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The Future Lab: Shelley James

Make:Shift brings together an extraordinary group of makers, thinkers and scientists

In the current issue of Crafts, we met some of them for a taste of what to expect. 

According to glass artist Shelley James, residencies can be broken down into a pair of neat categories. ‘They either use artists like a grain of sand in an oyster, kind of disrupting and doing their own thing – just the way they do stuff differently kind of changes the atmosphere,’ she tells me. ‘Or, you teach basically and then you might do a bit of your own stuff on the side.’ However, she says, the Crafts Council’s Parallel Practices scheme, which puts makers in direct contact with medics and scientists at King’s College, London – essentially so the pair can find some common ground, learn a bit about each other and frankly see if any interest sparks – was a little bit different. ‘It was a bit of hybrid really,’ she says. 

In many respects, she was an apt choice. After all, science and medicine have always played pivotal roles in James’s extraordinary pieces, which can perhaps be explained by the intriguingly circuitous route she took to reach her current destination. (Without in any way wishing to sound flippant, talking to her can occasionally make you feel like Jennifer Aniston in a L’Oréal ad: ‘Here comes the science bit. Concentrate!’) She initially studied textile design at the École Nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, before (by her account) falling into a job in trend forecasting and then into branding, where she worked for major agencies such as Landor and Imagination. But her corporate career trajectory was interrupted when she sustained serious head injuries after falling from her bike. Recuperation took years: ‘I had to rebuild my brain from scratch.’ 

Once she recovered, she decided to leave her old life in London and do an MA in printmaking at the University of the West of England in Bristol, where she began to work with encapsulating waterslide transfers in glass. This in turn led her to the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. Along with James Maskrey, she started experimenting with hot glass. Fuelled by her accident, she became fascinated by visual perception and got in touch with Bristol Eye Hospital, taking scans of her own eyes and putting them into glass. (She now has an ongoing residency there.) Subsequently, she studied for a PhD at the Royal College of Art, graduating 18 months ago, and has collaborated on projects with mathematicians, crystallographers and scientists. In 2015 she worked with mathematician Roger Penrose on pieces that explored five-fold symmetry of quasiperiodic lattices. 

Opposite: Polytope series: icosidodecahedron, Shelley James, blown glass, 2015. Photo: Ester Segarra

For the last six months James has been paired with physics lecturer Riccardo Sapienza, who, together, according to the official blurb, set about ‘investigating making and problem-solving through glass techniques and experimentation to broaden learning and confidence’ of a group of students. James got to play with some new equipment: ‘I hadn’t thought I could use a 3D printer before,’ she tells me. ‘Now I’m making a body of work for next year’s Collect using that technique. Before, it always seemed like something you got someone else to do – expensively. My own one is chuntering away right now.’ 

Working with Sapienza’s students also encouraged a renewed interest in colour. ‘It’s such a huge area,’ she explains. ‘The colour you choose is so loaded and I also know how much the brain makes colour up anyway. I need to have a reason to select a colour to work with, other than black and white.’ However, her time at King’s persuaded her to change tack: ‘It’s a result of a set of energetic transactions that’s suddenly getting me thinking about colour in a very different way.’  

The quid pro quo was that she set up a series of half-hour, one-to-one sessions with a set of pupils of varying ability. Using exercises such a fusing glass in a microwave kiln, making kaleidoscopes, experimenting with quantum dots, and silvering in the chemistry labs, ‘we ended up with a series of quite in-depth project conversations,’ she says, with a number of students seeing links between what they were doing with the artist and their own work. People attended for different reasons. For some, it was time away from their computer screen; others were frustrated artists; but some came for practical, sometimes technical, reasons. By the end, she was commissioned to make a series of teaching aids that illustrated how energy follows through conjugated polymers. 

How has this project differed from her previous collaborations? ‘In the past the scientist has inspired and informed the work and then I take it back to show them. We end up with a conversation around the object and I refine the piece based on that conversation.’ This time though it has been a slightly different story. Having taught the students at least a basic level of skill, she says, ‘they know what we’re dealing with. It has meant the relationship is much more even. They’re more in tune with the practicalities of the work.’  

You sense that both parties benefited from the experience in equal measure, a sure sign of a residency well spent. Grant Gibson

Shelley James will be in discussion in the Conversation Space, 2.15-2.45pm, Thursday 10 November

Make:Shift is at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester m3 4fp. 

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