Like many glass artists, Mariella McKinley works from various spaces, depending what she’s making. A glass blowing studio requires a lot of specialised equipment (a furnace, a heating chamber called a ‘glory hole’, as well as various kilns for heating and cooling the work, torches and much more). For this reason, Mariella often hires the equipment at Maureen Williams Glass Studio in St Kilda or Philip Stokes Studio Glass in Cremorne. For ‘cold working’ – which includes engraving, polishing and sand blasting, she has her own studio at the Montsalvat artists’ complex in Eltham. After creating her forms in a large glass blowing studio, she brings them here to finish.
I often wonder how someone originally stumbles across a craft as specific and highly technical as glass blowing. It’s such a physically demanding practice, and not exactly something you’re likely to have dabbled in at high school (well, not at my high school anyway). In Mariella’s case, after originally studying Architecture at Melbourne University, followed by Visual Art at NMIT, an interest in glass was piqued by a small collection of perfume bottles. Her newfound fascination led Mariella to Monash University, where she studied Fine Art (Glass) – and was instantly hooked. After completing this course, she refined her skills with a two year intensive course at Adelaide’s JamFactory.
Now based back in her hometown of Melbourne, Mariella’s days are spent creating her vessels and one-off decorative pieces, and completing various commissioned works. Mariella’s work can be found and various stockists listed here, and she also takes sales enquiries via her website.
Tell us a little bit about yourself – what did you study and what path led you to what you’re doing today?
I have always loved art, craft and design, but it took me a while to find glass.
At first, I studied Architecture at Melbourne University, followed by Visual Art (Painting) at NMIT. While I enjoyed both of these courses, I missed making things with my hands. A growing interest in glass (which started with a small collection of perfume bottles) led me to Monash University, where I studied Fine Art (Glass). I was hooked from the beginning!
Following university, I wanted more time working with hot glass to improve my skills. So I moved to Adelaide to undertake the training program in the glass studio at the JamFactory. An intensive two years, this was an exhausting but rewarding time. By working in the glass blowing studio almost every day, a rare opportunity, I gained the practical skills and industry experience I needed. It enabled me to work efficiently and make the work I wanted to make.
I then moved to Sydney to work with internationally renowned artists Ben Edols and Kathy Elliott. Combining glass blowing and cold working processes, their beautiful work had always been, and continues to be, an inspiration to me.
In 2011, I returned home to Melbourne and set up my studio at Montsalvat, where I have been able to concentrate on my own work and develop my glass practice.
What is it that you love about the art of glass blowing?
Many things! I love the qualities of glass and its innate beauty. I love the glass blowing process and the technical challenge it provides. I am continuously working to improve my skills and learn new techniques. I love the tradition of glass blowing and the fact that in many ways, it is still done the same way as it was hundreds of years ago.
How would you describe your design aesthetic, and what influences your style of work?
I love colour, pattern, texture and form. I try to use these elements in a complementary way so that each is integral to the piece and not just added on top. When designing, I work intuitively, but thinking about it, I realise I often combine clean lines and simple forms with decorative patterns and textured surfaces. I like to make pieces that are quiet, gentle and have a lightness to them. My work is often small in size. I believe a piece of work that is small can be precious, and just as beautiful as any large work.
It is very important to me that my work is precise and well made, with attention to detail. More and more, I am being drawn to work that is handmade, and appreciate the care and time (heart and soul) of the craftsperson or artist that goes into it.
With every piece, there are practical factors that need to be considered. I am influenced by the glass making processes, and try to work with the glass and make the most of its unique qualities. The purpose and function of a piece also needs to be considered, as I want my work to be pleasing to look at, as well as to touch and use.
What are one or two favourite recent projects?
I recently created a body of work for a new chapel. I enjoyed designing pieces that would complement the clean lines of the building and radiant colours of the windows. I hope they provide a quiet but powerful presence and sit peacefully within the sacred space.
A residency at the Canberra Glassworks allowed me to concentrate solely on my glass work for an entire month. I was able to experiment with technique and develop new ideas without the interruptions or pressures of day to day life!
What creative processes are involved in the creation of your pieces, do you make everything in-house or do you outsource any significant tasks?
After designing, the main processes I use in creating my work are glass blowing and cold working.
In the glass blowing studio, I gather molten glass from a furnace and use different techniques and tools to transform it into the desired object. I always work with an assistant, and while making a piece, it’s not possible to take a break. I try to work quickly so that the glass doesn’t cool down and become stiff, and need to continue to reheat the glass throughout the process. Once a piece is finished here, it is placed in a kiln called an annealer, and slowly cooled down.
I then need to complete the piece by cold working it, using techniques such as engraving, carving, polishing and sand blasting. A slow process, this requires patience and precision. While it can be painstaking work, the results that can be achieved, such as clean lines, intricate patterns and delicate textures, are well worth the effort.
Both glass blowing and cold working are very physical and demanding on the body. I am a perfectionist and like to have control over every piece. Therefore, I try to design work that I can make myself, taken into account my size and strength. Only when a design is going to be too big or too heavy, do I call someone in to help me. They are known as a gaffer.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
My days vary depending on what I am working on.
When I’m glass blowing, I need to arrive at the studio at least an hour before starting at the bench in order to set things up. This includes preparing colour and any other materials that will be used, unpacking the previous day’s work from the annealer and getting it going again, turning on the glory hole, setting up the bench and torches, and letting everything heat up to working temperature. Time in the glass blowing studio is precious so I try to have a clear plan of what I am going to make. I work with an assistant and will either work the whole day or, after completing my session, will often assist them. Team work plays an important role.
In contrast, the days I spend at my cold working studio are more solitary. A full day of cold working can be laborious and repetitive so I try to vary the tasks and take a break when my body gets sore.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to regularly for creative inspiration?
I realise the vast resource of the internet, and am ashamed to say I don’t really take full advantage of it. I am more likely to draw inspiration from my experiences, especially in nature, and the things I see and collect, such as shells, feathers and flowers. I am excited by many different mediums, including textiles, ceramics and paper, and love going to design markets and galleries to see what’s new.
Which other local artists, designers or creative people are you liking at the moment?
Nick Wirdnam was my first glass blowing teacher and continues to inspire me. I love Nick’s work because of the craftsmanship, beauty and story within it.
While not local, I would like to mention Boyd Sugiki and Lisa Zerkowitz of Two Tone Studios in Seattle. I first met Boyd and Lisa when I took their workshop at Pilchuck Glass School several years ago. I admire their design aesthetic and the skill and precision with which they execute their work.
What would be your dream creative project?
Any project that has an open brief and is unrestrained by time and cost!
What are you looking forward to?
In the near future, I’m looking forward to attending a workshop coming up at the JamFactory, by Danish glass artist, Tobias Mohl.
Long term, I hope to one day have my own glass blowing studio.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
This is a difficult question to answer but I’ll say the area around Montmorency and Eltham. I grew up there and a lot of family and friends are there so it feels like home.
What and where was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?
A delicious three course meal at Barca in Armadale, finishing with white chocolate mousse with passionfruit and honeycomb. So good!
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Hopefully sleeping in or out walking but probably working.
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
The Main Yarra Trail, running along the river between Fairfield and Eltham. This is one of my favourite places to walk because of the beautiful bushland and the wildlife that I often come across.