Focus on an EVAN artist: Jenia Gorfunkel

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"I usually like to meet face to face so I can see the work of the person I’m interviewing, it makes it easier to understand the way they work, and the processes involved, but on this occasion, we are conducting the interview via telephone as we have both just taken part in the EVAN Open Studios event and dropped daughters to universities only the previous weekend, so we’re a bit shattered.  We start with a discussion on the number of boxes you can fit into a car, along with potted plants and said child, as well as the ‘empty nest’ feeling now they are gone."

Interview by Polly Marix Evans


Jenia is a self-taught glass artist and jeweller, working almost exclusively with recycled glass sourced from bottles.

Jenia trained in computing, and has an MA in finance and economics.  Her career used to take her all over the world, working for multinational companies, living in New York and Los Angeles.

When she lived in Connecticut, with her husband, they also had a house in New Hampshire where they loved to connect with nature, hiking and skiing in the mountains.

After moving back to London, where their daughter was born, they decided that city living and a high-flying lifestyle were no longer what they wanted as a family. Jenia didn’t want to spend her time travelling the world to attend meetings and conferences and not see her child growing up.  It was then that they moved to Cumbria, to a house in the country with a big enough garden to grow their own food.

Sustainability and being environmentally aware are important factors for Jenia, both in her day-to-day lifestyle and her work.

Once her daughter started nursery, Jenia signed up for evening classes and learnt to create stained and leaded glass.  There were already plenty of other successful makers in this field and she wanted to find other interesting techniques in which she could work with glass.

She began to experiment with glass bottles, melting and fusing them in a kiln.

‘It took a long time to work out the science!  Making glass stick together is a scientific process.  Most glass artists buy art glass which sees all the pieces having the same characteristics, therefore they fuse together.  With bottles, each manufacturer has a different recipe, so each bottle will heat and cool at different temperatures.  This is called the co-efficient of expansion.  And sometimes a manufacturer will change supplier, and the bottles you are using need to be re-tested to check their properties.  The glass needs to be compatible so you get a cohesive item when you have finished firing it in the kiln, otherwise it will break.  Mistakes are more rare now, over time I’ve learnt lessons, and it’s been about fifteen years since I began to work with glass.’

She has a big spreadsheet listing the characteristics of various bottles, and new bottles have to be ‘tested alongside ones I already use to see if I can put them together.’

I ask Jenia if she has to drink loads of wine and beer to sustain her art supplies, she laughs ‘My husband is very obliging!’  Actually, the local pub saves bottles for her, especially interestingly coloured ones like Bombay Sapphire.  Jenia likes vibrant and unusual colours, the blues and greens, but uses a selection of many colours, including clear glass in her work.

Each piece of work can take hours to produce.  Her vessels often go through multiple firings, a jigsaw puzzle design of glass first fired flat, then trimmed or cut to size.  To shape the piece, Jenia ‘drapes’ the glass over a mould and refires it.  The moulds are often made from ceramics, but once again, Jenia likes to recycle and repurpose items, many of her moulds are found objects, or sheets of metal she bends to form the shape she sees her vessel taking.

 

If she has a ready supply of a certain type of bottle, or glass, she can make large items such as dishes, plates, bowls or lamps.  ‘A lamp takes about twenty bottles by the time I’ve broken them up.’

I ask how she breaks them?  Is there a special technique or safety equipment, I myself can’t stand the creaky sound of glass, let alone the shattering noise!

‘It’s quite simple really; a bucket, a mallet, a sheet of plexi-glass over the bucket and, of course, some goggles.  But yes, there are always the times you cut yourself, though not that often.  Sometimes I cut off the top and base of a bottle and flatten it in the kiln, just pop it in and it goes flop.  Other times I literally smash a bottle at random.’

And it is this randomness, the thickness and layers that create the texture in Jenia’s work.  ‘At this point the glass is no longer see-through, it’s like rice paper, it traps bubbles of air which give it feature and interest, and it is this aspect of the glass that appeals to me.’

It’s not only bottles that Jenia works with though, ‘People give me stuff!’ she tells me, ‘I met someone a few years ago who used to deal with cars, and he gave me a load of old car windows!  I have used some of them, but the glass is toughened so you can’t just cut it.  If you take your pliers and twist the edge it literally falls apart.  It’s fascinating!  Or you can fire it to relax it, and then you can cut it without it breaking.’

Another friend gave her all the glass out of her old greenhouse, but when Jenia started using it, it became apparent that some panes must have been replaced at one point in the past. ‘The glass was different ages and different thicknesses and cracked when I tried to fuse it together.  Now I measure each individual sheet to measure the thickness, to check as much as possible that they are the same.’  Some of this greenhouse glass was used in the pieces she showed in the recent EVAN Open Studios Art Trail.

‘If there’s enough glass to play with I’ll use it.  If it’s only small pieces, or one bottle, I’ll make jewellery with it.’

Jenia took more evening classes in silversmithing.  ‘I’m not a very sophisticated silversmith, but I know enough to make what I want to.’

Actually, Jenia makes beautiful, totally unique jewellery, so this statement seems obsolete.

Jenia has an idea in her mind and then makes the glass work for her.  ‘I can tell what will make a nice piece of jewellery.’

All her jewellery is entirely custom made, the unique sizes and uneven thicknesses of the glass mean no pre-made findings are available to fit her pieces.

She talks me through the process of making a ring.  Initially, she creates a ‘blob’ of glass in the kiln, then she measures the circumference of this with a strip of paper.  From a roll of thin silver, about 0.3mm, she makes and solders a circle to hold the glass.  This is then shaped to fit the curves of the piece of glass.  A base is added in either solid silver, or a wire ‘basket’ for the stone to sit in.  Then a band for the ring itself is created, either in a circle or different shape.  The setting is then soldered to the ring itself, and finally the glass or stone added.  The silver is crimped over to hold the stone in place.  There’s no glue involved; each one really is unique, handmade from start to finish.

Jenia had mended one of my favourite rings for me in the past and knows I’m not a fan of diamonds.  We discuss colour and pebbles and found objects.  She tells me she’s just made a ring from a marble pebble from Athens!  If you want to see it, it will be at The EVAN Gallery soon.

We touch lightly on Jenia’s Russian roots.  She’s spent her entire adult life living either in Britain or the USA, but even so, her paintings on her glassware are influenced by traditional Russian porcelain tableware or lacquer boxes.  She loves the ‘dressy and minute designs, the tiny flowers.’  She also tells me of her love of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Look closely and you’ll see these influences in her work.

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