By Andrea Louise Thomas Photos Peter Marko
Peninsula glass artist Leisa Wharington is a true original. Her work is immediately recognisable. Her pieces are fluid and organic and infused with unique inclusions. Having spent three decades coaxing molten glass into every imaginable shape for both beauty and utility, it is fair to say she is a master at her craft.
Originally, Leisa studied ceramics at Caulfield Institute of Technology; a dynamic school where artists learned practical hands-on skills. Every floor of the Art and Design building on campus housed a different art practice. Leisa found herself drawn from her ceramics studio up to the top floor of the building where the glass artisans were working. She was immediately mesmerised.
She completed a Bachelor of Arts in Ceramic Design with a major in glass. She then went on to do post-graduate studies at the Pilchuck Glass School, an international centre for art glass education in Stanwood, Washington (USA).
With considerable knowledge and practical skills to match, Leisa set up her own studio in Merricks in 1982 on a 50-acre bush block surrounded by nature, her key source of inspiration. She shared the studio with Peninsula jeweller Flick Pope, working there for 25 years. They hosted an annual event called Christmas at The Studio that attracted hundreds of followers.
Five years ago Leisa set up The Studio and Co. in Hastings. It is a unique and beautiful space where she and a small group of artists produce and sell their work. Visitors to The Studio can see Leisa at work in a practice that dates back centuries. Equally impressive is the fact that she built all of the equipment she uses.
Leisa’s father and the two generations preceding him were sheet metal fabricators. Leisa was always making something with her Dad from wood, metal or whatever was on hand. He taught her how to weld and she has used many of the skills he taught her in her career as an artist.
Every piece Leisa makes starts from a bag of sand and flux. Even after thirty years, she still marvels at the magic of making glass. “It all starts with a grain of sand. You can create something amazing from a grain of sand. There are never ending designs to be made. I’m always thinking of new shapes,” she says.
Living on the Peninsula is an endless wellspring. “The natural world has always been my inspiration,” she says. She walks the beach at Somers every day and there is invariably a shape or texture that catches her eye. Sometimes she incorporates flotsam and jetsam into her work.
Part of what drew Leisa to working with glass is the immediacy of it. Unlike ceramics where a piece needs to be made and fired and glazed and fired, she can make something in glass and it takes shape right before her eyes. Glassblowing and shaping is an exciting process, but it takes extraordinary coordination. The artist and the glass are always moving.
To begin, Leisa dips a long metal pole called a punty (or alternatively, a blowpipe depending on what kind of piece she is making) into a crucible of molten glass inside a large furnace heated to 1250 degrees Celsius! At this stage, the glass is much like honey. To keep it from hardening, she must keep the punty or blowpipe spinning all the time.
Leisa takes the piece out of the furnace to shape it with tools. She puts it back into another furnace called a glory hole to soften it as needed. She spins and shapes and cuts the piece until it is just the form she wants and then transfers it to a cooling kiln. This an exacting practice which requires strength, timing and considerable skill.
Leisa’s designs are unique and distinctive. She makes all kinds of things from ornamental objects and tableware to elaborate chandeliers. Over the years, she has been asked to make some unusual things. One of her most unique commissions was crafting an hourglass filled with the ashes of the client’s loved one. She has also made glass jewellery incorporating ashes.
It is worth seeing how Leisa works because glassblowing and glass sculpture are becoming lost arts. Schools are no longer teaching these skills. Leisa occasionally teaches in winter when there aren’t as many customers coming through the studio doors, but there may come a time when glass art is a thing of the past. See it while you can.
Photography by: @petermarkophoto