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In Conversation with Charles Gabriel

Charles Gabriel

Local glass sculptor Charles Gabriel has created a niche for himself with his beautiful creations using textures and combinations that are unique to his pieces. A self-taught artist, Charles felt that there was a void in the medium, and pushed himself to explore and invent new techniques and applications. When he began his exploration in glass design in 1980, his focus mainly involved surface etching and creative realism with amazing use of tones and shades, this study continued throughout the eighties and nineties.

During the last decade, Charles’s work has evolved to become more sculptural. At the beginning of the new millennium, he consulted many professionals in his field to better achieve the finishes he wanted and the “stable molecular balance required for practical utilization” to ensure his work could stand securely in all applications including private and public.

He describes himself and his work perfectly on his website as having a “strong dedication to a successful end, real-world problem-solving experience, and a dash of sheer Scottish stubbornness, all combined with an honest appreciation for both the simplicity, and complexity, of light passing through glass”.

Please read on to learn more about this talented artist…

Iván Meade – What was your first experience with design?

Charles Gabriel – I was only nine when we left the UK, but both there and here, my parents were always renovating or building our family homes. With my mother as a draftsperson who worked from home, I was exposed to building renderings from a young age. So for me, early exposure to real design came in the form of building structure. By seeing the framework and workings of both stone and wood buildings, I think the development of an appreciation for both the aesthetic and the function of design was very organic.

Glass for Marianne Nicolson Spirit Square Project by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – Who or what has influenced your style?

Charles Gabriel – This probably doesn’t sound too high-brow, but as a kid I loved a handful of artists I found doing comics, or graphic novels. I guess the availability of the medium as a youngster allowed me to follow their creativity. I remember liking the thought that they weren’t constrained by ‘grown-up’ themes, but rather were allowed to create whole fantasy worlds, replete in design, and stylize every single aspect of it, right down to how each scene was lit. What more could a creative person with a pencil want? Now that I’m (a bit) older, I’m drawn to the more realistic works that have obviously received a full and immersive dedication to their design…objects that have addressed the form as a critically important component of the function. We’ve an Eames Aluminum Series chair, for example, that I glimpse at different angles from different locations at different times of the day. It has sat there for over a year now and I like it, but every time I catch the view of it’s back I’m excited, inspired, and feel challenged to go work on something fabulous myself! Grand scale building as art has always fascinated me. Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim and Calatrava’s  ‘Quadracci Pavillion’ portion of the Milwaukee Art Museum are drawing me the most at this point. From gothic architecture to art deco, minimalist furniture to the exoskeletons of insects, not to mention the sound of a gurgling river, David Gilmour Strat solo, or some fine string chamber music, I have been and continue to be influenced by so many things…

Chocolate – by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – How would you describe your style?

Charles Gabriel – Ever-changing. I’d imagine that there is a thread throughout everything to date, but I couldn’t say for sure what that is. I’ve usually adapted to a variety of external conditions or demands where I’ve had to work within the parameters of an existing aesthetic. I find the freedom of an unfettered creative license almost overwhelming… Plus, I’m a subconscious sponge of experience both visual and immersive, as are we all, I’m sure, so I wonder how anyone could ever keep the same outlook? What I am currently fascinated with is the ubiquitous interaction between man and technology. I love the physical workings of machinery, although I wish everything that machinery had been created for was actually making life better! I enjoy so much of what’s brought to me by technology but I’m also aware of our increasing dependence on it. At what point are we actually separate from it? I guess questions like this inform my style to some degree. Perhaps I’ve reached a certain place in life where I feel confident enough to create something simply because I want to see how it looks, but I still really feel driven to include some suggestion of order or rhythm in the designs. I think I try to suggest the mechanics of a thing or idea, but by using more elemental textures and shapes. The best works always do what they need to with the fewest lines, and the trick for me is not to get too wrapped up in detail or showcasing technical ability. I think a careful, conservative approach can imply so much more through suggestive form than any detailed definition ‘tells’ us. Its definitely a tricky balance between providing enough information and too much.

Glasswork by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What is your design philosophy?

Charles Gabriel – Well, first its got to fit with itself. What I mean is, whether its an artwork or a item of some other function, it has to have an inherent balance (turn it upside down, does it still look right? That sort of thing…). Glass design is specific that way as it usually has to be appreciated from both faces. Then, to place it into a larger context, it has to fit within its surrounding aesthetic.

As far as a philosophy goes, I’m adamant about making certain that the design in question is going to be the very best solution before committing resources to the finished project. I’m really against wasteful and short term solutions. I strive to create fewer, more meaningful ‘heirloom’ pieces which I hope can inspire for a long time. Its not inconsequential to make a thing, and so that thing should have a positive resonance for its life, and that life should hopefully be a long one.

Clive’s Lounge – Glass by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What drew you to working with glass as your primary medium?

Charles Gabriel – Just serendipity, really. I never planned to keep with it this long, but new ideas and challenges continuously presented themselves… and still do. Once I end up getting the equipment to work the way I want, I find even more satisfaction, so many of the ideas spring from new ability, both through better technology and developed skills. A cyclic evolution, if you will.

Glasswork by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What is your favourite process or technique in working with glass and why? Could you tell us a little about the steps involved in this choice?

Charles Gabriel – Well, as you mentioned earlier, I did used to fiddle about trying to make works resemble real images, probably because it was challenging. Now I’m much more interested with how light works on, and through, carved edges in thicker material. So much so, that a lot of the design comes from development of shapes and textures that I see as eye-catching, simply if they were carved.

My favourite finish process is the ‘hi-fired’, surface-revtrification of a carving. It just looks finished to me and it’s easily cleanable in a single pane application.

To start with I layout the design onto a resist which covers the glass blank. I’ll draw this by hand and then pre-cut the lines by hand for a staged removal during the blasting process. Using different angles, distances, pressures, and sometimes grits, I’ll carve the image. I’ll then prep it for kiln-firing which will ultimately create the fire-polished surface finish I’m after. The kiln work is no easy task and I entrust this to one man, Brian Edmunds, with whom I have worked for years to develop the process. The temperature required for my needs is just a few degrees off the temperature where glass wants to form into a solid (technically it’s a really cool liquid) and begin turning opaque. A carefully regulated cooling procedure also anneals the panel and allows it to take a temper and meet building code requirements. Depending on the design, I might add some contrasting post-fire texture at this point. Trying new procedures always bumps up the failure rate, but for the most part, we’ve developed a successful process.

Melrose – Glasswork by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What is your design process?

Charles Gabriel – Generally, I like to see where a work is intended to sit, primarily to appreciate the lighting, both natural and otherwise. This is somewhat critical in determining the approach of the design. Then, as it is usually part of a larger environment, I work to address both the structural requirements expected of the work (if any), and the surrounding aesthetic. I really enjoy a collaborative process, and the opportunity to create a solution that’s both functional and attractive. I find working with a client or designer allows me to personalize each work to both the people and the space. Also, this usually introduces elements or ideas that may I may never have considered.

Salmon Run – Glasswork by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What are you excited about right now in the world of glass design?

Charles Gabriel – I’ve recently been creating standalone pieces such as wall hangings, which are not commissions or part of an installation. I’m including a couple of additional elements in the way of materials, and sometimes colors. I’m pretty excited about that. I’d also like to try bending more of the finished pieces. The light really does interesting things on curves!

The Machine – Glassworks by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What would be your dream project?

Charles Gabriel – I don’t know, Ivan, but it would probably be big, would take a lot of thought and time, I’d have a lot of artistic license and would get paid for every hour of work that went into it. The key word here was “dream”, right?

Seriously, it would be collaborative within a larger creative space. It would probably be a multi-panel installation that helped introduce light into an area, and it would contain a narrative arc that evolved across several sections. I think that could be a challenging and rewarding dream project.

Zen Garden by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What project has given you the most satisfaction?

Charles Gabriel – They all do Ivan! (PC, hey?) Every one of them has my full attention at the time and generally gets my subconscious rating of “this is the coolest one so far…!” -at least until the next one! I’m still a bit partial to a set of glass made for Clive’s Classic Lounge in Chateau Victoria, early 2009. Gillian Ley (Ley Art and Interiors) was designing a beautiful new lounge and I had the opportunity to work with her, which was great. Totally organized and professional, she knew exactly what she wanted to do throughout the space, but still gave me quite a bit of freedom with the nature of the glass’ design. The initial call was for approximately 200 sq ft of divider glass between the lounge and the south-facing, glassed-in lobby. Some days this lobby would be absolutely bathed in sunlight so I couldn’t ask for a more dynamic light source! There were some lovely fluid lines in Gillian’s booth seating so we agreed that an ‘aquatic-suggestive’ theme would work. I designed a series of ‘flowing reeds’ to be carved into ½” glass, interspersed with streams of alternately colored little blue and green bubbles done with translucent kiln-fired bottle frits. I also had two pieces with the same artwork curved for the entrance. I had never tried that before and they just look fabulous. There is more work inside the lounge, but that entry wall when the sun catches it is a particular favorite. Oh, can I add another favorite? From strictly an organic design perspective, I was pleased with “MELROSE”, used an interior railing with a splash of red. The clients had a set of red chairs made for the sitting area immediately adjacent. This color statement was a design cue to start from. They agreed to a pattern from a set of concept designs that I had drawn. After laying up the piece full size in-studio, though, I sort-of ‘overlooked’ the initial pattern and took a chance free-handing a design up on the resist-covered glass. I kept in mind the very contemporary space where the work was going, but also the dynamic personalities and lifestyle of the clients themselves. The night wore on and then the next day I added and changed it some more. By the time they saw the new design idea, there was no discernable resemblance whatsoever to the original concept. They had faith and we ended up (happily, I believe) with “Melrose”.

No Stranger To A Fish Dinner – Glassworks by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What is the best advice (art related or otherwise) that you have ever received?

Charles Gabriel – Somewhere, probably more than once, I came across the idea that if you love what you do, then its never really a job, and you should never give up on what you believe will work. It’s been an uphill grind to get to this place where I can solely do the glasswork, but at the end of the day, the satisfaction comes from successfully executing a piece that the client really loves -and could not get anywhere else. It makes all the second-guessing and process-related frustration worthwhile. I also appreciate all the positive support and excellent clients that have spurred me to continue the development in this direction.

Art Piece by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What are 3 things you each can’t live without?

Charles Gabriel – First, I’ve got the most beautiful and supportive wife I could ever ask for (lord knows I’ve yet to give her the life-style she’d like to become accustomed to…!). Second, of course, I’m so grateful for my senses, all of them. Simply having the ability to appreciate all the things in life is a gift. And thirdly, I guess there is a 1965 Weber dentist chair with chrome bits on it that sits in our living room (…did I mention my wife is an angel..?). I’ve had it for 20 years and I guess could probably live without that, if I had to… so third would be ‘hope and inspiration’ -with hope for the prospect of positive change no matter how small, and inspiration from seeing good things come from humble beginnings. Oh, the dentist chair is accompanied by a turn-of-the-century Ritter dental operatory; replete with two light-up sections, chromed “gadgets”, and no less than three pieces of cast and frosted old glass…it’s almost 100 yrs old and still got stunning aesthetic in spades!…but I digress..

Whale Pod – Glasswork by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – What is your next design venture?

Charles Gabriel – Thanks for asking, Ivan. I’m currently embarking on some wall art pieces which don’t really address the practical requirement most of my glasswork has done, to date. It’s time, I think, to realize some concepts that have bounced around in my head for awhile. They include incorporating additional media, mostly in the form of machined mounting hardware and backing board materials, but may grow to include other materials as sculptural elements. Still, it’s primarily about the glass. Although they’re generally technically complicated, I try to keep the compositions simple.

Here in Victoria JC Scott (JC Scott Design Group) is opening his Eco-Gallery which is centered around supporting locally sourced solutions for design projects. He has invited me to display some works in the gallery which most I’m honoured to do. The sustainability notion behind his design philosophy is entirely the right thing. Far from being mutually exclusive, I believe the two concepts of design and sustainability are essential to consider together especially in light of all the knowledge we now have about the world and the impact we’re having on it.

Koi – by Charles Gabriel

Iván Meade – You have already produced a stunning body of work; what would you like your legacy to be?

Charles Gabriel – If even one work, subconsciously or otherwise, inspired one person to take one step in a positive direction with design, or to see the world with a greater appreciation for the amazing detail, diversity and design within it, that would be an amazing thing.

I invite you to visit Charles Gabriel’s site and see his stunning body of work at: