Stephen Skillitzi (b. 1947) started his artistic life as a potter and discovered glass as an art form while at graduate school in the USA in the late 1960s. A training in ceramics was not an unusual background for those embracing the exciting new world of studio glass – the founder of the studio glass movement Harvey Littleton was a college professor in ceramics. When Skillitzi returned to Australia in 1970 and set about building himself a furnace and hot glass studio in Woolloomooloo, producing his first blown glass works in 1972, he was on the threshold of a new movement in this country.
Of course there was glass blowing in industry, which in places such as Leonora Lighting in Newcastle and Crown Corning in Sydney ventured into the decorative arts as they produced household items by hand and machine. There was also scientific glassware being made on a smaller scale, including one-off products for special purposes. Occasionally, workers from these industrial occupations would amuse themselves and others with unauthorised creations using the factory equipment and materials. But the new vision being imported from the USA was of a single artist working alone or with minimal assistance in a studio making items for the primary purpose of decoration or even artistic expression.
Stephen Skillitzi has had a long and productive career in glass. Starting out blowing bubbles of hot glass melted in a furnace, he has experimented and navigated his way through kiln work and casting, often combining parts made by different techniques into sculptural assemblages with overt political messages. He has also practiced street theatre in combination with his glass making, thus giving his political messages another dimension in which his work is closer to art than to decoration. His career is well documented, in a long interview in the National Library’s Eminent Australians program, in a more intimate interview by Wayne Pearson as part of PhD research, and in a long speech and essay by Skillitzi himself published in several forms including here.
Despite all these records in words, there is little accessible to document visually Skillitzi’s early works. Mostly these were made by blowing a bubble of furnace glass, and (in the examples on this page at least) can be described by their relation to a standard vessel shape such as the vase, bowl or platter. These items date from the 1970s, the first decade of Skillitzi’s four-and-a-half decades of engagement with studio glass in Australia.
The first example in vase form is 21.5cm high and has been described by one viewer as a “gothic rosebud”. It dates from the very earliest of Skillitzi’s glass making in Australia in 1972. Unusually, it glows under ultra-violet light, indicating a small content of radioactive minerals.
The next item is a bowl from 1978, which is 21cm at its widest. Despite its slightly irregular shape and decoration, it must be one of the more straightforward (and perhaps even potentially useful) vessels that Skillitzi has made.
Contrast the previous bowl with the following two pieces from 1977. The small bowl with its many ‘feet’ is 14cm at its widest. I’m not sure how it is made, although I suspect the feet are cut segments of a strap that are applied hot in a manner similar to the handle on a jug. This item shows Skillitzi as an assembler of sculpture in glass, in which he has not strayed far from his beginnings in ceramics. It also illustrates his self-description as a member of the “adder” sub-species of sculptors. (For the other kind, think of Michelangelo hacking away at a block of Carrara marble.)
The next item is a large open bowl or distorted platter from 1977 up to 37cm long. Its heaving irregularity in green and blue, with folds and foaming bubbles, has more than a little of the roiling ocean about it. That shape is not to be mistaken for a piece of utility glassware.
The example below from 1976 is another somewhat irregular blown vessel with applied feet, this time with thick partial casing around the bowl. This one is hefty, around 22cm high and weighing 2.5kg. Similar to a previous example in green, this one shows the artist working in glass while thinking like a potter. The possibilities for giving this one utility are the same as almost every “pot” produced in ceramics.
Another contrast is the vessel below from 1978, in which the lower section is a hexagonal star made in an open mold to achieve the shape. The top rim, however, clearly echoes the similar part of the preceding free-blown and assembled item. It could be used as a flower vase if the owner was so inclined.
After the 1970s, Skillitzi moved away from blown glass with its natural form of a vessel created when the bubble is opened out. He became a leading exponent of casting in glass, using the often figurative cast objects as components in assembled sculptures. Usually these sculptural works contained or were accompanied by a political message. In something of a return to the early days, in recent years he has been making large sculptures from blown glass elements, which nicely avoids the question of what kind of vessel shape is intended. The Adelaide gallery Art Logic has many of his recent works for sale.
He has also been political in a narrower sense, standing as the Climate Sceptics candidate in the 2010 federal general election in the division of Boothby, attracting 0.37% of the primary vote.