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Transmuting Sand Into Crystalline Art

British glassmaker Margaret Alston produces timeless objects full of intriguing contradictions

`I NEVER imagined I might end up being a potter!'' says Margaret Alston. Her interest was glass - and, in fact, it still is. She isn't really a potter. She is a glassmaker. Her work is gaining considerable recognition among the collectors and museums both at home and abroad watching the development of the studio-glass movement in Britain. But Ms. Alston's aesthetics and her unusual technique with glass owe something crucial to pottery. In its earlier stages, her art school training at Stoke-on-Trent, England, included a ``multidisciplinary design'' course. She had been making things in blown glass, but then ``I spent quite a lot of time in ceramics.'' It was the modeling aspect of pottery that appealed. ``I felt I wanted to use glass like clay.''

Such a notion could hardly be more different from traditional glass blowing. ``With hot glass, it's very immediate and very unspecific,'' says Alston. ``The way colors move in the glass is very random ..., quite difficult to control.''

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She much prefers spending a lot of time ``fiddling with things.'' Her work consists of comparatively small vessels and bowls of perfected classical proportion and sensitive but ordered variations of surface texture and significant pattern. Discussing the work with her, you soon sense her quality: She is a patient perfectionist, but also quietly, deliberately inventive. Her inventiveness, however, is not based on a relish of mere novelty or even of hastily inspired improvisation.

I first saw her work in a show of glass miniatures at Jeanette Hayhurst's shop in London: two little bowls that looked as if they were made of sugar or a particularly crystalline sand. Quiet in the midst of a fair amount of hectic or showy glassmaking, these small forms, mixing certainty of form with a magical fragility, compelled attention. One of them, Alston now tells me, had a typically painstaking gestation. ``It took six to get one,'' she says - six failures, one success.

Not only are her standards exceptionally exacting, but her technique - though she has become very proficient in it - remains full of imponderables. In certain ways she is ``working in the dark,'' and unforeseen chemical pitfalls - like oxides, or different kinds of glass reacting destructively - are not uncommon. One of the most exciting parts of her process is when a piece, still encased in its refractory plaster mold, has cooled after coming out of the kiln and is placed in a bucket of cold water for the plaster to soak away. It's exciting ``because you never know quite how it's going to be,'' she says.

She starts by making a clay model of a piece. Surface decoration, often in relief, is also modelled at this stage. The model is then coated in refractory plaster. The clay is cleaned away from the inner cavity of the set plaster mold.

Then, using brushes, she very slowly and carefully applies to the cavity walls a glass paste that is 23 percent lead crystal cullet - crushed, ground, sieved, and mixed with glue. Oxides, enamels, and colored glasses are added to produce different colors.

The piece is then subjected to a carefully controlled firing in the electric kiln installed at the back of the small house in Dulwich, South London, that Alston shares with her husband, an industrial-designer. The glass particles fuse. If the crucial timings and temperatures have produced satisfactory results, the piece still requires a long process of hand finishing: polishing and rubbing with abrasive pads under water. ``I like to have a lot of physical involvement,'' she comments.

In college Alston's interest was roused in the debates about ``art'' and ``craft'' and where they cross over. Her own work manages to be both. It blends the purely aesthetic (``They're not useful objects at all,'' she observes lightly) with an interest and absorption in technique and materials that a non-craftsperson might well find overly emphatic. She admits that the exigencies of her chosen technique act as a limitation - what it allows you to do, what it means you can't do. But such restrictions suit her aesthetics too: she isn't complaining when she says, ``I leave out a lot of things.'' She aims at not too much complication, not too many colors.

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The aesthetic cradle of her work was undoubtedly the three years she spent between school and art college in Italy. For her, Italy has everything - art, sea, sand (she loves sand), and archaeology. Though the references implicit in her work are ``never very specific,'' many of them are to such ancient, time-rubbed things as Etruscan pots or the worn pavements and marble pillars of Pompeii.

Some earlier pieces show clear similarities to textiles. Some of Alston's shallow dishes, in particular, might almost be made of lace rather than glass, or of the crisscross bandaging of Egyptian mummies. Oriental calligraphy has also had some bearing on her patterning, and in more recent work so has the character of different kinds of stone - alabaster, jade, marble. All these influences add to the feeling that her glassmaking is a kind of transmutation into other materials.

Alston gave birth to a daughter, her first child, 10 months ago, and she feels that this experience is having a strong effect on the inherent meaning and content of her work.

Janet Barnes, the curator who chose Alston's work for a recent show of glass works in Sheffield, England, says that ``in spite of its simplicity'' Alston's work ``does have a resonance. ... There is a perfection about her work that ... [is] quite disturbing in some ways. Do you know what I mean? ... I think her work is full of contradictions, which I like.''

The pieces look delicate but are surprisingly strong, or they look like stone but are surprisingly light. They look old but are actually very new. Even their technique - though it comes close to a 19th-century French invention called pate de verre (literally, glass paste), which was said to be based on an ancient glassmaking technique - is a re-invention.

This October, Margaret Alston's work will be shown in a United States exhibition at the Studio Glass Gallery of Britain in Montclair, N.J. (9 Church St.).

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