Monday, 18 May 2015

Chuck Simpson - Glass artist and personality

Chuck Simpson was a larger-than-life character with an enormous talent. He was born in 1944 in the USA and educated there. He worked in Australia as a high school teacher for many years before turning to glass. The studio of Colin Heaney at Byron Bay on the north coast of NSW was a hothouse of glass artistry in the mid-1980s, having started only a few years earlier. Chuck Simpson was one of the many who found their talents there.

The bottle in the first image is perhaps the earliest of his works we have for show. It is heavy-walled with green and gold in layers and with noticeable iridizing on the surface, and simply signed “Chuck”. (A possibly earlier item in the form of a simple spherical bowl signed “C. Simpson” was seen but not captured.)

Chuck Simpson, undated 16.5cm high

Other items he made at Byron Bay in the mid-to-late 1980s include a frizzy paperweight from 1986, a gourd flask in crimson and gold with surface iridizing from 1987, and a highly iridized silvery blue perfume bottle (with loose stopper) also from 1987. All three of these items are signed and dated, although only the gourd flask (a distinguished piece of ‘exhibition’ quality) is graced with his second name.

Chuck Simpson, 1986 9.5cm high
Chuck Simpson, 1987 17cm high
Chuck Simpson, 1987 11.5cm high

Two themes of Simpson’s work are already emerging in these early items. One is the extensive application of heavy metal salts to the hot glass to impart an oily iridescent sheen in likeness of ancient glass retrieved in archaeological digs. The other is the strongly indented sides on the stoppered bottle. More on both features later.

Chuck Simpson moved to New Zealand in 1987 and took over Tony Kuepfer’s studio at Inglewood, together with others including Lesley Justin (later to become Chuck’s wife), Andrew Williams and Joan O’Leary. This was perhaps the time his art developed most strongly and he was enormously productive, both individually and in works made jointly with Lesley. Even today, at any time on the NZ auction site TradeMe there is usually at least one Simpson piece for sale.

The examples below are typical of the simpler items they made at Inglewood in the period 1988-1990.  The first bowl is signed “Glass Art NZ” in what looks like Chuck’s school-teacher-ish handwriting. The second is signed “C+L Simpson” (again in Chuck’s writing), while the holey paperweight has “Chuck + Lesley Simpson” in what I think is Lesley’s hand. Note the generous iridizing and the development of indentations into holes.

The best accounts of the Simpsons in these NZ times are found on Stuart Park’s New Zealand Glass blog. In particular, don’t miss the blog item “Chuck Simpson Liked Perforated Glass".

Glass Art NZ, undated 12cm dia
Chuck and Lesley Simpson, undated 9.5cm dia
Chuck and Lesley Simpson, undated 8cm long

Chuck and Lesley moved back to Australia in 1990 and set up in the Sunshine Coast area north of Brisbane. Their two main locations were in the craft centre established by the Queensland Government in the old Ginger Factory at Buderim (mentioned also in the item about Peter Goss on this blog) and later in the space at the back of the Imperial Hotel in the main street of Eumundi that had earlier housed a brewery. At some stage along this journey, Lesley transformed herself into Indiah, although she continued to work as a glass artist jointly with Chuck. Their output was highly varied as can be seen in these examples. The large hot formed sculpture of mother and child from 1993 is characteristic of Chuck’s exhibition quality pieces of this time, while the decanter with stopper and the sculptural bowl on a duplex stem (both from the later 1990s and both signed “Chuck & Indiah Simpson”) are characteristic of the higher end of their production wares. The paperweight is fascinating, both for being large and heavy and for its inclusion of lampworked flowers. It is also signed as a joint work. Note again the perforations in both of the sculptural pieces.

Chuck Simpson, 1993 36cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, 1999 34cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, 1998 19cm high
Chuck and Indiah Simpson, undated 10.5cm high

A major feature of Chuck Simpson’s practice was his contribution to the community of glass artists, especially in fostering his workplace as an access studio where others could share the facilities to create their own works and the camaraderie of joint endeavour. The access studio is especially helpful in hot glass artistry where the equipment is expensive to buy and expensive to run. Even in the early days in Inglewood, other artists used the facilities for their own practice. The studio in the Buderim craft center was organized as a cooperative, another form of shared access. His business at Eumundi was known as Vesta Hot Glass, but he also operated as Queensland Glass Artists Association Inc. Under this latter banner he fostered other local artists such as Tina Cooper and Lucas Salton. He also organized a series of workshops at Eumundi, drawing the leading glass artists from around Australia and NZ, and reported the results widely through the Ausglass newsletters.

Sadly, Chuck Simpson died in 2001 of a condition almost certainly caused by his long-term exposure to hot glass and especially to the metal salts used in creating the iridized finish so characteristic of his work. Many other hot glass artists have suffered ill consequences of their working environment, including Indiah, formerly known as Lesley, who quit the business citing its poisonous effects.


  1. Great post, Trevor. It's good to see more of Chuck's Australian work than I have seen before. I still add to my collection the occasional piece that Chuck (and Indiah/Lesley) made in NZ. I have a wonderful fish Chuck made in NZ that could add to your fish blog entry - I have a 'glass fish' blog entry half composed in my head - must complete it.

  2. Wonderful information to 'go to' when required.
    I've recently had a Chuck and Lesley tri-perforated @35cm tall vase from 1998 come into my possession. It has been an interesting exercise researching this fabulous piece of glass.
    I haven't, as yet, found an image of one similar. If you think an image of this vase and it's signature would be of interest feel free to ask.

  3. Yes, please. Best would be an email attachment to the contact address in About Me at the top right of the page:

  4. I have a signed blue & ivory swirl glass vase with a signature I can’t read. It reads Chuck l____e pe_ndland ‘95

    1. Hi. Sounds interesting. Can you send a couple of photos to us, please?

  5. yes! I’ll send some photos ASAP. After setting the signature some more it could be -Chuck Sonia Auckland ‘85