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  • Cube (detail), pulled glass cane and cast concrete. Image courtesy of the artist.

Playing with fire

Harry Morgan mixes concrete with glass to stunning effect

It’s the tension at the heart of Harry Morgan’s work that makes it so appealing, the combination of what looks like heavy, geometric chunks of concrete delicately balancing on a cluster of thin threads of glass. At a glance, pieces like Enigma, which the 26 year-old artist made last year, appear to defy the laws of physics, leading the viewer to question exactly how they manage to stand up. ‘It looks like it shouldn’t be possible,’ he laughs as we sit down to talk over coffee in the Edinburgh-based studio he has (literally) just moved into. ‘Individually, the glass thread is really brittle and weak, but collectively it’s strong and can hold quite a lot of weight.’ It also transpires that the concrete blocks themselves are hollow. ‘I originally made them solid, but I couldn’t do a lot with them and ended up giving them away,’ he explains. 

Morgan first experimented with glass at Macclesfield College Art Foundation. ‘We had a little jewellery kiln and played around with it,’ he remembers. ‘None of the teachers had any training, but they were keen to explore and just give it a go. I enjoyed the trial and error approach, as well as the fire. I was a pyromaniac.’ 

The interest in making came from his father who, among other things, installed roller coasters for a living. ‘I used to go up on these massive wooden structures wherever he was working,’ he says. ‘I remember watching him doing joinery and that was where it all started, I think.’  

With encouragement from his teachers, he began to consider a career in glass. ‘I didn’t know there were university degrees in it and my tutors pointed out the courses in Sunderland and here. They’re both great, but I think it was the city of Edinburgh that appealed to me. I didn’t really know much about glass, so didn’t understand the importance of the facilities, to be honest. I liked the fact that the course was in the art school, too, so that it was among other creative disciplines, rather than being just in its own building.’ 

It was while he was on an undergraduate exchange programme at the Australian National University in Canberra that he saw a demonstration of the murrine glassblowing process and a penny dropped. ‘I was interested in the stringers,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really work with them immediately, but then I was doing a project where I was attempting to fuse metal and glass together in a hot state. Because of the surface area of the stringers they release the heat evenly, which reduces the stress and means that the glass doesn’t break.’ 

These initial pieces were made using a wooden mould into which the glass threads were layered. This is then buried in sand and molten metal is poured directly onto the glass. ‘They sort of design themselves through the interaction between the materials,’ he explains. ‘After making the metal pieces I liked the relationship of the materials, and I’d worked in concrete a bit in the past.’ 

For the new pieces he makes an interior to the moulds out of polystyrene and plastic, creating a void that reduces unnecessary weight. The glass threads, drawn from the kiln, are arranged in the internal structure and then an exterior wall is built around this. The concrete is then poured in and binds the stringers together. The boundary between the two contrasting materials is kept deliberately opaque – the concrete almost bleeds into the glass. ‘I did a couple of pieces where the line between them was controlled, but it just didn’t look as good – a bit too manufactured.’ It isn’t hard to discern the influence of Brutalist architecture, but the forms are beautifully offset by a fragility. Had the Smithsons become glass artists rather than architects, this is what they might have created.

Since graduating with a first in 2014 it has made sense to stick around Edinburgh, as the university hires out its facilities. ‘It makes a massive difference,’ he tells me. ‘There’s a lot more people continuing to work with glass. Before the university started hiring, it was pretty unaffordable.’ He’s been selected for the Crafts Council’s Hothouse programme to ‘push my practice to the next level. There are a lot of aspects that I struggle with on the business side – sales, finance. I just need the business support, really.’ 

He’ll also be showing on the organisation’s stand at Design Days Dubai in March. Most exciting, though, is the solo exhibition at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh during April, showing his new pieces made using the pâte de verre process during a recent residency at North Lands Creative Glass. It seems Harry Morgan is going to be hard to avoid in the near future.

Showing at The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, 5 to 29 April.


Photo: Shannon Tofts