Meet Carmen Simmonds, Whanganui’s extraordinarily talented glassmaker and artist
Parts of Carmen Simmonds’ castglass studio glow with the ethereal, often surreal, treasures that emerge from their creator’s imagination and the searing heat of her kiln. Radiantly coloured dolls’ heads, glass lace and crochet, headless dancing dresses, ballet shoes, lilies in milk bottles, flowers, and other organic forms are at once beautiful and disturbing.
Then there is the other side — the chemistry and chemicals, machinery, and tools; hours of modelling, firing, grinding, sanding, and cutting.
But this studio is also a home. Carmen and her husband Glen live at her work studio — a 100m2 shed on their 8.5-hectare lifestyle block in Brunswick, Whanganui. The shed was originally intended as Carmen’s fulltime studio but when they sold their house in town they had nowhere else to live, so they moved into the shed “to camp for a while” and have stayed, still temporarily, for eight years.
Another, architect-designed shed house is in the planning stages and will be built on their property further down the road.
“It’s actually really comfortable living here,” Carmen says. “I can get up in the morning — because we have the bedroom, lounge, and kitchen all in one room — take three steps in my dressing gown and slippers into my studio, and start working. Quite often I have to get up in the night to check my kiln, so everything is handy. It’s going to be so inconvenient to have to walk up the paddock to here.”
Love of glass
Carmen has a science background and worked as a lab technician doing quality control. She discovered a love of glass and photography while studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Universal College of Learning (UCOL) and went on to do a Master of Art and Design at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT).
She has been very successful in her career; her glass work is exhibited within New Zealand and internationally and has been bought by collectors in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the US.
“It’s a medium people like. Glass is very alluring and you can do anything with it,” she says.
Core cast glass, where a shell of glass is created, is her preferred way of working, and she also makes open cast or solid glass objects. An experimenter from way back, she likes to adapt tools and machinery rather than buying more expensive glassmaking equipment.
Tools, machines, and materials
Carmen sources worn dental instruments from her dentist and has adapted machines such as a wet-belt finisher from a glass factory; a wallpaper steamer to melt the wax out from the plaster mould; Dremel; sand blaster; linisher; compressor; flatbed diamond grinder — an air-driven cutoff tool modified with a diamond blade; drills; and crockpot to melt wax, or frypan for small amounts. The tools all have diamond drills and blades.
“Being a Kiwi you do tend to do the number-eight wire thing,” Carmen says. “I realized that when I went to overseas conferences; they have all the machinery and tools, whereas we have adapted things and made them work for us. So it is totally doable. For example, I have an auto parts washer and I recycle water through it when I use the Dremel if I have to cut or drill the glass, because you always need water. It acts as a constantly flowing tap. I also have a cut-off tool I got from Super Cheap Auto and instead of having a steel blade on it to cut off metal I have adapted it for a diamond blade so I can cut off chunks or things I don’t like on the piece.”
Two three-phase electric kilns represent considerable investments, and she can cast anything from very small objects up to 20-plus-kilogram sculptures. There is a separate kiln room because of the toxic fumes, and a cold working area. Her studio space occupies one-third of the building at present.
It’s a medium people like. Glass is very alluring and you can do anything with it.
Working with colour
When she started out, Carmen used salvaged glass, which is an option for beginners: “I couldn’t afford to buy glass, so I smashed up car windscreens, house window glass — anything that wasn’t laminated that you could smash up into small bits. But unfortunately when you cast some of that glass it can come out a bit cloudy.
“People use Steinlager bottles and they work reasonably well but you have to heat it quite hot to make it run into the moulds. You work with whatever colour the glass is.”
She uses materials from Gaffer Glass, a company that was originally formed in New Zealand and provides glass in many colours.
“In my workshops I get students to
work out the colours as though they are painting a watercolour so they can create a flow,” she says. “You can’t really predict how it’s going to turn out but you can give it a good shot by placing coloured glass in certain parts of the mould and making sure it flows in the right way.”
Carmen has taught workshops for many years, both for beginners and those with some experience. She teaches mainly hollow-form core casting.
“In two days people learn what they could take six months to learn and they often return to consolidate. Glass casting can be applied to many areas. A brewer wanted glass handles for his beer taps, and other people have ordered glass figurines for the front of their cars. A bronze caster made sculptural figurines and another person cast a full-sized replica of his father’s head,” Carmen says.
The workshops provide all materials, including glass, and use of the tools and machinery, and for a small charge there are two bedrooms for hire in another shed annexe. She runs a course every month.
Workshop participants are mainly women but she says that men are starting to get interested now too. The gender differences are complementary.
“Men ask the technical questions. ‘Annealing’ is the cooling part of the process so men will ask what the machines are used for and how you finish the pieces off. The women tend to be, ‘Oh my God, look at the pretty colours!’ The guys are far more process oriented and practical. It’s nice to get a guy and a gal because you get two different ways of thinking.”
“When I came to Whanganui I discovered it was the centre of glassmaking in New Zealand”
Blokes making dresses
A while back, several men attended a course and she gave them one of her dresses as a project to render in glass.
“They had to rearrange the dress into something of their own creation — like a figurine,” Carmen explains. “It was a challenge but they were thinking about how their partners would like it. Some have gone on to making glass a big part of their life now. I got them to chop up their wax impressions of the dress and put it back together again in glass in a way [that] they thought was interesting, using different colours. As part of the process they made their own small silicone moulds.”
Nick Price, a British ophthalmologist on a short-term contract in Whanganui, was doing his second workshop with Carmen.
“When I came to Whanganui I discovered it was the centre of glassmaking in New Zealand,” Nick says. “I love the glassmaking process and I’m planning to set up a little glassmaking studio back home. I’ll get my own kiln and kit.”
Nick made four shot glasses, which he decorated with organic forms. He
“I put on my firefighter’s outfit and I’m in there with my gloves at 800°C”
had brought animal-making balloons to create different shapes, then decided to go with the oval shot-glass forms.
“The most challenging part is coming up with artistic ideas, designs, and patterns,” he says.
Carmen has a website at which you can find out more: carmensimmonds.com/.
Please Do Not Throw Me Out — entered into the 2018 Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui Arts Review
Above: Nick, Carmen, and another workshop participant refining wax moulds using worn dental instruments
Nick sanding the bottom of a shot glass to make it levelBelow: Checking the shot glasses are level before the next process, making the plaster mould around the wax
... and sandblasting
Using a peeling knife to gently remove the plaster mould from around the glass after kiln firing
Nick Price’s shot-glass forms ready for finishing
Running water and a Dremel remove imperfections around the rim
Carmen opens the kiln lid to check the glass firing
Nick uses the air compressor to remove particles of plaster from his work