Wednesday, 23 January 2013

An Artist in Flight

Eleanor Bird, Hosanna House Lourdes Artist in Conversation with Peter Burholt

Visiting Eleanor’s studio in Bristol was an interesting experience. The smells of the brewer’s mash tuns, which featured so prominently with the Old Brewery, were long gone. Standing at the door of her studio, artist Eleanor Bird’s warm smile was a greeting to behold. A hand of welcome reached out ‘So, you managed to find me in this part of old Bristol!’

Moving inside, it was a typical place to work and create. The difference was that glass and metal samples were spread around in a purposeful way, possibly showing a sign of someone who knew what they were doing. Next door the carpenter’s studio gave out an aroma of newly cut wood and glue. A plate of chocolate Hobnobs sat formally on a serviette and plate on her worktop.

Making space, we sat down to talk.

You are an artist who works in designing architectural stained glass. Whatever made you take up this unusual profession? For a young person, it is not exactly a trendy profession.I have always been intrigued by glass. I remember when I was a very young girl, I used to get distracted by the patterns stained glass used to make in church – perhaps not the thing I should say in the A&B News! When I got older, stained glass became a point on which I could focus my thoughts.

Originally I wanted to take a degree in public art, but had no idea about specialising in stained glass design. My parents encouraged me and I have grown up with design, as this is what my father does for a living. I studied at the Chelsea College of Art & Design, which gave me the opportunity to experiment with the way in which glass could be used to modulate light through sand-blasting and acid etching.

Was it difficult to find work in this rather specialised world?In 2002 I came out with a 1st class degree and was then lucky enough to be taken on by the Thomas Heatherwick Studio. One of my first assignments was to help design the Bleigeissen sculpture for the Wellcome Trust’s office in the Euston Road, London.

This was quite a scary project as it consisted of glass beads hanging the eight floors of the building’s atrium. I was very proud of this work, but I’m relieved to say that it never collapsed!

Did you stay at Thomas Heatherwick’s Studio long?After my contract finished, I wanted to gain a more hands-on experience of working with glass and this is when I moved to Bristol. I joined the renowned Roy Coomber, famous over many, many years for his work. At 80 years of age he is still working, mostly in America. Over the 5 years I was with him, he taught me how to use paint to create form and tone in stained glass windows. He is a very straight-talking teacher!

I also worked with Andrew Taylor, who helped me understand how to glaze and install stained glass windows.
You have been pictured with Princess Anne, who presented you with an award. How did that come about and how did Missio become part of your life?This came about in 2008 after I decided to study for an MA in Architectural Glass at the University of Sunderland. Fortunately, I won The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust grant to further my training from Princess Anne. While I was there I entered the Stevens competition, an annual event run by The Glaziers Guild.

Although I knew the competition was being run with a possible commission from Missio, I had never heard of them, except I remember my grandmother having her red box by the front door. Although I came third, luckily for me Msg Dale had the final say on who was taken on.

My work has been exhibited at the British Glass Biennale 2010, the UK’s top contemporary showcase featuring 80 of the country’s leading glass artists. I was very proud of that achievement.

So, what happened next after you were commissioned by Missio?As a point of explanation, one of the HCPT’s earliest chaplins, Fr Byrne, always nursed a fervent hope that the Chapel at Hosanna House would one day be enhanced by its upper windows being filled with stained glass, depicting the Risen Christ in an Easter Garden . A fortnight before he died, a fund was established to fulfil his dream. 

The commission was for a panel in the Chapel. This work started last year and it took three months to complete. You are quite correct - I do tend to be a perfectionist! (Eleanor is pictured showing a detail of the panel).

During my visit to Hosanna House, I felt a great sense of friendship and healing. I wanted to depict this feeling through the resurrection theme in stained glass. One day the answer came in a conversation with Br Michael, who suggested the story of Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Christ.

Did you really drive down to Hosanna House with the stained glass window in the back of your car?
I thought about the options of getting the glass down to the southern part of France and decided that the only safe way was to do the transporting myself and not to trust others.

You may think it was one large glass window, half stuck out of the passenger window! In reality, I separated the panel into 15 individual pieces and then we had it assembled on site. A French woman glazier did that part of the job.

But you did not see the finished article until much later.That is true, as I only saw it when I was invited for the formal blessing of the panel at Easter this year.

I have some good news for you - I have just heard that HCPT has commissioned me to design two more panels – one representing Palm Sunday and the other Pentecost.

What else happened at that time?As all this was going on, I came back to Bristol from Sunderland to get married. That’s why I am here at the Old Brewery. Does he work with me? No way, he is an aerospace engineer working for Airbus.

Although you are not a Catholic, does your work have a spiritual affect on you?
Eleanor paused a few moments as she considered how she would reply to this question. The Hobnobs still sat untouched on their plate.

Now I come to think about it, yes it does. I try very hard to relate to the people who commission my work and it is important to know where the stained glass is to be located. It happens that much of my current commissions involve the (wider) Church – I have work with several church schools, a convent and a church. I am having an ‘Our Lady of Lourdes Year’.

By Eleanor’s own admission, she has a calling. Where this will take her next, only Himself knows. Wherever it will be, this artist will keep her feet firmly on the ground and will never be known as a ‘flight of fancy’.

Ed – Eleanor’s website is:  

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