Metropol Masthead
17Catherine Newton photographer Adam McGrath

A hug, not a heart, of glass

Emma Macdonald

Glass artist Catherine Newton only came to her artistic calling after she devoted decades to raising her four children.

So it is fitting that her first major exhibition centres completely on motherhood and a mother’s physical and spiritual bond with her child. Catherine returned to formal study at the Australian National University’s School of Art in 2013 after almost three decades of staying at home to care for her kids – their ages span 12-29.

Earning a Bachelor of Visual Arts Honours with a major in Glass, Catherine brought her well-honed maternal instinct to her exegesis topic, which was titled “Embodying Maternal Love and Intimacy”.

She pioneered a technique in which she embodied her own breath within a glass vessel, before clutching the still malleable hot glass to her chest for an embrace. The glass maintains the shape of a hug.

Catherine Newton, Series 1, Mum’s Hug 811, 810, 93, 104, Photo by David Paterson, Image 1 of 4
The importance of hugging my children and the connection to touch was the starting point for my final work, which involved me hugging hot glass and also casting hugs between myself and my child.”

Catherine has extended that concept to invite a number of Canberra mothers to take part in blowing their own vessels (choosing a colour that symbolizes their children), before they are hugged by Catherine. The vessels are then displayed on a plinth adjusted to each child’s height.

It was a huge leap to move from being a stay-at-home mother to a student, to a working artist.

“I became interested in glass when the Dale Chihuly exhibition Masterworks in Glass was at the National Gallery of Australia in 1999,” Catherine explains.

“I went there with my mother and one-year- old daughter and my mother said ‘you could do that’. The work was spectacular and I was enthralled by the colours, transparency and fluidity of the glass. This inspired me to take some classes at the ANU Glass Workshop in Canberra after which I was heard to say on many occasions ‘when I grow up I’m going to go to ANU School of Art and study glass’. The dream became a reality in 2013 when I began my visual arts degree majoring in glass.”

19Jenni Kemarre Martiniello , production of Hug photo by Rose-Mary Faulkner

Photo of Catherine Newton by Rose-Mary Faulkner

Catherine was awarded the Emerging Arts Support Scheme Peter and Lena Karmel Anniversary Award for best graduating student for 2016.

She remains as fascinated by glass today as when she first saw the Chihuly exhibition.

“Glass is a magical material that has been around for thousands of years. Its ability to be manipulated and formed, to capture light and to change it, the transparency and the translucency of it is incredible. I am still overwhelmed by my own ability to work with this material.”

Catherine engineered a particular method in which she could actually embrace glass that was almost 1000 degrees celsius.

“I needed to devise a method to hug it. I initially used wet newspaper over a leather jacket, however that was unwieldy and the definition of the body was lost resulting in forms that were too full and shapeless. I wanted to capture the relationship between the gestures performed and the emotions experienced. The hot glass needed to be further manipulated to reflect the process of hugging, so I conducted research into various fabrics that are technically engineered to withstand exposure to high heats.”

Completed "hugs".

Completed “hugs”.

Eventually, the good old firies donated an emergency services fire suit for Catherine to use.

“Using my new improved ‘hug suit’ I was able to make a second iteration of this work that has a deep resonance of being of the body. Due to the fluidity of hot glass, the pieces retained the imprint of the physical hug…There is a certain irony in this process as I have to suit up to prevent being harmed by a comforting hug. Even though I am clothed in layers of heatproof fabric the act of hugging the glass is strangely intimate. Hugging hot glass, whilst intimidating is also invigorating, being a mum is hot, hard and scary which is a fitting analogy for this work.”

Some of the mothers who took part in the exhibition include obstetrician and mother of three Liz Gallagher, midwife and mother of two Kath Pinkas, and Head of the School of Art and mother of one Denise Ferris. All up, 15 mothers are featured in the exhibition.

“As an artist, I can make a difference and the aim of my work is to encourage people to think about their mother and, if conceived, their children. If they come to see my work and walk away to call their mother or for a mother to call her child, then my work has fulfilled my aim.”

the essentials

What: Catherine Newton and Rose-Mary Faulkner will exhibit their work in a joint-exhibition, Body Tracing and the Soft Gaze
Where: Belconnen Arts Centre, 118 Emu Bank, Belconnen
When: 29 July to 20 August 2017


Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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