Up-and-coming glass artist Kaja Upelj wants to project a welcoming and warm feeling in her work – to dispel the sense that glass is cold and brittle. She invites us to understand more about her story through her evolving glass practice.
The movement of hot glass, its fluidity and softness as it was worked by a master craftsman, captivated Kaja Upelj as a child on a trip to Murano in Italy. Since then, she has always seen glass as “an intriguing material, which I never defined as cold and fragile”. This experience inspired her belief that glass would be the perfect material with which to express herself.
Years later, she carried through her conviction, completing a Masters degree in Glass at the Royal College of Art and winning awards and scholarships to develop her original, luminous glass process.
“My methods and ways of working have changed tremendously over time,” she says. “I have focused a lot on exploring glass qualities through various techniques and ideas. I want to have a great understanding of the material because I am convinced it is the only way to find a common language with it.”
For her, the most important aspect of her research has been to observe how glass acts, moves and lives, so that now she has “harmonised my poetic expression with the laws of the material”.
Her focus is not so much on what technique she uses, but on how to translate the image in her mind into a real object of art. The techniques are just the tools making that happen. The materials she chooses vary considerably and are governed by the feel of the collection itself. Her collections ‘Otherworldly Bodies’ and ‘Subtle Flow’ are strikingly different from one another.
She describes her work as minimalistic with an element of fluidity. “Unrestricted lines and movement give the individual the opportunity to interpret it in their own way. The most important aspect I wish my art to express is a welcoming feeling.”
She adds, “I want the viewer to experience the material differently, to lose the belief that it is cold and brittle. With the tactile and silky surface, I hope to achieve interaction, inviting both familiarity and personal connection. I am interested in seeing how it affects people emotionally.”
In her collection ‘Subtle Flow’, Kaja researched and introduced a process involving dangerous chemicals. Her aim was to express the movement of glass when it is hot, enabling the observer to have a better understanding of what a soft and warm material glass can be.
“I was exploring materials to subtly mark the path, which is captured within the glass object. When chemicals are introduced to liquefied glass, they reveal an iridescent sparkle, which captures the movement of glass and shows the working process clearly,” she expands.
“Each artwork I create consists of various emotions I experience during the working process and tells a different story about me.”
This quotation, from the Finnish designer and sculptor Tapio Wirkkala, underpins her approach: ‘All materials have their own unwritten laws. This is forgotten way too often. You should never be violent with a material you’re working on, and the designer should aim at being in harmony with his material.’
Support for emerging glass artists
As an emerging artist, Kaja is familiar with the struggle to buy expensive equipment, such as kilns or compressors. “I often search for second-hand equipment, as it can be priced more reasonably,” she says. However, she has received support for other areas of her work, having been a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) scholar in 2018. The funding from QEST enabled her to take up a placement at Corning Museum of Glass in the USA.
“Being a part of QEST family is a great honour!” she explains. “The amount of support you receive through events, art fairs, networking and QEST Magazine is incredible. Emerging artists often feel overwhelmed at the beginning of their career, so advice and opportunities from such institutions are greatly appreciated.”
She says she would encourage any artist who wants to create unconventional art and is looking for support and new avenues to apply to QEST.
At the Corning Museum of Glass, she spent time researching in the extensive Rakow Library and gained expert knowledge from the tutors and scientists. This invaluable experience helped her develop her glass projects.
Another benefit from the QEST experience was being able to exhibit with the organisation at Collect, the International Art Fair for Modern Craft and Design, at Somerset House in London earlier in 2020.
Kaja has continued to build her profile, having exhibited with Officine Saffi and Miart in Milan, the travelling design event Nomad Circle, and Milan Design Week. She also took part in the British Glass Biennale and other exhibitions across Europe.
For her, the most challenging part being an artist who works with glass is to get this artwork recognised in other sectors of art, rather than just as a craft. As she points out, “To create glass artwork is indeed very skilful, but it is often expressing more than just an interesting technique; it expresses a story, a concept.”
This is the message Kaja will carry with her as she travels the world with her glowing creations.
Feature image: Subtle Flow.
About the artist
Kaja Upelj is a Slovenian artist working between Slovenia and the United Kingdom. She holds a Masters in Glass from the Royal College of Art and has won numerous awards and scholarships to develop her original, luminous glass process safely. She was a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust Scholar and one of the global emerging young talents at New Horizons 2018 in China.
She has exhibited across Europe, showing her work at art fairs such as Collect, Miart, Nomad Circle and Milan Design Week.
See more via her website.