I remember hearing when I was young if an artist wants to make something that lasts they must use toxic materials. It's the nature of organic materials to decay and disintegrate; if you want something to last, it's got to be resist this natural progression.
It's no coincidence that I work with glass paints and enamels from the stained glass tradition. That stuff can last for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. If a material can't last that long, I don't want to be bothered with it. Long after Damien's shark has resisted the final taxidermist's attempts to save it and Tracey's bed has driven conservators to despair, my pieces should be able to sit comfortably glowing in the corner -- needing only a change of lights every so often.
However, I care about the environment, and it pains me that some of the materials I need to use to achieve this permanence are, let's face it, toxic. Lead, cadmium, chromium. (Though they are safe in my pieces once the glass has been fired.) So, I want to minimise the amount of these materials I release into the environment.
(I'm also cheap and hate waste.)
In my studio the primary source of enamel waste is the result of washing brushes. Here's how I minimise the amount of enamel I waste and wash down the drain. The core of these ideas came to me from the lovely man and teacher Mark Angus, and have been built upon and adapted to my way of working. I work almost exclusively with water, vinegar, propylene glycol, gum arabic and other water-soluble media. If you work with oils, you'll need to devise your own methods.
First, I use a separate tub of water for each enamel colour I use. Here you see my black and white palettes, and their corresponding black and white tubs of water. These tubs have covers, so they can be kept clean in between uses. I use these to clean and refresh my brushes while painting. Of course, in order for this work, I’ve got to use separate brushes for each colour. Dipping the brush with black enamel into the white tub will pollute the white enamel.
Cover the tubs of water and your glass palettes. This keeps them clean and helps prevent evaporation.
Finally, I wash each brush under cold running water until the water runs clean. By the time I’ve reached this step, there is very little enamel left in the brushes - therefore very little being put into the water stream.
What to do with all that sediment?
So, you've saved the enamel from going down the drain. Now what?
Usually in my work flow, I have periods of intensive painting, and periods where I’m not doing much, if any, painting at all. After a week or more of not being disturbed, the enamel in my tubs has settled to the bottom, leaving largely clear water.
For the smaller, color specific tubs, I gently pour the clear water into the large settlement tub by my sink. I can then scrape this untainted paint back onto the appropriate palette and use it as normal.
I don't like to leave this clear water sitting around too long. Once all the toxic stuff starts to settle out, things start to grow in it.
So, I gently pour the clear water out of the large tub, leaving the mixed colour enamel sediment at the bottom.
I usually let this set out for a day to dry out somewhat, then I scrape the sediment out of the bottom and into a tub marked ‘Settlement.' I don't worry if I'm not able to scrape every last bit out; it can always stay in the bottom of the tubs for the next lot. I refill the large tub with water and set it back beside the sink.
The sediment from the ‘Settlement’ tub is going to be a mongrel mix of every enamel I’ve used. It will also likely have dust and stray brush hairs in it. I can either set it aside to use in a project later – if I want some slightly dirty, grey-ish enamels. If I’m teaching outside my studio, I can either offer this sediment to the students to take home with them and use (if they're feeling brave), or it can be painted onto waste glass from the class and fired with the last firing. In this case, the enamel is still ‘wasted’, but it is affixed to the glass and can be thrown away without worrying about it polluting the water.
What methods do you have for reducing the waste from your glass enamels?
Amanda Palmer is coming to Edinburgh! Which reminds me of the story of how I came to create the smallest – and quickest – piece of my career to give to her.
I’ve been a massive fan of Amanda Palmer (and the Dresden Dolls) since 2004. Her music has articulated feelings and conflicts I could only glimpse through murky mists.
I don’t often go to gigs, but have seen Amanda live at least five times – from a sticky-floored dank room she stuck to when her band mate backed out of a tour, a decadently-mirrored Spiegeltent, as one half of conjoined twins in a university lecture theatre, crowdsurfing over my head in a mosh pit, and to larger gigs in old movie palaces. Each event has had a different character: all have been magnificent.
Since I was a teenager I’ve been rather obsessed with mortality, its images and motifs. I probably would have been a budding goth if I didn’t feel the irresistible pull of a beautiful melody and looked dreadful in black.
I’ve been thinking about contemporary images to create memento mori (remember you will have to die) images for our on-line world. As I was considering this, Amanda Palmer’s song ‘Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)” kept eating away at me. I love the song and listened to it incessantly, but its repetition of the on-line goad ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ began to disturb me. (I know that the lyric isn't itself a celebration of the 'pictures or it didn't happen' mentality, but her use of it in this song pushed my imagination along its own path.)
When I was 25 years old, I lost my beautiful lover John. John was nine years older than me, and helped me come out of the closet. He affirmed that there was nothing wrong with who I was. He educated me about queer identities and politics. He was my first love and the world we shared was both expansive and intimate. From the day we met (I laid eyes on him and knew I was going to ‘marry’ him - as far as our 'we don't need a socially-designated model to affirm the validity of our relationship' would allow) until the day he died, our lives and souls were intimately intertwined.
Then, after a year long struggle with AIDS, John died a horrible, messy, painful death. And the world we'd created was gone. No one else knew the in-jokes or had our shared experience. No one else knew the story of that street corner, this fountain, that rock, or the things about the things on our flat - the tchochkes, the books and music.
This was in 1995 – the pre-internet age. Today, I’m as caught up in the on-line world as most people, but my relationship with John blossomed, thrived and was cut short with nary a Facebook status to announce it or post to show for it.
And, if I Google him, he simply doesn’t show up.
Which makes the goading of ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ mournful to me.
When Amanda Palmer was coming to Edinburgh a couple of years ago, I got a ticket. Then, it turned out that my current partner’s friend’s colleage is a very good friend of Amanda's. The possibility was discussed that she might be able to get me backstage after the concert to meet Amanda. Nothing was certain and I didn’t expect anything, especially from a complete stranger.
However, four hours before the gig was to start I got the news – it was on! I was going backstage!
I’ve never been backstage at a concert. I didn’t know what the etiquitte was. I mean, you never show up at someone’s house without a gift – surely coming backstage to meet a performer is the same? And I know that Amanda appreciates the creative expression of others. So, I thought: I’ll make a memento mori piece for Amanda that will capture this strong response I was having to ‘Smile.’
I had four hours.
It usually takes me 4-5 *weeks* to make something. It’s got to be painted and fired and painted again, ad apparently infinitum. I thought I could just about paint something small, whack it in the kiln, fire it to 580°C, allow it to cool, get it out, frame it, and get to the gig. So, I did. I painted a skull on two layers of glass, and engraved the phrase ‘pictures or it didn’t happen’ on it, and put it in a miniature gold frame. I put on a ridiculous outfit and headed to the Picture House.
I met my partner’s friend’s colleague and her husband – who were lovely beyond belief, and had an amazing time at the concert (as always).
Afterwards, I stayed to finally get to meet one of my idols. Amanda and the band had to get on the bus to catch the ferry to Belfast, and they were being hurried out of the venue. She was exhausted, but stayed and signed cds and tshirts and talked with everyone..
At last, she approached our wee group.
She was exhausted. She had to go catch the bus. I could see she was spent. I thought I’d just say hello and say something generic and gushy about how wonderful she was and let her go with a minimum of fuss. But my partner’s friend’s colleague knew I'd made something for Amanda and wouldn’t let my shyness prevent me from imposing.
Amanda was lovely. She was exhausted and they were calling for her to get her shit together and get on the bus. And here was some oddly-dressed guy who was wanting to give her something.
I could see her summon all her strength and all of her patience and look me in the eye as I tried to tell her why I was giving her a rather crudely painted skull on layers of glass with a lyric from her song etched on it. I don’t know what I said, but it was some jumble of losing my lover and the internet and love and loss and memory.
And she pressed my gift to her heart and did what Amanda Palmer does – gave me a huge hug. My partner’s friend’s colleague took a photo of the two of us, and Amanda was gone.
What she made of the gift I have no idea. Perhaps it’s become an inside joke for her and her loved ones about the weird things fans give you when you’re on the road. Perhaps it's come to mean something else to whoever has it. Perhaps it’s been thrown away or lost. Maybe she remembers it, or maybe not. Perhaps she’ll read this, or perhaps not.. No matter. It did what it needed to do in the moment - it facilitated a human interaction. What it does after that is its own journey.
As Amanda knows 'The Thing About Things' is they take on their own meanings.