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Ruth Allen

Studio Visit

4th October, 2013
Lucy Feagins
Friday 4th October 2013

Sustainable Stubbies by Ruth Allen. Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Ruth Allen of Sustainable Stubbies in her Coburg studio.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Crates of bottles in Ruth's studio.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Ruth at work.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Ruth Allen at work, assisted here by friend and fellow glass artist Amanda Dziedzic.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Ruth Allen is a Melbourne based glass artist with a rich and varied career trajectory.  Having discovered a passion for glass not long after leaving high school, she initially developed her craft at Canberra School of Art, inspired by a teaching staff made up of internationally accomplished artists, and an artist-in-residence program which drew glass artists from all around the world.  She loved it!  Ruth graduated from this course in 1993, and spent the following few years travelling, attending workshops, exhibiting her glass art, and undertaking various residencies here and abroad.  She studied under Venetian glass master Lino Tagliapietra in the US, and even spent a few years co-directing a successful glass art business in Auckland, New Zealand, before moving to Melbourne to complete a Master of Fine Arts degree, majoring in Glass and Sculpture at Monash University.

In her Masters graduating exhibition in 2006, Ruth staged an impressive end of year exhibition in which more than 200 individual glass forms were illuminated by projected light, and accompanied by audio compositions.  She still considers this her finest creative work.  But, as she explains below, once out of the university 'bubble', it wasn't long before she realised a need to create a commercial, profitable outlet for her craft.  After purchasing a warehouse in Coburg with her partner in 2010, this necessity became even more urgent, and the answer came in the form of Sustainable Stubbies, which she launched in 2011.  She couldn't have anticipated the response!

Ruth's functional vessels created from repurposed bottles have since been in high demand, and have become Ruth's primary focus in recent years.  Her finely honed skills, developed through years of study and experience working under internationally acclaimed glass artists have enabled Ruth to work in this medium with a particularly refined approach. 'To create the extensive range of designs and quality of product that we do, I believe you need to be a glassblower' says Ruth below. 'We manipulate each bottle individually by hand, ensuring each item is unique'.

What's interesting about Ruth is the way in which she has been able to combine her creative skill with a tenacious entrepreneurial spirit and practical approach to business - something that so many creatives struggle with.  Out of sheer necessity, she's turned her craft into a busy, profitable business, and in doing so, has become a mentor and an inspiration to many other local glass artists.  She also employs a number of fellow glass artists in her Sustainable Stubbies workshop!

Ruth has just launched Sustainable Stubbies LIGHT, a range of hand blown light fittings creating from her repurposed glass bottles.  It's her first range of light fittings, and she's very excited about the potential for this new collection.

Ruth's Sustainable Stubbies can be viewed and purchased directly through her website, and you'll also spot them at TDF Open House!

Tell us a little bit about yourself – what did you study and what path led you to what you're doing today?

I found hot glass relatively young, when I had just left high school, my curiosity and passion for the material was immediate. I moved from Sydney to the Canberra School of Art, and commenced a four-and-a-half year degree majoring in glass. At that time the educational program there was unsurpassed - the school was well funded, so the equipment was exceptional, and the calibre of teaching was top of its game.

As well as the directors of the department being internationally accomplished artists, we were involved in an artist-in-residence program where glass artists from around the world would visit, work and teach their chosen discipline. Being a relatively new fine art medium, techniques and genres of expression were fresh, allowing this platform to encourage students to experiment and explore their creative potential.

I worked tirelessly to develop the skills to enable my creative direction, and travelled extensively learning new techniques, teaching, exhibiting and undertaking residencies. I poured this bank of accumulated knowledge and experience into my Masters graduating exhibition in 2006, titled Environmental Stimulation – Synergetic Series

I'm proud of that exhibition, inspired by Buckminster Fuller, and I feel its probably my finest work to date, but as an artist it is not easy to exist of artwork alone. In 2010 my partner and I purchased a warehouse in Coburg as a platform for our creativity. The overheads were (and are) considerable, so I felt I needed to become smart, quickly, in regards to earning an income, this is when Sustainable Stubbies was born.

How did the concept behind Sustainable Stubbies originally come about, and what motivated you to launch the business in 2011?

The act of transforming a manufactured bottle into a reusable form is not new - as students we goofed around with beer bottles in the hot shop, turning them into tumblers for a laugh. There are also people cutting, grinding and kilnforming bottles into quirky functional forms, making what they can with the skill and equipment they have.

I think what sets my business apart is a combination of the process of hot manipulation, timing and the fact that I have embraced the concept of reclamation holistically and turned it into a serious business.

To create the extensive range of designs and quality of product that we do, I believe you need to be a glassblower. We manipulate each bottle individually by hand, ensuring each item is unique. The bottles are taken through a hot process that strengthens the product by nature of ‘annealing’, resulting in a vessel that can withstand hot liquid, a dishwasher and the test of time, making the product suitable for everyday use and the hospitality trade.

The launch of Sustainable Stubbies collided with public concern for the environmental demise of our planet. There was and still is a desire by people to surround themselves with objects that convey their awareness and contribute to an ever present conversation of sustainability.

As time goes by, the business has become a statement about my personal ethos, a way of existing that fits very comfortably. We have recently launched the Sustainable Stubbies LIGHT range where bottles are picked up on a blowpipe, stretched, blown and contorted. The bottle moves according to where the thickness of material lies, this formula results in fantastically unusual forms that are then suspended and illuminated.

Ruth's new range of re-purposed pendant lights. Photo by Sean Fennessy.
How would you describe your design aesthetic and what influences your style of work?

The bottle itself is the primary dictator of a chosen design, I love working with the readymade, I spend time appreciating individual attributes and then make decisions according to those set parameters.

In regards to the stubby range, I’m aiming at creating an affordable, simple translation of bottle to function. I then became delighted with the idea of bringing a touch of style back into our drinking habits so I introduced the notion of ‘sets’, believing these could be enjoyed with any special occasion.

Now we are involved in lighting I am influenced by colour, shape and the detailed characteristics of each bottle, working hard to accentuate these whilst maintaining an essence of what they were. I enjoy the process of allowing the material to speak for itself, when the glass is hot it moves inconsistently - this keeps me on my toes.

What creative processes are involved in the creation of your pieces - do you make everything in-house?

Yes, the entire operation occurs in house. I work with my community to source bottles from local cafés, restaurants and my friends who seem to have a healthy thirst! We collect, wash, cut and then prepare them for the hot process. It took most of 2012 to upgrade the facilities so that we can run larger custom built equipment catering for the blowing of the pendants.

What does a typical day at work involve for you?

Fortunately everyday is different. Presently we spin stubbies two days a week and spend one day blowing pendants. The other days are a mixture of collecting, washing, cutting, sandblasting, packing and freighting the works. Amongst these constants are various pop-up marketing opportunities, which fruit into new exciting opportunities and a bunch of paperwork.

Ruth at work in her Coburg studio, assisted by Amanda Dziedzic.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?

I love the TED talks, and the Buckminster Fuller Institute is a constant inspiration.

Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you most inspired by at the moment?

I have always been a great fan of Robert Foster, director of F!NK + Co. It is rare to come into orbit with a human who possesses Robert’s spectrum of abilities. Robert is one of a handful of successful Australian designer/makers who has impact on an international level.

Robert has a deep respect for design ethics, and a clean aesthetic in which function holds precedence.  He believes in quality craftsmanship, and invents modern manufacturing techniques to keep his signature globally competitive. Robert also mentors outstanding young designers in-house, nurturing this rare creative culture and keeping Australia on the design map.

What would be your dream creative project?

At this stage I would be very excited about being given the opportunity to create a mood within a given space using our new lighting range. This could be a residence, café, restaurant or corporate building. The new product has huge potential and is very inspiring.

What are you looking forward to?

I am looking forward to my work inhabiting and illuminating large spaces, this has been my dream ever since I began blowing glass, it is strange that the manufactured bottle has got me closest to this reality. It is strange having studied and accomplished fine Venetian techniques, to arrive at transforming the ready made, it fits comfortably with me, my values and what I stand for. I hope in the not-too-distant future to take on large scaled jobs that involve installations of our pendant lights.

Ruth at work.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?

Fitzroy. Brunswick St, Fitzroy had a profound affect upon me when I was deciding whether I should move to Melbourne to commence my Masters. It didn’t take long, an afternoon I think, I breathed the air, enjoyed the culture on the street and went home to pack my bags. I have lived in close proximity ever since, until I bought our current warehouse in Coburg, and still it’s not so far away.

What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

Home-cured Gravlax with horseradish cream, 2kg lasted three days!

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Australian Seafood Group on Hossack Ave, Coburg. Best fish and chippery ever!

Sustainable Stubbies and other re-purposed vessels by Ruth Allen.  Photo by Sean Fennessy.

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