Glass artist ‘pushing the medium’

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Invercargill glass artist Phil Newbury.

SURROUNDED by almost a tonne of glass, 51 bells gently twinkle in the breeze.

Delicate, tiny, minute noise emits from the surrounding planks of glass which have been created and joined together by Invercargill glass artist Phil Newbury.

Well known for his complex glass artworks and talents, his latest endeavour is massive.

Reaching 3.2m in height, consisting of 36 glass “planks” ranging from 110mm x 200mm to 500mm x 200mm, with a thickness from 40mm to 70mm, Newbury has named his colossal structure Belfry.

Newbury acknowledges, even by his standards, “it is an epic work”, but the challenge he says, is to “do bigger works”.

“I get a great deal of enjoyment pushing the medium.

Newbury’s Belfry sculpture acknowledges the 2019 fire at the 850 year-old Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral and the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks.

“It’s like a mountain to a mountaineer… there is always another higher one.”

The planks were created by stacking old recycled panes of window glass and moulding them in a kiln.

The 900kg structure was self-supporting with the planks of differently textured and decorated glass, held together by steel bands which also held each tier together.

Leaving the ends open on each tier of the free-standing structure allowed the wind to flow through, to chime the bells.

Taking a year to complete, between commissions, Belfry commemorated the traumatic events of the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks and destructive fire of the 850-year-old Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, he said.

“The 51 bells down the centre of it twinkle in the breeze in remembrance of the 51 victims.”

It was while stacking driftwood on the beach, making a blaze, which fired his imagination could see a glass roof, a belfry (bell tower) and thought of Notre-Dame and the architecture replacing the cathedral, he said.

Once completed, he added the 51 Indian brass bells in memory of the mosque victims.

“I shaped it like a belfry with the hope they will have a smooth passage through the funnel to the afterlife.”

He said he had enjoyed the challenge of creating such a large artwork.

The glass had been destined for the landfill, being old window panes.

But people knew he used the material and gave it to him… a lot of it.

“Some was 40 years old, some 60 or 70… from houses, window glass which had been manufactured in Whanganui…

“Now I am looking forward to winter with the mist and fog showing the aspects and transparency of the glass in the [sun] light.”

“The thicker the glass… it becomes more obscure, slightly misty… it takes on a whole different appeal again.

“Its character is added by the details… finishing the edges and moulding… I am very pleased with it.”

Newbury has worked in the glass industry since he was a teenager, beginning as an employee at R E Tingey Glass and Glazing Invercargill in 1967.

Shaping and bending glass was learnt, including how to make glasswork for a variety of uses including on building restorations such as stairwells and church windows; for clock faces (with some as large as grandfather clocks), barometers and china cabinets.

In 1979, he embarked on glass artistry which has seen his work added to private collections and displayed around the world, including in Saudi Arabia where he taught craftsmen how to make the glass panels.

As well as tutoring at the Southland Polytechnic and Marlborough Art School, he has exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions nationally.

In 2003, he was commissioned to make two identical circular artworks, Pacific Rim, for Invercargill and its sister city of Kumagaya in Japan which had featured in more than 1000 wedding photos outside the Japanese council chambers.

Among some of his highlights was creating a glass headstone for Invercargill character Sam (Francis Peter) Cusack who died in 1990 with the inscription ‘More colourful than a bag of jelly beans’, as well as being Waiheke Island’s first artist in residence in 2007.

He became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2019 New Year’s honours list for services to glass art.

As for Belfry, when would it be exhibited to the public?

“This year because of Covid, exhibitions have been cancelled.

“I am hoping to keep it this winter and the next winter to see what it looks like, so it may be the following spring before an exhibition can be set up… maybe in the Auckland Botanical Gardens or Waihi,” he said.

“In the meantime, I will be enjoying it.”

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