At Black, we love to shine a light on emerging artists in all forms and one of our recent finds is Toni Tittleton. Working with cast glass, she is rising in the ranks of this very specific genre. From her rural Auckland studio she spoke with Chris Lorimer about her journey.
Let’s start with you telling us a bit of your background. Where did you grow up?
I come from a very hard-working family. My parents never spent their earnings on fancy dinners or travel. They have always invested their money into their home and land and now reside on a 12-acre farm in the Waitakere Ranges. We moved to the farm in 1994 when I was two years old. At the time the whole property was 43 acres and was divided up between other family members including my grandparents who I am very close to. I am an only child, however living it what felt like a small village it gave my cousins and I space to roam and form tight bonds. We all lived in a tiny old cottage along with other family members for several years, until my parents saved enough to build us our own dwelling. Growing up in this environment naturally I had a very tomboyish nature. I could be found riding motorbikes in the paddocks and watching my older cousins work on cars. I even remember early on my granddad showing me how to work with tools, something that has helped me more recently in life with my work in the studio. Having a natural pull to the arts meant I struggled to sit still in a classroom, I was never the smartest when it came to English or Math and I wasn't overly interested in what careers they could offer me. I just wanted to be working with my hands or doing something creative. I could always be found in some kind of artistic medium at school and I took as many different art classes as possible. I never knew exactly what I wanted to do for a job but I knew it needed to be something different, creative, out of the box and something that no one else was doing. In my final year of high school, I found myself lost and unsure of what the future held for me. In the last few weeks of school, I came across a tiny advert for Whanganui Glass School, a seemingly unheard of faculty whose passion it was to inspire creativity in people. I rushed home and applied straight away, and after an interview, I was accepted into the programme within the week. I was so excited I didn't gauge exactly where Whanganui was, but I knew no matter what I would be going.
How exciting for you! So you upped sticks and went to Whanganui, how did that go?
Moving out of home at 17, I had no idea what this new journey would hold. I didn’t know anyone in Whanganui and although excited and thrilled about getting the opportunity to delve into a creative medium I was so nervous I wouldn't end up liking glasswork. I started my studies in 2010. The first day was a shock to the system, and we were thrown into the deep end by beginning work immediately in the glass blowing studio. I was unprepared but was exhilarated and it was a great entry point into the world of glass. Things from that first day have stuck with me ever since and still influence my current glasswork process. We then quickly moved through all the types of glasswork methods including kiln-formed glass. Casting in the kiln quickly became my favourite thing to do, the patience and the broad scope of work I could produce meant that every creative thought I could come up with was able to be made. Figuring out all the difficult steps in between was always a challenge but made the result so much more satisfying.
Was it all just focused around study?
As casting was now my sole focus, I began to seek out opportunities to work amongst casters who were doing it full time. I was able to help and in turn, learn in every step of the process, and being paid in nice gaffer casting glass (valued at around NZ$20-25 per kg) was also a great trade. Being paid in glass meant I was able to fine-tune my techniques and apply all the skills gathered from my work experience with them. I started entering my work in exhibitions, both indoor and outdoor. I had my work placed in the Hamilton sculpture park and although it was only meant to be a temporary install, the owners of the exhibition fell in love with my piece and paid to have my work stay there permanently. Seeing the success my work had at the Sculpture Park I then had the honour to be commissioned for a similar piece for the Whanganui Glass School. It still resides in the facility.
Tell me about the work, you made while there?
Graduating in 2012, I finished with a Diploma in Glass Design and Production, specialising in Glass Casting. I produced four large geometric pieces of cast glass for my final entry and was over the moon to be highly graded. My artist statement for that exhibit was “to capture and preserve the movement of molten glass within a geometric form". It took me the whole year of tireless work to produce these four pieces: from the beginning design stages on paper, right through to the polishing process (not to mention all the help I received in between!). It was the hardest and most rewarding work I had done so far. Seeing the flowing molten glass stopped in its movement meant my overall vision had come to fruition and that others were able to live within that vision, that made the a whole year worth it. This full collection was sold to a glass collector on the Kapiti Coast (and who is still one of my biggest clients today).
Once you’d graduated, what happened next career-wise?
After graduating in 2014 I moved back to Auckland and while there went to work with Ann Robinson (ONZM) as a studio assistant. Her wax process was unlike anything I had come across before, and the sheer size of her work along with her finishing processes influenced my later pieces and extended my ideas of what was possible. Artists Christine Cathie and Layla Walter were also working in the same studio space as Ann during this time and it made for a very powerful female environment. It was amazing to be in a workspace surrounded by so many talented, strong and passionate women who were leaders in a male-dominated industry. Working among them my goal from then on was to follow in their footsteps. Becoming a professional glass caster with my own studio space, equipment and materials to produce my creations that would last a lifetime was my ultimate dream.
And then, you went to Wellington?
Yes, later on in the year I completed a small business course, and I took a role as an assistant at a glass gallery named Real Aotearoa. This meant making the shift down to Wellington. Real Aotearoa sold a range of New Zealand made glassworks and I was able to sell my work through this gallery also. While based there I made an effort to take on other creative mediums, as glasswork wasn't an option for me at this time. Keeping my dream in mind I worked hard to save funds to go towards one day having my own space. Over the next couple of years, I worked hard to save any money I made from my assistant work and from selling the rest of the glass pieces made during my time in Whanganui.
Do you have anyone you’d credit as a mentor in the glass art world?
Carmen Simmons, my casting tutor at Wanganui glass school. Carmen was also one of the people I would work for in her casting studio, while at school and she was one of the people who would pay me with glass. Also being the teaching assistant for Galia Amsel, this was a biggie and she is the reason I met and got the studio assistant job with Ann Robinson. They were both such a huge influence for me.
How did the Tittleton Glass Studio finally come about?
I returned to Auckland in 2016 to begin acquiring a studio. Having limited funds meant I had to get creative with my vision and a 20-foot shipping container was soon purchased with the idea to transform it into my own perfect space. By early 2017 power was connected, large sliding doors were inserted and with the help of my parents, we got the space up and running. The most expensive item I needed was an electric kiln that had to be hard-wired into the container. It proved to be one of the biggest and most expensive challenges throughout the whole process. Each payday meant spending a little on the tools I needed to complete my set up. One by one my inventory built up enough to start the making process. By 2018 I finally had a fully-fledged studio. A space for just me to create, experiment and work on new ideas. I am so proud looking back at how far I've come and all the work I put into staying on my path to make sure my goal was achieved. It's comforting to know that I have a place where I can come and delve into my craft and allow myself the space to create works. It’s an amazing feeling that people want to pay me for my passion. My glass studio is now based on my family’s land in the Waitakeres. I’m the only member of my family producing glasswork. And although it’s a solo venture, my family have helped every step of the way. This is why my studio is called Tittleton Glass Studio. Not just to signify me but acknowledge my family as well.
Tell me about your making process, how do you go about making a piece?
The pieces I create can take up to three months to make: from the beginning design stages to full polished completion. I use the lost-wax process, a method that is over 6,000 years old. My pieces are cast, which is when molten glass flows into a mould where it solidifies. Once each piece is cooled (and because of such extreme heat this can take up to a week), it is then put through a long polishing process to reveal what is inside. Glass can be such a hard material to work with at times, it’s unpredictable. One chip can take numerous hours to fix. I have bad days fighting with it and other days of the glass doing exactly what I need it to. Although it can be my worst enemy, I keep reminding myself that this is why not everyone does this! Somehow at the end of it all, the weeks of hard work, and long hours perfecting it, the raw material transforms into something that is both beautiful and elegant. Behind every piece is an artist who is exhausted with broken nails and rough hands, but it is worth it for the results. People do ask " Why is it so expensive?” and this is the reason why!
How do you describe what inspires you about working with glass?
My finished pieces are a reflection of my love of glass and its movement. I am inspired by the way molten glass moves and flows. Using the thick and thin areas of the glass I like to control the light that passes through the piece. It brings out a range of different shades within the one colour of glass that I use.
For this issue of Black, you created a special boot sculpture, what can you share about that?
The style of work I am recognised for is my large highly polished, geometric forms. Shoes and other pieces of clothing are just something I have made in the past for fun! Anything can be made into glass, you just have to work out the process to achieve it. This shoe is cast glass, and it was made using the lost wax process.
Many emerging artists also have a side hustle, do you have one? And if so, what is it?
I am also a store manager for Creative and Brave, a New Zealand owned company supporting artists and designers from around the country. I love to support as many local artists as I can. I know the bravery it takes to make a living from works of art. The owners of this company are massive support with my glasswork and it’s such a satisfying career mix. I love that I can sell New Zealand artists’ work while also making and selling my creations.
What does the future hold? What are you up to next?
In the future, my goals are to exhibit my work internationally and continue to exhibit locally. I have so many ideas I want to work on and am excited to see where they take me next.
Photography: Luke Foley-Martin
Hair and Makeup: Natalie Jarman
Interview: Chris Lorimer
Follow Toni's Glass Cast via here Instagram here