Creative students are breathing new artistic life into the dying glass industry. Andrew Mourant reports
The Black Country once thrived on commercial production of glass. Thirty years ago the industry employed around 2,500 workers. But famous names have now gone: the Brierley Crystal factory knocked down; and Stuart, makers of glass in Stourbridge since 1788, swallowed up by Waterford nine years ago.
Machinery made craftsmen obsolete; changes of taste and fashion caused demand to shrink. Small manufacturing pockets remain, but the future is a new breed of glassmaker being fostered by Dudley college.
Students from around Britain and the world sign up to learn at Dudley's international glass centre in Brierley Hill. The emphasis is on artistry; the creative individual who dreams of having a studio. Dudley claims to offer the country's most comprehensive range of courses: blowing, lamp-working, kiln glass, painting, stained-glass and cold-glass decoration at undergraduate and postgraduate level. It is not cheap to run - there is a big gas bill for firing the kiln - but students are inspired by the hands-on approach.
Currently 48 full-timers study anything from glass techniques and technology at levels 2 and 3 to professional development courses at levels 4 and 5. The latter, devised by assistant principal Sue Denson and tutor Denise Hunt, are geared towards those who are driven to be glass artists.
It can be a costly commitment but the college does what it can - for instance, waiving studio fees. Students come from all backgrounds, working to eclectic background music in the gaunt Victorian red brick centre that was once a library. Post-industrial Brierley Hill comes as a shock to some; but most acclimatise.
Sue Parry, 41 arrived from Windsor having formerly worked as a treasury analyst for Honda. "I've always loved glass," she said. "I started a weekend course at Richmond community college where I had a tutor who was an inspiration. I decided that was what I really wanted to do, so I sold my house, left my job and came here."
Malin Blomgren, 29, comes from Stockholm, with a background in advertising and website design. "I was in California studying art. I returned to Sweden and did a glass course, then came here because I wanted to learn more skills," she said.
John Hockton, 63, the oldest student, signed up after selling his cleaning company. "One of my contracts was doing the windows at Coventry cathedral," he said. "My interest in glass came from that and drove me on to do the course." His former business premises now houses a kiln.
John is another member of the nascent community of glass artists that the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, wants to encourage.
It has provided pound;50,000 for three workshops and a hot glass area at the Red House Cone, in Stourbridge, home to a community of small glass companies. Built around 1790, the Cone, one of only four remaining in the UK, was used for glass manufacture until 1936. "The studios provide incubation workshops for six students each year, said Ms Denson. "This support enables them to build businesses in subsidised, well-equipped studios."
A mile away, at a former Royal Doulton factory on which glass has been produced since 1691, lies another small colony of craftspeople finding a niche. But there is much more going on: this site belongs to Ruskin Mill, a charity offering education to 16 to 25-year-olds with autism and Asperger's syndrome. Working with glass is at the heart of Ruskin Mill's programme. It takes 70 students from across the Midlands, two-thirds residential, funded by the Learning and Skills Council and social services departments. Artists act as tutors overseen by Keith Brocklehurst who studied at Brierley Hill 23 years ago. A passionate supporter of what the college is trying to achieve, he condemns "the dinosaurs of the industry" who ignored the development of studio glass.
Glass-blowing, which demands concentration and hand-to-eye co-ordination, seems an unlikely activity for sufferers of autism and Asperger's. "But most students respond to the dangers," says Keith. "Glass itself is the tutor, as is the heat from the furnace. You have to get the timing right.
There's no arguing with glass - if you get it wrong, it just breaks."
He found the switch from craftsman to working therapeutically a steep learning curve. Yet the whole process, with pulverising heat at its core, captivates the students. "Because it seems dangerous it's very cool to do.
It isn't like modelling in clay or doing origami."
Achievements are soon tangible. A cutting workshop contains staging points of progress: the transformation within six weeks of one student from ham-fisted scratching to creating neat, regular lines on a glass tumbler.
Designing patterns, counting the grooves and keeping a log of achievement helps with numeracy and literacy.
Keith has taken some of Ruskin Mill's ablest students to see master craftsmen at work in Venice. Among them was Nathan Green, 18, in his third year, and who makes glass-blowing look easy. He displays a constant easy rhythm as he dips into the kiln every so often, then rotates the blowing iron with his left hand while shaping molten glass on the end with his right, a wad of sodden newspaper protecting his skin.
After around 20 minutes, Nathan suddenly stops, satisfied the piece is finished. "It would be great to go on to college and have my own studio one day," he said. "I've made mistakes along the way but now I know exactly what I'm going to make and how I'm going to do it."