Making a Spiritual Connection
Siobhan Allen enjoys making geometric mosaic artworks from mouth-blown glass, which she feels are an expression of the sacred patterns found in all life. Linda Banks finds out more about her and her work.
What led you to start working with glass?
It was a hobby at first. I was working as a bodywork therapist in London and a friend who taught at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art taught me how to cut glass in his lunch break. I was very inspired by the art coming out of that school and visited him there often. I knew I wanted to work with colour and was fascinated by light streaming through coloured glass and the sense of wonder it gave me.
At the same time I started exploring traditional mosaics in evening classes as I really enjoyed making patterns and textures with small tesserae. So I spent a while oscillating between traditional mosaic and traditional leadlight windows.
What glass techniques have you used and why do you prefer mosaic?
As mentioned, there was a period where I explored traditional mosaic and traditional leadlight at the same time. Then I discovered an artist in the US who combined the two and, once I explored mosaic with stained glass on a clear substrate, I found a combination of crafts that seemed to offer everything I was looking for.
With glass mosaic I like that you can create complex patterns without the need to use lead or time-consuming copper foil. Instead, I use the grout in the spaces, which makes it a faster method and, in the case of lead, less toxic. I use a UV stable glue to fix the mosaic pieces down. The overall finished piece can still be every bit as bold and bright and beautiful as a leaded window.
I have explored fused glass techniques too and do fuse my substrates for my smaller pieces but, overall, I prefer the look of cold glass.
A lot of your pieces are highly complicated, geometric designs. Why are you drawn to this style?
I have always been drawn to symbols that represent something greater than the words we use to describe it.
For me, those beautiful geometric patterns, which are found in almost every culture, are an expression of the sacred patterns in all of life.
However, despite having taken several courses in traditional geometric drawing, I am not a natural. I am therefore very grateful for polar graph paper to draw some of my patterns out.
What is your creative approach? Do you draw your ideas out or dive straight in with the materials?
These days I mostly make glass-on-glass applique. For this I always choose or draw a pattern first that sits underneath a clear substrate. Then I decide on the colour scheme. Sometimes this evolves over the course of making the piece. In recent years I have been using multi-coloured glass and often make a piece from a section of that glass, as it shows each colour fading into the next.
What inspires your work?
I tend to be inspired by what moves me viscerally and emotionally, rather than by clever ideas and concepts. Light shining directly or indirectly through stained glass gives me goosebumps. Many of the colours, shapes and patterns in the natural world amaze me and I love artforms that have vibrant and ethereal colour combinations.
What message(s) do you want to convey through your art?
I try to convey something that I sense and glimpse from time to time, which is the liminal space between our world and the next. I feel we are in this beautiful world of the five senses and simultaneously we are spiritual beings, connected to other dimensions, and it’s possible to sense the two together. I hope my art somehow points to that and I get quite excited when I feel I’ve captured that quality in a photograph. I do spend a long time on the photography side of my art as it’s the primary way most people will experience it.
What is your favourite tool or piece of equipment and why?
Probably my little Paragon kiln, which I bought with part of the prize money I won for my piece ‘Heart Flower’ in 2015 (see main feature image). This was a combined competition held by Creative Glass Guild and Spectrum Stained Glass and it was a career highlight when I won the ‘Best in Show’ and ‘Best Stained Glass Project’. This kiln enables me to make all the fused hearts and droplet bases, as well as all the beads and cabochons I include in my work.
Do you have a favourite piece you have made? Why is it your favourite?
Probably the piece ‘Renewal’ is my favourite. It started out as quite a large, complex mandala at the centre radiating out. When It was finished, as I was photographing it against a window, it suddenly fell and smashed into several pieces.
With the largest, broken shard, I began this new piece, which has since become one of my most popular windows of all time. I love what it symbolises (“Nothing is created and nothing is destroyed, but everything is transformed”) and I have it hanging in my studio.
Where do you show and sell your work?
I don’t tend to show my work as it sells quite quickly through my website.
What advice would you give to someone starting out on a career in glass?
Go for it, it’s a beautiful medium. It’s very difficult to make a living from it, but if it’s where your passion is, follow your heart.
Be patient with yourself. If you start out being inspired by other artists and copying their style at first, that’s fine. Many of us do that to begin with. But then try to bring in more of yourself that is unique and different, and develop your own ideas.
Where is your glass practice heading next?
I have really enjoyed collaborating with my partner Tony, as he makes the reclaimed timber sculpture frames that hold my glass mosaics. I hope we can explore that combination more.
I also hope to make more pieces for outside as, for me, the interplay between the colours and shapes of nature and the luminous vibrant glass hint at that liminal space that draws me.
Is the global energy crisis affecting your practice?
Yes definitely. All the materials are going up in price but, in particular, my favourite material is English Antique mouth-blown, hand-made stained glass. This has increased in price by 50% in just one year.
I feel very lucky to be able to work in this medium and hope I can continue in it for the long term. I am also grateful to my customers and online followers, who regularly give me a boost when I receive their feedback. It’s a privilege to have that audience.
About the artist
Siobhan Allen lives in North Devon and works full-time on her glass creations from a cabin studio in her garden.
She comes from a creative home. Her mum was a photographer and taught at Camberwell School of Art, and the creative arts were always encouraged in her as a child.
However, though she completed an Art Foundation course in her early 20s, it took another 10 years before she began practising her craft.
She draws inspiration from the geometry in nature and the sacred art of different cultures and religions.
Having lived a full and rich life of many ups and downs, Siobhan tries to bring her lived experience, curiosity and wonderment into her daily life and art.
Find out more via her website.
Main feature image: Detail of ‘Heart Flower’ that won a competition in 2015.