Laura McKinley brings a sense of childlike intrigue to glass art
Artist Laura McKinley is explaining why she first fell in love with glass: “There’s nothing else like it. It was this moving, breathing, living material. I was just mesmerised by it. It was incredible.” We’re chatting in a cafe on fashionable Bermondsey Street, next to the workshop-cum-gallery, London Glassblowing, where an exhibition of McKinley’s latest work, Childlike Abandon, is about to close.
McKinley has been a resident at London Glassblowing – arguably the nation’s leading glass workshop – for the past eight years. Founded by Peter Layton in 1976, it is (quite literally) a hothouse for up-and-coming glass talent, with ten makers working on their own pieces as well as making Layton’s designs. Childlike Abandon marks the culmination of her recent MA at the Royal College of Art.
McKinley’s organically shaped pieces – some in clear glass but most opaque and sandblasted smooth with cut and polished elements – were inspired by children’s toys. They’re beautiful and overwhelmingly tactile. “I want to make pieces that people are surprised by and want to explore,” she says. “I’m keen to bring out that intrigue that children have with everyday objects because everything is fresh and new.”
Whereas many studio glass artists are guilty of splurging on colour, maxing out on the material’s potential, McKinley instead keeps hers muted, using a handful of pastel tones. “I don’t use a lot of colour generally, or if I do then it’s very simple but I wanted it to be very calming and subdued,” she explains. “I decided to concentrate on the forms and I didn’t want the colour to distract from that.”
But why glass in the first instance? After all, it isn’t an easy artistic route to take, requiring large amounts of equipment and, therefore, space and cash. It’s also physically taxing. “I love three-dimensional forms. I always see things in 3D; nothing is ever flat,” she explains. She went to university to study ceramics but had a go at glassblowing in her first week and never looked back. “I was doing anything and everything I could,” she says, “exploring, blowing into wire to make crazy shapes. I was always into sculpture, so that’s what I made.”
It was here that she started experimenting with her Symbiosis series – joining glass bubbles together to create different forms. You sense there’s a determined streak running through McKinley, a resilience that’s required in any up-and-coming maker. She first applied to the RCA directly after leaving university, for instance, only to be rejected. “I was distraught,” she says. “I was so sad, but it pushed me to do more and not give up.”
I don’t use a lot of colour generally, or if I do it’s very simple. I decided to concentrate on the forms and I didn’t want the colour to distract from that
Instead she did a year as an artist in residence at her old university before taking a short course at legendary US glass school Pilchuck, subsequently getting a job at Loco Glass studio in Cirencester, and then moving to the capital, “just because I wanted to be in London,” she laughs. “I tend to do that a lot. Do things and see what happens.” She quickly picked up a job at London Glassblowing, so it all worked out.
Finally getting in to the RCA for her MA was another shift. “I didn’t want any preconceptions that would push me in certain direction,” she says. “I wanted my experience there to lead me into areas I wouldn’t normally be taken.”
The test for any young maker is how they fare when they’re finally away from the protective embrace of higher education. McKinley is setting up a studio in north London with fellow RCA graduates, while continuing her work at London Glassblowing and garnering attention from the fine-art market. Hers is a name worth remembering.