Glass Act

Large multi coloured glass vessel made by glass artist Ruth Shelley

Award winning glass artist Ruth Shelley is one of the Byre Gallery's longest standing makers having shown in most exhibitions with us since we opened. The winner of the Glass Sellers' Makers Award at the prestigious Glass Biennale in 2015, Ruth's career has gone from strength to strength; her work can be seen all the leading applied arts galleries in the UK, and is in collections in this country and internationally. We are very proud to still have her as one of 'our' makers - and are thrilled that she took the time to talk to us about her work.

Ruth Shelley glass artist holding one of her vessels

You originally studied textiles  - what made you switch to becoming a glass artist?  

Growing up in a home surrounded by handmade crafts I was taught to knit at the age of three and I was intrigued by patterns, shapes and colour of the things around me and ever since have been fascinated by textiles.  That resulted in deciding to study textiles at art college. After setting up a knitting business when I finished college, I went on to travel in Asia over a period of two years researching Ikat fabric. Travelling and collecting fabrics from many regions of India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, my head was full of colour inspiration and designs. Returning home with no work I stumbled across a course in Stained Glass and, as soon as I started working with the medium, it was love and first touch! I realised that my background in colour and design, suddenly made sense. The light reflecting on the glass touched me and made my heart sing. I had suddenly found my next career path.

Ruth Shelley multicoloured glass vessel on a wooden table
When you decided to pursue glass making, how did you go about developing your skills? Were you tempted by glass blowing or has your interest always been in kiln formed?  
Although not formally trained, I've taken many courses and masterclasses, in UK and USA in kiln formed glass. Through these courses and my experimentation in my studio, I became interested in the flow of glass when heated, especially as gravity is introduced. My inquisitive mind and imagination pushed me forward and I am always experimenting. This has been an ongoing fascination for over ten years with the endless possibilities still exciting me daily as I continually push the limits and possibilities of stretching and observing the flow of glass in various thicknesses forms and colours. 
I have always been fascinated by glass blowing and although work can be produced quicker and able to design much more variables, it is also a very expensive to set up and run as you must constantly keep the furnaces going or they will crack unless they are emptied of glass. Therefore kiln- formed glass has been much more viable for me in my situation.

The mix of colours that you bring together in your work is always so striking, can you explain a little about the technique of how you select and place your colours?

Ideally an inspiration shouts at me to be creative. Whether it’s a location, a collection of plants, or a journey I’m travelling on that reveals the colours that should be used. I then begin by reproducing those colours in watercolour, mixing the paint to get a realistic representation of the colours I’ve seen. From there I start making glass samples, arranging the glass by layering various opaque and transparent colours together, building up a library of colours and keeping detailed notes. I then work from a montage of photos and memory and start making a 3D glass painting of patterns and blocks of colours to represent my initial inspiration with the coloured experiments. Balance of tone and colour is very important to achieve the finished result. The collection in turn should sit comfortably back in the location where it was inspired.

multi coloured glass vessel made by glass artist Ruth Shelley

Are you ever surprised by the results?

Colours speak to each other and are affected by which colour sits next to it. Some need space to show their beauty and therefore can’t use a strong colour along side it. Nature is a perfect source of colour balance and guide. I often hide colours in my initial blank fused piece, which only becomes apparent when it is stretched to finished vessel. I love the mystery of the application.

Have you had any huge disappointments when you’ve opened the kiln?

Oh yes, many – especially in the first few years of making vessels, but in time have learnt from my mistakes and now operate a very slow firing cycle. The most cracks and disappointments come when I cut off or am grinding the rim. I had a very big disappointment last January as I was hand lapping a very large vessel outside in the cold. It was very intricate and quite thick, but I believe the cold made the glass too brittle and it cracked from top to bottom. It no sits on a base shelf in my studio.  I have to press on, learn from my mistakes and take detailed notes of the problems. Quite often though, today's mistakes are tomorrow’s source of inspiration.

Do you have a personal favourite collection - or piece?

In general, it’s the last piece I’ve made although particular favourites are Stormy Seas and Into the Deep 


Three blue glass vessels made by glass artist Ruth Shelley
A few months ago you received the "Tyfiant" grant from the Welsh Arts Council to develop tall and large sculptural vessels, what new vessels can we expect? 
Tyfiant is a Welsh word for growth and my initial vision for the project, was to see how far I could stretch the glass to form a free-standing sculptural vessel in a deep ceramic kiln.  It soon became apparent that I had to face several obstacles such as deciding on the thickness of the piece, stability of the props within the kiln, appropriate firing cycle, removing the rim and cold-working such heavy and cumbersome work.  I decided to start with float glass as it was a cheaper alternative to the more expensive Bullseye handblown glass that I normally use. I started by creating vessels which filled the full width and depth of the kiln and I was really pleased. They were tall trumpet shaped vessels. 
As part of this project you acquired a new deep kiln, are you enjoying experimenting with it?
The more I experimented with varying the width and depth of the ‘drop’, I became aware that I could use the depth as a design tool to springboard ideas to new and more exciting designs. This has opened up further possibilities. The deep kiln is in good use as I develop new shapes and colour palettes.
Three multicoloured tall glass vessels by Ruth Shelley
How much studio space does all the equipment need? I know you’re lucky enough to be based at home.
I had a new workshop/ cabin designed and built at the end of the garden last year. The builders had started before our initial lockdown, and it was completed last June! It now houses my new deep kiln, a sandblaster and a big glass saw! My main studio is situated in the front of the house where I live. It has two kilns, my cutting bench and glass station. My grinder and small saw are situated in an adjoining conservatory! It is compact but works very well. The new garden studio has a lovely ambience. It's light and I feel very happy with the way it’s worked out.


A number of your collections are named after place you know or have visited, how do you capture thecolours - photos or just your memory?

I use both. I use my phone as a quick stetch-book capturing quickly what I see while on the move, but I have also trained my eyes to mentally take photos and save them to memory. As a keen motorbike rider and love to take road trips to the continent, it’s not always safe or possible to stop when passing a beautiful field or a striking scene in order to take a photo, so I’ve had to take a mental photo, which when I stop, I will make colour notes and little stetches to reinforce the memory. When I return home, I’ll use the information as a basis for a new collection or piece.

Any plans to go travelling this year?

My husband and I had a European trip planned on the motorbikes for summer 2020 and initially postponed it to this summer , but by now it’s been cancelled due to the Covid situation in Europe. We hope to do a campervan tour, early in June including the Rame Peninsula and a Southern Ireland tour in late summer maybe on the bikes – lets see what happens next!

Take a look at Ruth's beautiful collection here


Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.