June 25th, 2012 – Uk Handmade Interview Peter Gillies

I think I just posted a link for this at the time, thought I’d stick up the entire interview if you missed it before.

UK Handmade Interview – MEET: Peter Gilles

Submitted by Anna Stassen on Wed, 04/04/2012 – 06:00
Today we are pleased to catch up with Glasgow-based stained glass artist and restoration expert, Peter Gillies to find out about how he entered the world of stained glass restoration and what inspires him as an artist.

Wood Framed Stained Glass Window by Peter Gillies

Please tell us about yourself, what you do and how you got started?
I am a self-taught Artist and Stained Glass Craftsman. I have always done art from a young age but by the time I finished school I had lost the heart for it. Not convinced by the choice of Art School I chose a college course in Decorative / Architectural Glass because that’s the page the prospectus opened at!

After the course, I spent the next few years just working in retail. Years later a friend persuaded me to return to college and continue with the HND and towards the end of that, I got a phone call one day from a Restoration Studio in Edinburgh to come in for a trial week. Well, after a month I left the college course because I learnt more in the studio than I had in 2 years of college. Around that time I had the desire to paint again, by this stage I was 25.

After a year in the studio, I took a voluntary break because contracts were a bit sparse at that time and moved back to the Highlands to spend a concentrated period of time painting, I had not really drawn much since I was 16, I was good then and I figured I owed it to myself to explore the joy I had previously known…I bought brushes paint and a heap of canvases and lock myself away for a year. This was the point I actually decided art and glasswork would be my living.
How hard is it to enter the field of traditional lead work; what are the challenges currently faced by artisans like yourself?
Well, I was pretty lucky to land the restoration job. It was purely chance, I think the studio had a lot of work on at the time and needed extra hands. I must have put my name up on some website, I am still to this day not quite sure how it came about! That was in 2005, on the cusp of the impending recession so churches were losing out on funding and such, businesses were having to go out with their normal trade area to find work and as a result, undercut possibly more local companies to get the contracts. That was causing problems, there is only so low you can price a job!

Then the raw materials (lead and solder & copper) started going up rapidly in price, especially in the last 2 years. How do you deal with materials going up 4 fold in the price? So I would say the main problem for an independent artist now is the sheer cost of materials. You can’t afford experimentation, everything is too valuable and when you are learning you need to be experimenting. So while I had work in the restoration studio I got time, time to handle different glass types, time to see how colours worked together, and time to get a feel for different-sized windows and how they worked structurally and visually. How much lead would a window that size require? How much solder? I got experience painting & firing glass in the kiln, replicating finishes and styles. This experience I could apply to my own glass work, without that time I am not sure I would have continued working with glass.

Close-up of Leaded Hanger with engraved and stained details.

As a highly skilled artisan what sort of formal training/experience is required to do what you do?
For the restoration side, it’s the kind of work you can only learn with time and experience on the job.
The basics of handling glass, cutting and leading are covered in college but it was only through actually working the job I began to learn. I think it takes a certain type of person to do this job. An appreciation for the art itself, its history, patience and interest in the physical work. If you hold these values, the actual skills can be taught and from that experience gained. I guess it works as a kind of apprenticeship if they still existed! Someone needs to take the time to teach you, yes you will be slow at first but once you understand what to do in a given situation you improve and get quicker. I was working with a guy who was fourth generation of Stained Glass Artists. When people like him stop working there is a lot of information and techniques that have been passed down and all that will just disappear; that concerns me.

Vandalized Stained Glass Window, Aberdeen.
Restored Window, Aberdeen.

You have a pretty unique insight into the process of restoration and preserving the past; can you share some little snippets of interesting things you’ve noticed?
They made a lot of mistakes! During the restoration process you handle each window a lot, the process of taking a trace rubbing creates a mental map of the window in your head, dismantling it, cleaning each piece and re-leading the window. It’s amazing how many bits go in upside down, back to front and just plain badly cut. There is something nice about fixing those mistakes and sometimes extremely frustrating when you’re looking at a space and asking how these bits ever went together in the first place! The artwork in the church windows is amazing, with so many styles. Did you know there is more Scottish Stained Glass in America than in Scotland? It’s being ripped out and sold off; where is the section in the Art Gallery for this heritage, and why is it not preserved?

You split your time between restoration work and creating your own pieces; which do you prefer and what’s your favourite creation and why?
The things I enjoy about the Restoration are the challenges; when you’re out on site up the side of the church and something unexpected happens you have to come up with a plan for that given situation. If ever there was a job you could apply the phrase ‘old school’ to its Stained Glass. Spring lunch breaks on the scaffolding in the sunshine out at some country church, it is beautiful! Frozen hands in December during a blizzard were not so enjoyable! On the big jobs where you get to return to a church over the year and see the seasons change; it’s all these elements that make the job fun.

My favourite jobs are the vandalized windows. When I got to do my first one, that was a lot of fun totally recreating the lower half of a window that had been completely destroyed. Very satisfying. But overall I prefer creating my own work, because of that reason. I am creating my own art not just restoring. Looking back over the progression of my work I am not sure I could pick a favourite item but there have been definite turning points and stages. I guess making the very first copper foiled hanger inlaid with autumn leaves and getting excited about the prospects of the idea. I made about 20 hangers and got a weekend stall at the Westend Craft fair in Edinburgh during the festival and sold most of them, that was the green light to say yes this could be a path worth following. That was nearly 10 years ago. I fully believe everything should be a constant progression so the next thing I will make will be my new favourite. The most recent hangers are framed in oak wood I love, which has opened up a whole host of ideas for the next stage.

Oak framed Stained Glass window by Peter Gillies

UK Handmade love your Stained Glass Hangers which have a Japanese and Chinese aesthetic; what do you feel accounts for this?
There are not many western Artists I am particularly grabbed by, but when I saw the woodblock print work of Hokusai that really spoke to me, it was almost confirmation of what I was already trying to achieve in my head. So I think there has always been an underlying flavour of these woodblock pictures in my art and this comes out in my glasswork.

Last year I found a beautiful book called ‘The Great Japan Exhibition’ which happened in London in 1981. An exhibition of that scale had never been held anywhere in the world at that time, not even Japan and pulled together work from 1600 to 1868, the Edo period. The book is a catalogue of all the paintings, ceramics and textiles, very detailed. It’s become my visual art bible and the best thing about it is all the paintings and prints have the given dimensions. I find it interesting looking at the size of paintings and objects. With the hangers over the years I have been looking for what makes an item feel right, making the border a little thinner or wider. Looking for a perfect shape. Something that not only looks pleasing hanging up but feels right when you hold it in your hand.

Overall the inspiration for my work is a blend of a deep appreciation of the Scottish scenery, especially the Highlands, and flavours of Japanese & Chinese Art. There are a lot of similarities in the scenery I think, craggy pine trees and little mountain rivers. I also like to pause Samurai films to note the window designs! I love those paper screens. I have become totally obsessed with bamboo in the last year. Did you know you can make fabric out of it and its a antimicrobial material.

Pine Branch Stained Glass Hanger – Peter Gillies

What do you love most about what you do and what do you find the most frustrating?
The thing I love most is a hard one to call. I think its the excitement of making something, or during a painting and knowing before it’s even done that this one is really special; those magic moments. Also when people respond to the work, chats at crafts shows or receiving a simple comment on the blog. It’s really nice to hear back from people that have bought or received something I made. The most frustrating thing, well in a way the struggle is the blessing. If I had 100 canvases, yes I could do 100 pictures and being restricted by finance is really frustrating but it’s all part of the journey. If I got that easily frustrated I would have stopped this years ago. How many disastrous Craft shows does it take to knock you down… I don’t know, just pack up, review and go back to the studio and make something even better.
Can you tell us a bit about where you make your own products (your creative space), can we take a sneaky peak at your workshop/studio/office?
At the start of this year, I moved over to Glasgow. The restoration work is a bit sparse just now so when the opportunity of this studio space came up I decided to move and start up my own studio. The studio is in a place called the ‘Hidden Lane’. It houses around 90 studios with everything from recording studios to designers and jewellers. A lot of the businesses are web-based so I am seemingly going against the grain trying to run an open-door art studio. But I hope to maybe work with the artists that are here and maybe create an open-door collective-type situation.

Studio Photo

I am the only person that ever seems to be here at weekends, at least I can play my music and whistle/feet tap freely! It’s a concern how many studios don’t appear that frequently used, I noticed this in my previous studio. I had imagined and hoped studios would have a very collective vibe, not something I have found yet…I am using the space as half a display gallery and half a workshop. I have 2 big light boxes to display the glass as the natural light is not great (factor in the wonderful Glasgow weather) and a number of paintings up. The other half of the room is the making side, I have mostly been drawing this year. I have quite a collection of 5b pencil stubs building. It’s nice to take breaks from the glasswork so I can recharge and come back with some fresh ideas.

Drawing circa 2010

Running your own business is hard work, how do you balance your work and home life and what do you do to wind down?
Wind down!!! ha ha. If I am lucky a few days up in the Highlands to get some peace and quiet, but there is never really any time to stop. Dedicating yourself to the art leads to a completely erratic lifestyle, it’s my choice so I’ve got only myself to blame!! I enjoy going out for a dance when I can, in times of glory it’s a reward and in times of despair its just required to stop yourself going mad. But I do have trouble not feeling guilty about taking time off & spending money on anything other than art & glass supplies.
How do you get the word out about your work and where can we buy or commission your work?
Over the years I have put a lot of effort into doing an annual run of Craft shows in the Highlands. It’s taken a long time to build up a familiarity and a level of return custom each year, this will hopefully continue to grow. I do these shows with a group called ‘Exclusively Highlands’. There are many interesting makers on board and it’s a good show that gets better each year.

Last year I started my blog called ‘Broken Glass & Bleeding Fingers’, to document the restoration work and projects and details of my own work and this year linked it with the facebook page ‘Gillies Glass’. There is a shop on the facebook page with all my current produce up, and plenty of archived photos should somebody want to commission a piece. I like each ‘season’ of work to be a progression from the last to keep it fresh, so there are a lot of ideas amongst the old photos that could be further explored…Ideally if you are near to, or ever visiting Glasgow, come by the studio where I will furnish you with tea and biscuits and you can see all the glass and paintings in person.
I would like to take Traditional Stained Glass and re-present it in a modern environment with new ideas. Take a modern home, an eco-house or self-build and there are many locations you might not have thought about utilising Stained Glass but it can work beautifully. Even your classic tenement houses with the window above the front door. It’s your front door, you use it every day, wouldn’t it be nice to have a lovely window over nasty safety glass and a horrible stairwell light shining in!! The parameters of what is possible are huge!

For more information about Peter’s work visit:
Studio Address: 1103 Argyle Street, ‘The Hidden Lane’, 19 Argyle Court, Studio 3 G3 8ND
Read about lots of other fabulous, creative people here: http://www.ukhandmade.co.uk/designers

3 thoughts on “June 25th, 2012 – Uk Handmade Interview Peter Gillies

  1. lvcandler

    Hey Pete,
    Great to read your story all in one long page, and great to hear that your work is making a splash. Thanks for sharing it; you’re an inspiration.
    -Laura C.

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