IN a downstairs display cabinet a magnificent whale tail flips up proudly from a plinth, dripping with iridescent water.
Upstairs, mounted on a wall is a leaded arched window through which you can glimpse swooping gulls and verdant hills rolling down to an azure sea.
There is plenty more to admire too – witty pieces like a ‘ten green bottles’ sculpture, one of which, as in the children’s nursery rhyme, looks just about to fall.
Welcome to Joia Glass Art, the workshop and studio of Joy and Peter Cole, contemporary fused glass artists. They’re among Kirkharle Courtyard’s most recent arrivals having opened their doors last August after moving up to Northumberland from Lincoln.
It’s fair to say the husband and wife team, both 63, have become professional artists relatively late in life and it’s clear they are enjoying the creativity and their new home. In fact they are so pleased with it that they are just about to expand into a second studio across the stairwell so they can have a separate work space and gallery.
Their interest in glass art began ten years ago when they tried a taster session with the artist Jane McDonald at the National Centre for Craft and Design in Sleaford. “We just fell in love with it,” Joy enthuses. At the time Joy was a project manager for a business training network and Peter was in customer services for Lincolnshire County Council.
Peter has always had artistic leanings and enjoys oil painting and sketching for relaxation whilst Joy cheerfully admits she is no draughtswoman. “I was told as a child I couldn’t draw at school so I play about. I get an idea in my mind of what I want to do and then I cut the glass, put it in the kiln and see what happens.”
The Sleaford session was followed up with a week at Sunderland’s National Glass Centre, now just down the road for them, and a day learning glass blowing with Ingrid Pears, a very successful Nottinghamshire artist who was commissioned to make a unique piece for the Dalai Lama.
The Coles have a daughter and son – Catherine, a graphic designer living in Durham, and David, an engineer in Lincoln, with two children, Jack and Charlie.
It was when Peter was made redundant at 54 that the couple invested in their first kiln. “We bought it with a view that we would work at it and if we thought we were good enough we would start selling. So it was never a hobby, always a business venture,” Joy says.
When people think about glass art, what usually springs to mind is glass blowing but kiln-formed fused glass is the original way we humans shaped and reshaped this amazing material. Indeed kiln firing is thought to have preceded glass blowing by around 2,000 years. According to the philosopher Pliny, glass shards were first created by the Phoenicians around the turn of the fifth to fourth millennia BC. It’s thought that sailors hit upon it by chance while lighting fires on the coast of what is modem-day Lebanon, where one of the most important glass making centres of the period later flourished.
This early glass was produced from a mixture of silica sand, lime, and soda, with malachite added for colour. Glass was first used on Egyptian earthenware as a skin applied to a core made of silica sand and clay, or of the stone steatite. Glass-blowing took place during the first century BC, probably in the area of modern-day Syria and the ancient methods of fusing glass were largely forgotten for the next two millennia.
“I was told as a child I couldn’t draw at school so I play about. I get an idea in my mind of what I want to do and then I cut the glass, put it in the kiln and see what happens.”
It took until the beginning of the 20th century for kiln fusing to regain its popularity and today many hobbyists as well as professional artists like Joy and Peter are aiding its resurgence. It was Joy who provided the title of their company, Joia, which derives from her nickname in Brazil where she was born and grew up. “The meaning of the name in Portuguese is ‘jewel’ which seemed very appropriate,” says Peter.
Joy has a lilting Scottish accent however as her parents were from north of the border.Her father worked for the Coats Paisley thread company and was stationed in Brazil and the Far East for the first 23 years of Joy’s life. Indeed, she and Peter returned to Brazil in 2003 for three weeks to relive some of her early memories.
Joy’s landscapes in glass are very British however and seascapes are a favourite. “We hand cut everything,” she says, demonstrating the method by carving out elements of her scene. The layering of different coloured and textured glass is called ‘stacking’ and Joy gives the impression of a pebbled beach by selecting small pieces of granite glass. She then creates the sea and sky with different shades of blue.
Of course hand grazes are an occupational hazard for glass artists and the pair keep a ready stash of plasters on their work bench.
Once Joy is satisfied with her composition, she carries it to the flat bed kiln, designed especially for glass fusing. “Pottery kilns tend to be well-shaped but these have elements in the top so the heat comes down and the kiln bed is flat so you can make up your glass on a level surface,” Peter says. “We know people who work with pottery kilns and it’s a lot more difficult.
“Glass becomes liquid between about seven and eight hundred degrees and this kiln can fire up to 990 degrees. However we like to work at a lower temperature than other people because we like to keep texture and a sense of movement in the glass,” Peter adds. This ensures that each piece has a unique feel – literally – all their work is very tactile.
Joy explains her seascape will stay in the kiln at just under 800 degrees centigrade for up to 18 hours. “That’s enough to fuse it together without it melting completely and that gives texture to the glass rather than it coming out very smooth.”
Their repertoire is varied. As well as landscapes, they produce jewellery, tea lights and cheese boards created from interesting glass bottles. They use what’s termed a ‘slumping’ technique to mould them into shape.
A sherry bottle, for example, has been kiln-heated, its neck positioned over a semi-circular clay mould to provide the handle of a fetching blue board.
Word has quickly got around that the Coles are partial to quirky bottles and visitors sometimes call by with a donation. When Tynedale Life visited, Little Harle resident, Jill Rogers dropped in with a beautiful big blue Prosecco bottle left over from a New Year’s celebration. Local hostelry, the Ox at Middleton, is also an occasional donor.
Joia Glass belongs to the Contemporary Glass Society and one of Peter’s designs won recognition last year in a competition called Wild at Heart.
“It’s called Diving Kingfisher and it was a panel inspired by photographs taken by Charlie Hamilton-James who co-authored Halcyon River Diaries.” David was one of 44 glass artists shortlisted from hundreds of entrants.
Inspiration comes from all sorts of quarters. “A walk in the woods or on the beach, a sunset or cloud structure, waves or from a found object – a stone, leaf, flower, textiles, driftwood, even a piece of rusty metal – anything really.”
They have also worked on some interesting commissions – from an emblematic glass knife for a member of the Black Watch to a model of somebody’s yacht and perhaps their most peculiar request to date – a Morris dancing owl.
Other folk have commissioned landscapes they love, like Whitby harbour and Abersoch in North Wales. No doubt Northumberland will also work its magic on the couple.
“The landscape here is beautiful, but the best thing is the people – like Jill who came in. People said to us that we were very brave upping sticks after 22 years in Lincolnshire, but we just seem to have met loads of people who have been very friendly and very welcoming.”