How glass artist Kate Mitchell creates her famous speckled tumblers

Delicate, playful, textured and full of colour – Kate Mitchell’s glass work delivers it all

Kate Mitchell

Kate Mitchell has honed her glass art practice by watching masters at work. She’s observed the workings of studios in Venice, Prague, Shanghai, Seattle and Canberra, and she spends her weeks working for some of New Zealand’s best glass artists, Monmouth Glass Studio and Luke Jacomb in Auckland. One day a week is dedicated to producing pieces for her own eponymous label, where she applies the skills she’s observed to create her colourful and textured hand-blown tumblers. These pieces need no introduction as their popularity speaks for themselves. Kate’s speckled and confetti tumblers have amassed a cult-like following, and customer demand has now surpassed the rate at which she can produce them – making them even more covetable.

How did you get into glass blowing?

After completing my Fine Arts degree I started to work for an Auckland glass studio called Lukeke Design. I had never seen glass blowing before and became very interested in the process of how pieces are made. From then on I knew that I wanted to become part of the glass-blowing team. It takes years to learn the skills so I figured that it would be a challenging yet satisfying career to embark on.

Kate Mitchell

What do you love about it?

Glass is the most fascinating material to work with. It begins like molten toffee and very quickly transforms into a strong yet fragile material. Glass has such an encompassing array of possibilities making it so different to any other sculptural material. It can be fragile, strong, transparent, sharp, soft, reflective – the list is endless.

What is something about being a glass artist that people don’t know?

Glass blowing doesn’t only require physical strength, it also requires a huge amount of mental stamina. Unlike many other crafts where you can work on pieces incrementally, once you have glass on the end of a blowpipe, there is no putting it down and coming back to it later. It requires extended periods of mental focus until the pieces are safely finished and disconnected off the pipe. Besides the mental strain, it also requires you to have an emotional disconnect with pieces until they are finished as pieces can often fall on the ground and smash at any stage of the process.

What is the hardest part about being a glass artist?

One of the hardest challenges is being limited to the skills, tools and equipment you have access to. Often, I have ideas and visions of pieces that I want to create which require skills that take years to learn and understand. I am a very tactile artist, so not being able to physically touch and manipulate the glass with my bare hands is often frustrating.

Have you ever had any big disasters in the studio?

I have had so many that the sound of glass smashing is almost white noise to me. The worst would be a few years ago with a few cast glass flamingos that were commissioned as garden sculptures. Weighing 6kg each, I suspended the flamingos on long steel poles that were set into concrete blocks. After weeks of making them, I transported them in my car standing up with no protective wrap around them. As I started to drive, I watched in my rearview mirror as they, one by one, decapitated each other in the backseat after I drove over a road bump. That was a good lesson – bubble wrap is a must.

Kate Mitchell

Tell us how you came up with your signature tumbler designs?

When I first started assisting Luke Jacomb with his colourful lighting, I would save and collect all the leftover pieces of colour from his work. Over time I developed a collection of different sized colour pieces, which I used as the base colour palette and design for both the speckled and confetti tumblers.

Your tumblers are instant sell-outs, how do you deal with the demand?

I always feel overwhelmed every time they sell out so fast. The rate in which they sell does encourage me to make as many as I can because I hate to think that people will miss out on them. However, it is also nice to make an item that is limited and cannot be mass produced.

Kate Mitchell speckled tumbler

What is your favourite piece to make?

The speckled tumblers are fun to make. To ensure that the speckled pieces of colour remain raised on the outside of the glass, I have to work fast and efficiently with the glass, not letting the colour melt and lose its texture. It is so satisfying to hold and touch the final product.

What is your favourite part of the process?

I love the process of making my work, but the real satisfaction comes in seeing how it brings joy to the people who purchase them. I love seeing different images posted on Instagram of them being used in their new homes.

Kate Mitchell glass tumbler

What inspired you to start making glass earrings?

I have always been obsessed with jewellery, and since most of my work attire is practical, I love to dress it up with interesting jewellery. I wanted to create earrings that were small yet colourful, and that I could work, sleep and shower with while wearing. Through the process of flameworking [a technique of forming objects from rods and tubes of glass that is heated in a flame], I created a selection of 10 fruit and vegetable earrings, which I can mix and match to create different combinations that I could wear every day.

Kate Mitchell earrings

What or who inspires your work and what do you have in the pipeline?

Before Covid, I was lucky enough to do a fair bit of travelling with the team at Lukeke Design. I have visited glass studios in Venice, Prague, Shanghai, Seattle and Canberra, each incredibly different in their approach to glass. From the light and intricate way in which Venetian glass is made to the more heavy and brutalist approach to glass in the Czech Republic, it is so inspiring to watch and learn from these different techniques. Once we are allowed to travel again, I plan to attend more overseas workshops to learn and work with different glass artists.

Interview by: Bea Taylor. Photography by: Kate Battersby.

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