Rebecca Newnham

Portrait of Rebecca NewnhamCarbon by Rebecca NewnhamKalyptos by Rebecca Newnham
Nanocrystals by Rebecca Newnham
Akalyptos by Rebecca Newnham

Hampshire-based artist Rebecca Newnham makes dramatic large-scale, botanically inspired sculptures. She started work as a blown glass artist, but as her pieces have grown in scale she has changed the way she works, using glass as a decorative skin applied, mosaic style, to a carved base. The result is a series of giant structures in which form, space, light and the reflective qualities of glass play an equal role.


Can you explain your attraction to glass?

I fell in love with glass when I did my BA in Multi-disciplinary design at North Staffordshire Poly, which is where I first came across glass. I loved the way it moves when it’s hot and how it captures light. I do miss blowing glass now I don’t use it in my work so much, but my forms are quite organic and they echo the way glass likes to fall when it’s hot.

Why did you stop work in blown glass?

I became frustrated with the scale limitations working in hot glass impose. While I was in Bath I lived with some architects and I was intrigued by the large scale they worked in so when I went to the RCA to do my MA in glass I was immediately drawn towards the larger scale sculptural pieces. I started cutting up the blown glass and mosaicing it into larger forms. Now I don’t use blown glass at all, but use strips of float glass which I have treated with various enamels and minerals and then fired in the kiln. It means I can work on a much bigger scale. I love the way the larger pieces have a real physical presence. I want to get my work out into the world to interact with people, to uplift and be a positive presence.

How do you go about making your sculptures?

I start with making a form in foam which I carve using long-bladed craft knives and files – it’s a very creative process. The finished form is then fibreglassed to create a light, rigid shell. Fibreglass is very compatible with glass as it has the same expansion and contraction rate and when it’s polished it makes a really lovely surface to work on. My favourite parts of the process are carving the forms and later, applying the glass. I use a mastic type of adhesive and the gaps between the glass tesserae are just as important as the area covered by glass. Some of my sculpture has a reinforced steel skeleton in addition to the fibreglass.

What is the most important part of your work, the colour or the form?

Colour is important, although I think form is more so. At the moment I enjoy working with the different metal finishes you can achieve on glass – the bronzes, coppers and silvers make great contrasts – but I like to keep the colours simple. I’ve worked with a lot of mirror in the past and I enjoy the way it reflects the surroundings so the sculpture takes on the colours of the setting. The glass is a very important part of the work and I like the way each little facet reflects the light differently, projecting light into the surrounds.

Where does the inspiration for your forms come from?

I use botanical forms as a metaphor to celebrate life so my work explores all sorts of forms found in nature - from seeds and pollen to crystal structures. This year I have been involved with a residency at Hilliers Gardens in Romsey, Hampshire and I had access to all their research facilities. It was a fantastic opportunity and I used it to explore the chemical side of botany and develop my preoccupation with proportion, including the Golden Section. I looked at the structure of the carbon molecule – which is a beautiful geometric form – and how leaves work like little solar panels. The result was a body of work about energy, carbon and photosynthesis. I also made two tall pieces, Quercus, inspired by their collection of oak trees. I wanted to consider the main characteristics of oaks – their lobed leaves and the fact they produce acorns – and make something that captured essentially what makes an oak an oak.

You are currently working on a giant suspended sculpture for a cruise ship from the Royal Caribbean fleet as well as a project for a hospice in Leicester, how do you manage to get so many commissions?

My partner David Bird is a professional photographer and he photographs my work in a very sympathetic, aspirational way. This is really important as it means that I can get good press coverage as I have high-quality images of my work available. I try to keep sending out information and keep the publicity ticking over. The other really important promotional tool is my website.
I think my speculative work also helps. I do a lot of exhibitions – I always have several things on the go – people see my work and then think that would be suitable for their particular project. I love doing my commissioned work, but the speculative work is very important too as it lets me move on and develop my ideas. It also lets potential commissioners see what direction your work is going. Occasionally I apply for competitions, but it is important to only apply for those for which your work is ideally suited.

How would you like to develop your work in the future?

I don’t want to move away from glass at the moment. I love its magical qualities and the way it divides up space; there are lots of different subjects I would like to explore. The dilemma is narrowing them down! I would like to create a group of floating sculptures. I’m really enjoying working on the suspended sculpture for the cruise ship and would like to do more suspended installation type work. For example, I’d like to make a group of pieces that consider the air on a micro scale – looking at all the floating particles in it like dust and pollen and atoms. Another interest is the marine world, including the way plants move under water, supported by the current.