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five minutes with… michelle stewart

Michelle Stewart’s glass art and jewellery is a pretty darn impressive. In fact, it impressed us so much we awarded her the frankie magazine prize at Fresh! Craft 2018 (an exhibition showcasing the some of the best work from graduating students in craft, design and fine art disciplines throughout Victoria). Turns out Michelle was inspired to turn discarded bottles into new creations in the wake of the Black Saturday Bushfires. She tells us more about her life and work in this here chinwag.

Snap by Andrew Barcham

Where were you born and where do you live now? I was born in country Victoria, in a small town called Skipton. When I was very little my family settled in Kinglake. This is where I would say that I come from, as this is the place where I grew up. I moved away from there in my 20s, travelled to the USA, UK and Europe for a few years, moved to NZ for a couple of years, then travelled around Australia in a van for another couple of years. Eventually, I returned to live in Kinglake. My partner and I built a beautiful mud-brick house on a small bit of land and have a bush-garden that we share with the wildlife.

When did you first get involved with crafting? The impetus to create with my hands has carried through from childhood. As kids we get to create, paint and make things, but as adults our lives get so busy that we forget about the simple joy that comes from making something with our hands. The natural curiosity that I think creative people have is part of what drives me to explore how things go together, and sometimes to discover they don’t! I worked for many years as a chef, which was a creative outlet in itself, but my downtime was always spent making something or other – usually gifts for people to kind of justify the time taken up sitting and making.

What inspires your creations? Everything! I carry a small sketchbook around with me to record things that I see while I am out and about doing things. Some of the drawings might just be of something simple that I have seen, like the way the sun casts a particular shadow. So many times I have wished for ‘camera-eyes’ to be able to capture a split-second view or correlation of elements that could never be staged. I am very much a person who enjoys immersion in the natural landscape. Whether it’s the tall forests near where I live, or camping in a desert, the joy for me comes from finding all of those smaller details that make up the entirety of the environment that I am in. It could be the way two trees lean in towards one another, or finding a small creature or a tiny blossom that is barely visible at first glance.

Michelle's work going into the kiln.

Tell us a little bit about your recycled glass series in the Fresh! 2018 showcase. The work is extracted from the work I made through my Honours year at RMIT University, Melbourne. It is a study of the immediate environment in which I live, the Central Victorian Highlands.

How did you first get the idea to use glass in this way? As most people would be aware, Kinglake was severely affected by the Black Saturday Bushfires in 2009. Looking at the aftermath of these devastating fires was like watching a strange movie that was in a sepia tone. The landscape was bare, with tall trees that were black sticks protruding from the earth. The contours of the land were visible and set into small recesses in the ground on my property, and along roadsides were small piles of bottles. These bottles had been cast into the scrubby bush and hidden away, until the fire cleared away all of the cover.

As I was driving to Kinglake one cold and wet afternoon, not really feeling any joy to be heading up there (I was exhausted and had just had enough of all the wreckage), I rounded a bend and the sun popped out briefly and glistened and sparkled on all of the broken bottles on the side of the road. It was beautiful. This sight transformed my mood in an instant and I decided that I had to try to find a way to capture that transformation – discarded rubbish becoming something so uplifting. That was the beginning of using the bottle glass to make beads and small objects with a flame-working technique.

Using the bottle as I do now with the Pâte de Verre method is an extension of this notion to reassign the value of the material. By creating work with this technique I am able to develop larger objects and I can capture fine detail in the work that’s difficult with other glass working methods.

Please describe the space where you do most of your creative work – whether it’s your art studio or kitchen bench! I work in a small, dedicated workspace at my home in Kinglake. It’s in the shed, in two different parts. I have most of the glass working equipment and the gas set-up in a well ventilated are, and a small set up in the corner of the shed with my jewellery bench and various tools. I share the shed with my partner who’s a woodworker, so he takes up a lot more room that I do. My glass space has big windows that look out to the surrounding bush; I can get distracted by the birds and other wildlife that pass by. During summer I often put a table outside to enjoy the warmth and the surroundings.

What do you enjoy doing when not creating? I’m not sure that there’s much in my life that isn’t infused with some kind of creative notion. Even when I’m gardening, I’m in a creative mode. I love getting out among the plants and watching a plant bloom over time. Seeing fruit that I’ve grown from seed is so exciting.

Which other local crafters do you love? I’m a big fan of Jo Hawley, Katherine Bowman, Natalia Milosz-Piekarska. I love what Michaela Pegum is producing at the moment, too.

To see more from Michelle, have a squiz at her Instagram.

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