Richard Seager Award glass commission for Bethan Yates
Recent glass graduate Bethan Yates explains how she developed an artwork for the prestigious English National Opera during lockdown.
The Richard Seager award is an annual arts and crafts award set up by Valerie Seager in memory of her husband Richard. The award provides opportunities to emerging artists and designers in the form of a commission. The organisation that receives the commission is usually one which has contributed to society, culture and the environment in a positive way.
In 2020, a few months after graduating from the glass course at Swansea College of Art, I submitted a design to the award brief for that year. I presented my idea to a board of judges, via Zoom, during the first lockdown and was lucky enough to be chosen as the winner.
The commission was to be for the English National Opera (ENO), which was chosen for its outstanding response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The costume department had made scrubs for the NHS, and a wellbeing programme called ENO Breathe was set up for those recovering from the virus.
The commission was to create a piece of art to hang in the Sky Bar at the London Coliseum theatre in Westminster, home to the ENO.
One of the enormous privileges of this project for me, was the opportunity to work with the ENO Youth Company. I ran an online ‘mark making to opera’ workshop with them, using the music from three operas which hold particular significance for the ENO – ‘The Mikado’, ‘Peter Grimes’ and ‘Carmen’. The youth members produced drawings and patterns that directly inspired the final piece. In a process of enlarging, repeating and layering, I created an energetic and flowing artwork.
As the youth members are the future of the company, I wanted them represented in the work. I included subtle variations of their mark making through painting and silver stain and incorporated their signatures through sandblasting and etching.
The final piece is made in two layers, which are hung at slightly different angles. It is designed to change throughout the day, with the position of the sun, artificial spotlights at night, or as an individual engages with it in the space.
Marine fixings were used, as a nod to the stage crews of old, who came from ships to man theatre rigging. The yellow stain used on the glass was another important feature, linking this contemporary artwork with the original, silver-stained Edwardian glass found throughout the theatre, which was designed by architect Frank Matcham.
This was my first real commission and I couldn’t have asked for a more challenging, yet rewarding, experience. The awards team were amazing and provided so much support to me throughout the 18 months. We had multiple Zoom meetings to discuss the design and development of my ideas, consider the architecture of the building, and how to work with the client.
The steepest learning curve was the safety aspect of the design, as the piece was to hang on a wall above three connecting staircases, in a listed building! I approached many companies for advice on safety glass, fixtures and fittings, plus how to attach the weight to the wall. We’d learnt a bit about this in university but having to do it in real life, during a pandemic and multiple lockdowns, within budget, was a huge task.
I did learn that the glass community, although quite small in comparison to others, is also one of the most generous with time and knowledge. I had so many questions throughout the project and I found myself going back and asking my old tutors and technicians, or glass friends I’d met through Instagram, for help and advice. Everyone was so excited for me and so eager to help. If they didn’t have the answer, they’d point me to the person who did.
It has been such an amazing experience and, although very difficult at times, I’m so happy to have had it at this early stage in my career.
Left to right: Award founder Valerie Seager, glass artist Bethan Yates, and Chairman of the Board of the English National Opera, Harry Brunjes, at the unveiling of the winning commission, installed in the London Coliseum. Photo: John Snelling.
Main image: The finished installation by Bethan Yates, winner of the Richard Seager award 2020. Photo: John Snelling.