A: Each flower, food, or pet is the focus of a sustained body of work by Jim Dennison and Leanne Williams, Fall 2007 Resident Fellows at the Creative Glass Center of America. More to the point, the artists identify each as emblematic of the unusual colonial history of New Zealand, their homeland.
Williams and Dennison use glass in very specific ways to specific ends. They like large projects, often installations. At CGCA, they spent many hours hot casting budgerigar wings (That’s “parakeet” wings to Yanks). Working with an assistant, they poured and stored “hot wings” with factory-like precision. Williams opened and prepared a mold (based on a life-scale toy) as an assistant took a small gather of glass from the furnace. When a molten dollop had been laid into the mold, Williams tapped its edges neatly together before deftly setting the wing with a blast or two of cool air.
Dennison took over and tipped the cohesive but still glowing glass onto a flat paddle. By the time he was slipping the wing into the annealing oven a few steps away, the assistant poised himself to drip another gather of glass into the mold.
There are plenty of jokes and chuckles among the laborers although the work is demanding: repetitious, rhythmic, fatiguing, and sweaty — simultaneously boring yet too potentially dangerous to allow one’s attention to flag. Creativity does not enter into this task. The creativity went into planning it.
Hundreds of reasonably identical wings laid neatly to cool on furnace shelves will later be layered into chandelier-cloaks. The sense of a drape or screen of closely spaced wings was inspired by cloaks worn by the Maoris of New Zealand. In these naturally water-resistant feathers siphoned off rain. A chandelier made of glass wings has an intrinsic irony which may not immediately strike viewers but its luxurious, glittering qualities certainly will.
In New Zealand, Dennison and Williams are pakeha, “visitors” in Maori, descended from British who came to the island six or so generations ago. The feather cloak of glass alludes to the complexities of a colonial heritage. New Zealand has welcomed two known waves of migrants. Before Europeans, the Maori, migrated to the island, perhaps as recently as 800 CE. They are responsible for the extinction of a number of New Zealand’s ancient animal species, including eleven species of the Moa bird, the largest bird known to have lived. The Maori also introduced dogs and a rat to an island which previously had no mammals aside from two small bat species.
The pakeha and their highly developed technology altered the ecology more abruptly. Budgies were imported as status pets for homesick Brits. Roses, which thrive in New Zealand, were status flowers. Sheep, likewise thriving, were a money crop. Foxes, imported for hunting, did not survive. Scottish heather did.
These and other themes Williams and Dennison have chosen blend nostalgia and kitsch. “A lot of our work provokes memories of the exotic that’s become mundane,” Williams notes. Budgies were themselves once an “exotic” foreign import into England. People who see Williams’ and Dennison’s work often give them old bird cages which they are currently hoarding for an unspecified future project.
The reference to Maori feather cloaks raises ghosts of bird species already extinct when the British arrived on the island. Such imagery is not intended to be judgmental but more of a contemplation of events. Beyond nostalgia, Dennison and Williams find something “very seductive but also macabre, gothic and twisted” in the craze for what Dennison calls “the Victorian trappings of the past. [New Zealand is] still tied to the British monarchy. We’re using these icons and signifiers not to say ‘this was not right; This was wrong.’ [Rather] it’s observation. It’s us searching out the Pakeha identity.”
They call their New Zealand studio “The Crystal Chain Gang and joke that it aims for “world domination.” The Crystal Chain Gang casts, among other things, roses initially invested in plaster. It’s important to Dennison and Williams that each is unique.
The pair, now married, met as students. Both used botanical imagery at that time and Dennison was already a trained kiln caster. Their first collaboration came together “very naturally.” Williams made an installation in cake icing, alluding to cake decoration and cookery as elements of women’s history. Dennison volunteered to help by mixing the icing, putting it in bags and handing them to her as she perched on a ladder. They discovered that sugar, sugar everywhere made them sleepy. Williams: “It’s okay on a cake size scale but on a gallery size scale it’s something else.” As they labored, a passing curator commented, “This’ll have to come down in two weeks.” The interest in a more permanent medium was born.
Each artist has a personal practice in addition to their joint projects. When Dennison says, “What we tend to do is work through ideas: propose an idea and argue and see it through. We’re idea-driven,” Williams swiftly interjects, “Not always!” And in this we see the comfortable individuality intrinsic to a successful partnership.