Broken Liquid: an interview with glass sculptor Ben Young

 Sydney  |  31 July 2014  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Raised in Waihi Beach, New Zealand, Sydney-based Ben Young’s love of the surf and trade as a boat builder organically brought him to glass sculpting. His fluid, hand-made creations have propelled him to the forefront of Australia’s emerging glass art scene. AMA spoke to Ben about how his aquatic sculptures take shape.

How did you come to sculpting and why with glass?
When I was younger I loved building things, however it was my Dad who inspired me to use glass. My family and I were travelling around the Greek Islands when I was 12, and after seeing a glass sculpture in a shop window display, my Dad recreated it once we were home. He wasn’t a sculptor, but he liked to get in the shed and make things, and I guess it rubbed off on me. When I got older I picked it up, had a go, and it’s developed from there.

Tell us about your process from idea to creation…
Once I’ve come up with an idea, I’ve got to nut out if it’s actually going to be feasible! I’ve now learnt what the glass is capable of doing; which shapes work and those that don’t. I start with a lot of working drawings to help me build. The more I can plan it on paper, the easier it is to complete. Once I’ve got what I think I need, I head out to the studio and start working away. Sometimes it means I have to come back and make more plans. There’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing involved.

How has your boat-building experience aided your sculpting?
I’m a boatbuilder by trade so I’ve made lots with wood, but for some reason I was really taken by working with glass and so I’ve stuck to that. The skills that I’ve picked up through my profession have helped me hugely with what I’m able to achieve with glass.

Do you ever reach a point where you realise your idea is not feasible?
Not yet — touch wood! I think that’s part of knowing the glass’ constraints and the way it breaks. In that initial thought process I start something I know I can do within reason. Although I do like pushing the boundaries, so I’m sure one day I’ll probably stump myself!

Your pieces are crafted by hand, rather than by machines: why did you choose to stick to this process?
I guess the fact that I don’t have those skills is a large part of it. In this age of technology it feels like creating something by hand is a dying art; people don’t get their hands on things anymore. That’s the whole reason I became a boatbuilder; I just like being directly involved in the creative process.

Where do you source the glass for your pieces?
In the past I’ve been able to source recycled glass, which I really like, although it is harder to come by these days. If not, it’s usually from a local glassier, which at least keeps the money within the local community. I use a lot of float glass — named after the way it’s made. After it’s melted, it’s floated on top of molten tin, and that’s how it becomes so flat. Like the glass in your windows, for example.

How would you say your work differs from other glass sculptors?
I’ve stuck to my personal passions and inspirations, and my experience has helped me hugely — this can’t be replicated from artist to artist. There are definitely other artists out there using the same medium and doing the same kind of thing, but really they all seem to be quite different.

The ‘Parallels’ series has a stalactite-quality – how is this technically made?
I’m not a physicist by any means but I’ve tried to work out what the glass can handle weight-wise and make sure there is less weight on the top, and less weight hanging off — and try to keep that balance. It’s mostly trial and error — I gave it a go and it worked! It was quite a challenge, but you’ve got to trust in your materials. I did experiment a lot, with smaller pieces to see what was possible and I gradually pushed it more and more.

Your piece “New Beginnings” [a pregnant female figure] makes an interesting contrast to the nautical pieces – can you tell us about this?
This was made with glasshouse glass. I was doing a series which was based around the necessities of life, and I felt that this glass, with its history of housing and cultivating life, really suited the female form — having that life inside again, gave it a whole new dimension that followed the same idea. I feel like that was my most technically challenging piece to date. Or maybe I’ve just learnt the most from that one. When I initially had the idea, I made a preparatory drawing, submitted it to an exhibition and they accepted my proposal from just the drawing. I was like, right well now I’ve got to make it! It was really good to have a challenge like that, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

Sculptor-wise, who are your biggest influences?
I love artists who think outside the box, for example: Li Hongiun, Haroshi, Danny Lane, Hedi Xandt and Henrique Oliveira. I enjoy seeing what they come up with. Industrial designers have also influenced some of my recent work which incorporates concrete as well as glass.

Kirra Galleries specialises in representing Australian glass artists – how receptive is the Australian audience to this kind of art?
I think there’s a definite following in that area with people who collect, which helps cultivate more artists. I’m relatively new to the glass scene, and having no formal training, I miss out on some of that inside knowledge, but I’m slowly learning who’s who.

You are a finalist for the 2014’s Ranamok Glass Prize – its final edition – what does this mean for you?
It was an amazing opportunity to be selected, because as I said, I am relatively new to the glass scene; being able to showcase my work alongside some really established artists is a huge honour. My goal was to make the final and now that’s happened, so that’s awesome.

What’s coming up in the future?
Kirra Galleries are taking me to SOFA — a big art and design fair in Chicago — in November, so that’s really exciting. I have sold pieces privately to American collectors, but this is the first opportunity to show my work internationally and hopefully from that, get some international gallery representation.

Where would you most like to see your work exhibited?
I’d like my art go back to its roots, in a public space. Maybe even back in New Zealand, where I grew up.

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