass can be soft and flexible and slightly interactive. I enjoy that people are able to touch my art, that it can be draped and squeezed."

With a solo show at Masterworks in August, Fanning is hard at it in her studio in a converted shed.

Trying to work when Sam is asleep or when he's being looked after by his father or grandmother can be a juggling act.

"I mainly use clear glass as it reflects light amazingly whereas coloured glass can mask that fact," she says.

And there is no end of ideas to which she can adapt this original process. Perhaps inspired by her young son and because it was a natural progression from previous work, she's decided to move on to making soft toys with their cloaks of glass.

"I like the idea that sharks, snakes and lions are dangerous in their inherent nature. And their coverings are potentially dangerous too."

* See Fanning's work at Masterworks Gallery, Auckland and Piece Gallery in Matakana.