Where does Glass come from? What role has it played over history and how is being transformed in the current era of sustainability?
Glass is one of those materials that we take for granted. It is an every day, common building material that we can find in almost any environment and in many products– kitchen utensils, windows, ornamental objects, and of course now, as a part of modern computer communications. Glass has been around since prehistoric times, when in its natural form, called volcanic obsidian, it was an incredibly sought after and valuable material used to make sharp weapons and knives, functional tools, jewelry and even money.
A key point in the history of glass manufacturing came in the 1st century BC when workers in ancient areas of Persia and Egypt developed the craft of glass blowing, transforming it into a cheaper and more easily produced material. This technique slowly spread across the Ancient Roman Empire, and was eventually adopted by the whole of Europe and the world. Over time, as a range of cultures engaged with glass making, new applications were developed, such as the stunning stained glass produced in the 13th and 14th centuries for churches and cathedrals like Chatres and Canterbury.
After 1890, with the industrial revolution, glass use, development and manufacture began to increase rapidly. Machinery was developed for mass, continuous fabrication that produced a wealth of new objects and products. A series of innovative inventions followed, such as Irving W. Colburn´s sheet glass drawing machine in 1902, which made possible the mass production of window glass. In 1904, the American engineer Michael Owens patented the automatic bottle blowing machine and in 1959 Sir Alastair Pilkington introduced the new revolutionary float glass production. Still now, 90% of flat glass is manufactured with this process today.
Interestingly, while the way glass has been transformed has evolved, the actual production of glass has not change much since it was discovered. It still consist mainly of sand–made up of silica, soda ash and lime– that is heated to extreme temperatures, and then allowed to cool down. As its temperature drops it can be shaped into almost any form by either blowing or pouring into pre-designed molds such as the ones mentioned above. The process can be modified with additives or coatings, which provide glass with colour options, opacities, and improved quality and durability.
Soda-lime glass, also called soda-lime-silica glass, is the most commonly available glass. It contains both sodium and calcium and is used for windowpanes, glass containers for beverages, food, and other commodity goods.
It was the German glassmaker Otto Schott that first added Boric Acid to the traditional glass composition, creating the first batches of Borosilicate glass. Made mostly of silica (70-80%) and boric oxide (7-13%) with smaller amounts of the alkalis (sodium and potassium oxides) and aluminium oxide, its main property is that it does not expand like ordinary glass does. Due to its low coefficient of expansion, it has superior thermal shock resistance. This means that even if it undergoes a sudden temperature change it will not break. And in the very rare and extreme case that it did, it would only crack, not shatter.
New ways of looking at Glass
But what is happening with glass now? One of the boundaries that artists and designers are currently pushing is the transformation of glass through recycling. One such artist is Hannah Gibson, who’s work we have been following for a while. We were able to catch up with her and ask her about her connection with glass and how she manipulates it into wonderful 3D pieces.
MD: Have you always worked with Glass? What is your background?
HG- I first studied geology at Edinburgh University, from 1993 to 1997. Growing up in Abergwyngregyn, North Wales, it was hard not to develop a fascination for geology, with views of Snowdonia behind, and Anglesey and the Menai Straits in front. I took my first course in glass whilst still in Edinburgh when I was 24, so it has been ticking along in the background for two decades.
MD: So, how did you start experimenting with Glass?
HG- After graduation, working as a geologist, I took that first course in glass and it was love at first sight. It was exciting to be able to interweave my passion for glass and geology, for me it was pure alchemy.
My first projects consisted of stained glass windows, which later led to a passion for fused glass, lampworking and glass casting. By then I had had the opportunity to take a number of glass courses, and wanted to consolidate all the information and the skills I had learnt over time, looking to experiment even further with this material. So in 2015 I enrolled in a MA in Glass at The University for The Creative Arts in Farnham. Graduating in 2017, I became an Artist in Residence at the same university, still exploring glass and its applications.
MD: What are the properties that you most like about working with Glass?
HG- Our relationship with glass has never been as close as it is today. Every day we are in contact with glass in the form of touch screen phones or tablets. I was interested in unpacking this connection we have developed.
On the other hand, scientifically, glass as a medium is fascinating for me. It offers more questions than answers, allowing me to pursue and investigate continually. I am especially interested in the endless possibilities and potential for recycling glass.
MD: Why did you start making the small icon-like figures you call “Sweet Nothings”?
HG- In 2015 I started working on my current project, Recycling Narratives. Whispering Sweet Nothings. Through my project, my intention was to bring people together, to share my passion for glass, and demonstrate how glass can be recycled in an engaging and artistic way.
After a great deal of consideration I chose a figure that I called a ‘Sweet Nothing’. Why did I call them this? Because I often found them in pairs,
Whispering Sweet Nothings to one another.
What are they whispering?
‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot. Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’ (Dr Seuss, The Lorax).
The figure was an immediately identifiable shape, and by keeping the figures the same and identical, it meant that people soon saw beyond the shape and began to see the material itself. The ‘Sweet Nothing’ figures open a dialogue about the recycling process, that make society question where material comes from and the transformations it goes through.
I have recycled everything from mobile phone screens to marmite jars, jam jars, perfume bottles, car windscreens, marbles, milk bottles, television screens, glass from bus shelters, drink bottles, medicine bottles, and other artists’ glass (that they would otherwise be disposing of). The list is endless, as is the potential for recycling glass.
These figures unite people across all age groups and from all sorts of backgrounds. I have given talks in schools, universities, glass societies, and craft groups, inviting guests to question and contemplate glass as a wondrous material that can be recycled again and again. If they leave with a new insight into glass, I have succeeded.
MD: How is working with recycled glass components different to virgin glass?
HG- Quite simply, working with recycled glass is a labour of love. It takes a considerable amount of research to calculate kiln-firing schedules. Cold working also takes substantially longer, but it is a process that I wouldn’t change for the World (quite literally!).
MD: What are some of the difficulties or limitations you encounter when recycling glass?
HG- As I mentioned above, calculating firing schedules takes a considerable amount of research. This is where my knowledge of Geology is useful, as well as the collaboration from colleagues at various Universities. I would say that cold working, on average, probably takes around seven times longer with recycled glass than with virgin glass…like I say, a labour of love.
MD: What kind of materials do you embed in the glass?
HG- Embedding materials can be problematic because of the different melting coefficients. However, I love a challenge. I have embedded anything from textiles to watch parts, alongside various other metals. Quite honestly, I love working with Glass. I am passionate about recycling and sustainability. To be able to combine everything is a joy and a privilege.
We encourage you to explore Hannah´s work with recycled glass, embedded with salvaged waste and a compelling narrative, it encourages you to look at Glass through a new lens. And to learn more about glass, check out the Materials Hub!