Glass, light, and photography:

How the National Glass Centre helped form my artistic career

By Jo Howell 14/09/23

Photogram of sand-cast glass, my hand print
by Jo Howell 2004 – 5

Way back in 2004, I was lucky enough to be able to do a foundation course at Sunderland University. This course included a trial of each of the art forms that the University courses had to offer.

I was already married to photography by the time I had started the course, but glass, and the activity of making glass, was absolutely fascinating. Glass and photography were made to go hand in hand. The way glass can manipulate light has been used in optical science since the invention of the microscope!

As soon as I had collected my glass from the annealer, and it was cool enough, I took it into the darkroom to create a photogram. The glass art placed directly onto photographic paper, then exposed to light, and developed. It’s simple, but really interesting to see how the glass objects allow the light through.

I have always been obsessed with light. From playing with shadow puppets, to reflections or refractions. Colour temperature, wavelength, spectrometry, so many facets to something that surrounds us, and something that we probably don’t think that deeply about in the day to day.

Photogram of sand cast glass block, by Jo Howell 2004

The glass artwork (above) was created with shape’s inspired by the roof overhang of the National Glass Centre. The architecture of the building crudely recreated in glass.

The photograms of the glass were created in the same darkroom session.

How many photographers or artists get to explore elements of light with glass they made themselves???

Not many I’d wager.

After university, I gained a scholarship studio in Creative Cohesion, originally a glass making collective who were building a studio, and creating a cohort of artists in Sunderland.

Fulbright at Creative Cohesion 2011.
The image shows the furnace that Roger Tye built, and a skill share workshop with artists Tim Tate and Michael Janis from Washington DC, USA
This image shows the bas-relief I got to create in the Fulbright session. A waterproof camera and a lino cut. I rubbed oil paint into the glass to bring out texture and edges. By Jo Howell

My artistic practice was informed, inspired, and influenced by glass artists, objects, and process. The heritage of Sunderland was wrapped up in this amazing material. The opportunities for co-creation, collaboration, and observation were all accessible to me.

As a working class artist, it is hard to put a price on the value of having an institution like the National Glass Centre, because it has been instrumental.

Without a hub for the creative communities, how will we organise? How will we make our place? What can inspire us?

We are being given cold hard screens and clean surfaces in place of hot skills and prestige. (Culture House, Sunderland).

It seems close-minded and foolhardy. An insensitive decision by the university board of governors to cull our creativity and squash it into a box that suits them better.

We are being offered what everyone else already has, whilst the unique thing that makes us special is allowed to fizzle out.

The big picture 2011, a collaboration between ceramics, printing, and glass. This led to a further collaboration in 2012 that resulted in a public artwork that is still on display in Sunderland Aquatic centre. Artists Jo Howell, Cris Chaney, and Liz Shaw.

Not long after our time at Creative Cohesion in Sunniside, Sunderland; we took on a new studio down on the river Wear just up from the National Glass centre.

From here my collaboration, and commercial photography business was focused on glass art, and ceramics. Photographing artworks created by world class glass artists. Visiting shows of world class art, listening to artists, conversing with artists who were brought to Sunderland by, and for the National Glass Centre.

There’s been a lot of chatter from estate managers and mp’s saying that the building wasn’t fit for purpose. The Sunderland Echo even went as far to say that the building had been virtually condemned.

This is a non-sentence. How can it virtually be condemned? It’s either condemned or not. Since there are people toiling away in there right now, let’s assume that the use of the word condemned was actually just to create gravitas where there was none.

There seems to be a lot of loose and liberal language being employed by the university, Sunderland council, and the MPs. The information that the university published demonstrates that there are 2 lower estimates for the work needed, and they are much more achievable than the £45 million that they hung their hats on.

Sea glass with high rise, Polaroid lift on glass, by Jo Howell 2014

But, let’s swing back to the building wasn’t fit for purpose argument: how did that get past all of the different levels of final assessment?

And, if it was the case that from opening that it was just ‘plain wrong‘ then why wasn’t this chased up at the time? How can millions be pumped into a state of the art architectural design, and no one theory test it? Or point out the problems with heat on steel?

Surely, it’s not common practice just to accept sub par design or construction? Even in 1997 and 98, people still had liabilities and responsibilities, why was this not followed up on back in the day?

It seems an easy excuse to pass the buck to these mysterious people in the past. It fits perfectly though, if you want to demolish a building with no comeback from the community. It’s a good line if you don’t fall for the £45 million one, then safety will be the clincher.

My glass hand, Jo Howell 2022

I write this on my personal blog, because it’s my opinion and general wondering. I can’t understand the complacency of the powers that be. I can’t understand how demolishing a building is the sustainable solution.

I feel lost in a corporate led reality of double-speak. Communications with those who have the power have been frustrated by a lack of respect and constant condescension.

It makes me want to take you to task even more! The more I look, the more I find.

And, the more I believe that Sunderland University should ‘unburden’ themselves of this ‘condemned’ building by gifting it to a local body who will make the National Glass Centre their ‘core’ priority and concern. This should enable the building and the staff to reach their full potential. The building has been under utilised since the University took the helm in 2010.

There are many viable ways to create opportunities for multiple income streams, alongside the current provision.

It may need a new roof though. And, some clever heat exchange, and battery technology to make it sustainable into the future.

The point is, that if we just accept what has been decided, then we’ve definitely already lost it.

If there are problems with heat dissipation because the roof is flat as opposed to cone shaped, then what chance does the council have of finding a suitable building in the city centre for glass blowing to continue?

Slim to FA.

This is my own viewpoint. My opinion has been formed by research, and expert advise. I put it out here freely, not to cause upset, but to demonstrate why I want to #SaveTheNationalGlassCentre

I think that there are many reasons to save this building, and only one to get rid of it – riverside property development opportunity. Cash. Coin.

This will be denied, and we will continue to be told that there ‘are no plans’ for that land but that the building must come down regardless. Our National Glass centre will be a side note in the city. Reduced to a pointless display without the clout of the glass blowing.

It’s sad the Future Sunderland doesn’t have a place for our heritage and identity.

It’s shan.

Proper shan.

Pod cyanotype by Jo Howell 2023
Pressed glass photogram inversion by Jo Howell 2022

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