Sunday, 28 June 2015

Helmut Hiebl of Murringo NSW

Murringo is a small village on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range about 300km WSW of Sydney.  At the 2006 Census the population of Murringo and the surrounding district was 322 souls. It boasts a couple of substantial churches (ambitions for population growth in the early days), a school, a village hall and a store – and that’s about it for physical infrastructure. For 30 years, the major tourist attraction was the studio and shop of glass artist Helmut Hiebl.

Helmut Hiebl was born in a small rural town in Austria in 1943. When he left school, he intended to work in ceramics but instead found a job in a local glass factory where he learnt the skill of glass blowing. From there he was recommended to a prestigious glass school in the Tyrol and learnt to engrave and decorate glass. After working in Germany as a designer and decorator for a few years, he returned to Austria where he had his own shop, engraving and decorating glass. His work came to the attention of the designers from the famous Steuben Glass works in Corning NY, and in 1972 he was offered a position as a glass engraver there, where he stayed for three years.

First studio of Helmut Hiebl, Murringo 1977-1982*

He migrated to Australia in 1976 with his wife and young son. They stayed at first with his brother, who had come to Australia in the 1950s and was then located in the inland NSW town of Young. Helmut and family moved shortly afterwards to Murringo, about 20km away, where he set up the engraving lathe that he had brought with him. Unable to source glass objects to decorate, he set upon building his own furnace to melt the raw materials, fashioning his own tools for blowing and shaping the molten glass, and employing his wife as the glassblower’s assistant. This first workshop was in a disused blacksmith’s shop made from vertical timber slab sides with corrugated iron gables and roof (see photo). Only the gleaming white gas tank brings this image into the 20th Century. This picturesque but ancient accommodation lasted until 1982, when he moved across the road to a more modern workshop attached to their house.

Helmut Hiebl at his engraving lathe*
The “new” glass blowing workshop, post 1982*

The glass works of Helmut Hiebl were sold mostly to tourists visiting the area, including those who came to the workshop to view the exciting spectacle of glassblowing, and to locals and visitors alike through a craft shop in Young. Some of his customers even sought him out in his rural hideaway to purchase his glass. His works tend to be smaller and less ambitious in scale than the output of artisans based in the big cities and the international tourist destinations of coastal Australia. But the integrity of their decoration sets them apart from the usual run of tourist ware.

The first items below come from the early days of the old workshop in the slab hut. Unusually for most of Hiebl’s output, two of them are marked with a year inscribed along with his usual signature of “H. Hiebl” with its characteristic leading serifs at the top of both capital Hs. The bottle has the fizz of tiny random bubbles common from rudimentary glass furnaces, although the coloured spots using powdered enamels are sophisticated. Remarkably the apple and small bird figures are both clear of the soda pop of bubbles seen in the bottle, suggesting either that control of the fizz was obtained fairly quickly or, possibly, that its presence in the bottle is deliberate.

Helmut Hiebl 1978, 14.5cm high
Helmut Hiebl 1979, 9.5cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 10cm long

Many works of Helmut Hiebl have an Old World charm about them, echoing the heyday of Bohemian decorated glass of the late 19th Century. Three such examples are the blue vessel with clear handles, the transparent green beer stein and the small but heavy vase with its sparse coloured spots. Note that these last two, as well as being immensely practical, are lightly engraved to add to their decoration. The stein unites the artist’s mid-European heritage with his reputed fondness for beer!

Helmut Hiebl, 17cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 11cm high
Helmut Hiebl, 12.5cm high

Once he established himself in deeply rural Australia, Helmut Hiebl never again travelled overseas and seldom ventured into the city. His identification with Australian life and his adventurous spirit in glass can be seen in the next two items. The large bowl is decorated mainly by acid etching the design in relief, a messy and dangerous process. The design incorporates the emblem flowers of three Australian states (red Waratah of NSW, Sturt’s Desert Pea of SA and the Cooktown orchid of Qld). There must be another matching bowl somewhere with the flowers of the other three states – please attach a reply if you know where.

Helmut Hiebl, 20cm diameter

The small panels below are engraved with three of the more emblematic of Australian creatures (after the kangaroo and emu of the Commonwealth coat of arms). The detail in the engraved images is amazing for such tiny working spaces.

Helmut Hiebl, three engraved panels 13cm high

Murringo lost its favourite adopted son when Helmut Hiebl died in early 2013 after a long illness that had prevented him from working for years. The regard in which he was held locally can be judged from the obituary in the village newsletter Our Murringo Matters (see pages 8). Murringo might be a small place physically, but a glance through that newsletter reveals a flourishing rural community, which for more than three decades hosted one of the most interesting characters in Australian glass.

* Thanks to Helmut Hiebl’s family for permission to use these three photographs.

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