Meet Car­men Sim­monds, Whanganui’s ex­traor­di­nar­ily tal­ented glass­maker and artist

The Shed - - Contents - By He­len Frances Pho­to­graphs: Tracey Grant

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.”

Glass work­shops

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: car­men­sim­

Lace teapot

Please Do Not Throw Me Out — en­tered into the 2018 Sar­jeant Gallery Te Whare O Re­hua Whanganui Arts Re­view

Sand­ing ...

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

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