From working in fitness in Portsmouth, England to becoming a self-taught lampwork glass artist in Perth, Jennie Merritt has proven she is not afraid to take risks. She emigrated to Australia nearly twenty years ago after her riding instructor suggested that she would love it here, and someone else suggested she wasn’t game enough.
“I went home and of course had this conversation with my husband and he said to me, ‘You wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t emigrate.’ I said, ‘You’ve never asked me.’ And two weeks later there was an immigration fair about an hour’s drive away from us and we went to it. We’d never been here, we didn’t know anybody here. We just thought ‘why not?’ And I’ve never looked back.”
Once in Perth, Jennie’s adventurous approach led to a new job and a new hobby. She trained to be an acrylic nail technician which was simultaneously the start of her journey as a jewellery and glass artist and “the worst decision ever.”
“I mean I don’t do my own nails, I don’t cleanse, tone or moisturise. I’m just terrible. Whatever made me think that I’d do nails?! But I started making jewellery because it was very quiet and just down the lane from me was a woman selling beads and things and I thought I’ll teach myself to make some jewellery.”
As her jewellery making progressed, Jennie realised that in order to create the pieces she imagined, she needed to learn how to make her own glass beads. Her solution was to order a kit online, set it up in her garage and teach herself how to lampwork glass. “I’m one of those people that if I want to do something, I will go all out and do it.” Through books and internet forums, Jennie taught herself the techniques of lampworking – using a torch to melt glass rods and then carefully shaping the molten glass into beads and other small objects. She had her first experience of formal tuition in the art of lampworking in 2015, six years after she lit her torch for the first time. Her method of independent learning came with the advantage that she started pushing the boundaries of her art form very early.
“I know a lot of people in the art world would probably disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I think sometimes when you’re an artist, whatever medium you’re using, if you’re told, ‘Oh no you can’t do that,’ then you don’t do it. Whereas nobody told me ‘You can’t do that’. So I tried it. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. I’ve had people since say to me, ‘How did you do that?’ and I tell them and they say, ‘Oh no, you shouldn’t be able to do that.’ Well – there it is.”
Although it is sometimes misconstrued as solely a technique for bead-making, Jennie is passionate about the possibilities her chosen medium presents. Among other things, she has used her torch to make leaves, flowers, Alice in Wonderland characters, gnomes, birds, fish and a flamingo. Her recent solo exhibition ‘Adventures with Alice’ was inspired by its namesake piece which won her several awards and paid for her kiln. One of the works exhibited, entitled Demure but Deadly, depicts the Queen of Hearts complete with an extraordinary headdress.
“I don’t know how many individual flowers and leaves are in there,” says Jennie of her work, which shows definitively that lampworking is more than just making beads. “It is truly an art form in itself. I wanted to see how big I could go with small components, because you’re limited by the size of your torch flame as to how big a piece of glass you can actually make. But – you can take those small pieces and assemble them and assemble them and assemble them and make big pieces.”
She says she will always make jewellery but is now working to themed collections such as the ten piece mini-collection she has made for Fine Art@Hale. For this collection she ordered in special clasps and findings, made specially shaped beads and then etched them in a tumbler for four hours.
Previously, “I’ve tried to do the production work whereby I make something that I know I can easily reproduce. That’s certainly an easier way to work and sell from the point of view of put something on your website, you only need to make one of them and if somebody orders it, you make it again. I don’t find that very satisfying. I get bored very easily! So I’ve decided, now moving forwards, that most of what I do will be one of a kind work. Still in collections, but once that piece is gone, it’s gone.”
From choosing to emigrate to Australia after a chance comment from her riding instructor, to taking up jewellery making to pass the time as a nail technician, to buying a lampworking torch and teaching herself how to make beads and then sculptural works of art, Jennie’s journey to full-time glass artist has been about pushing boundaries, taking risks and pursuing her creative aspirations.
“I have too many ideas! Which isn’t a bad thing. It also challenges me. It’s that want to explore, to push, to try and just take this further and see how far I can go with this.”
Jennie Merritt’s collection of jewellery with her flameworked, etched glass beads can be seen at the Fine Art@Hale 2021 Exhibition from 23-25 July. Jennie has also collaborated with Cynthia Poh to create one of our raffle prizes, tickets for which can be purchased at the exhibition.