Robyn Coetzee makes beautiful kiln-formed glass birds as decorative hangings and brooches.
Where did you train? What did training teach you and what do you wish it had taught you?
At UWE Bristol I did a Fine Art degree that didn’t involve any glasswork - which, in retrospect, I wish it had. Subsequently I decided to supplement my training by starting a course in making glass beads, but inadvertently enrolled on a glass-fusing course instead! This mistake turned out to be serendipitous, as I found I loved learning how to fuse layers of glass in a kiln and this is now the main technique I use in my work. I am keen to broaden my knowledge of other aspects of glasswork, particularly architectural, and am currently considering studying for a part-time degree in glasswork, whilst continuing to create my designs.
Is being a designer/maker your only job?
I have no other job, having left teaching three years ago to concentrate on design.
Who is your favourite designer?
My favourite contemporary artist is the late Pablo Picasso, for his ability to use simple lines to such striking effect e.g. his ‘Dove of Peace’, created for UNESCO for the 1949 First International Peace Conference.
I also love the decorative design of the Ndebele people of Africa, particularly their use of bold colours and geometric shapes to decorate their buildings.
I like the Arts & Crafts movement’s style, particularly William Morris’s patterns depicting nature using clear, distinct lines and bright colours.
I also find the artistic symbolism of ancient cultures very powerful, e.g. linguistic symbolism in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics and pictorial symbolism in two-dimensional stone age cave paintings or three-dimensional fertility statuary.
What is the most interesting/fun job you have had?
In order to pay off a loan taken out to fund a furniture-painting business venture, I once spent a while working on the assembly line of a well-known car manufacturer. Surprisingly (well it certainly surprised me!), the job proved both interesting, as I saw how a car was put together, and great fun - since no shift was considered complete without a practical joke or two!
What is your most prized item of design/craft?
I once sculpted a kiln-cast glass statue of a fertility doll - which I sold, to my eternal regret. It had substantial personal significance for me and I wish I’d kept it.
Now my most prized item is a gold pendant on a chain, bought by my mother 40 years ago when my parents first arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, having emigrated from Holland. The pendant is a round gold disc containing seven smaller glass discs, each multi-faceted and covered in a reflective coating. I love it for its beauty and familial significance.
What item of design/craft do you covet most?
I would dearly love to own ‘The Venus of Willendorf’, a famous Palaeolithic artefact symbolising the goddess of fertility, because it seems so powerful, somehow.
At age 16, who most influenced your style?
Growing up in the 1980s – Madonna, of course! Like most teenagers, I was attracted by freedom of spirit and a rebellious stance and she coupled this with innovative clothing style and amazing, cheap jewellery to great effect. I also remember emulating the style of ‘eVOID’, an ‘Afro-fusion’ band who were big in South Africa, particularly their bangles made by stuffing a flexible plastic tube with ethnic print fabric! We were also very influenced by European style – to my friends’ great envy, my father ran a clothing factory and I would get to help choose, and later keep, the sample clothes from Europe.
What was the last film/book that blew your mind?
‘Tsotsi’ (which means ‘gangster’) has stuck in my memory as it is such a striking film. It tells the true story of six days in the grim life of a 15-year old boy in present-day Johannesburg, South Africa. I found it particularly moving to be reminded of the stark reality of life in parts of my homeland.
What music are you currently listening to?
While I’m working, I usually listen to Radio 6 Music as it tends to play new, interesting music. A current favourite CD is by ‘Freshly Ground’, an interesting South African female singer. I love her unusual voice and the wide and eclectic range of influences you can hear in her music.
How many hours do you waste on the internet each day?
I spend about three hours a day on the internet - about half of which, if I’m honest, is probably wasted!
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I love England (apart from the weather of course!). I am currently enjoying living in a leafy cul-de-sac in central Bristol, which provides a peaceful sanctuary to retreat to when I’ve had enough of all the advantages of city centre living. I live within walking distance of Fig, the shop run co-operatively by myself and others to sell our designs, and the Bristol/Bath area is great for other opportunities to showcase my work, such as art trails, exhibitions, galleries, pop-up shops, Bath Christmas market etc. However, I am considering a move to a place where I could continue my glasswork studies; there are very good suitable degree courses in Swansea and Plymouth.
Where and what is your studio?
My studio is a large, purpose-built wooden construction, conveniently located in my back garden. It is glass-fronted, thereby allowing light to flood in and enabling a panoramic view of the garden and all the birds and other wildlife that come to visit when they think no-one’s looking!
Do you have a good work/life balance?
Yes, generally I do. Having a studio separate from my home, albeit only about 4-5 metres away from my back door, means that I go to work and come home again just like any commuter, which helps to prevent work taking over my home life. My work commitments are unevenly distributed, with the last quarter of the year being particularly busy. I often find, particularly during these months, that I have been so immersed in my work I haven’t noticed that time has flown by, but even then when I do leave the studio I definitely leave work behind. The first quarter of each year is relatively quiet work-wise, so I usually take that opportunity to have a proper break and perhaps go travelling.
What one word would best describe your feeling of doing your work?Fulfilling. Losing myself in creating beautiful objects, ranging from ‘rural rustic’ to ‘quirky fun’ to ‘urban edgy’ depending on my mood, never fails to provide me with a great feeling of satisfaction.
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