Student success with glass reflects on racism throughout the ages
“When I arrived at the University, I was a blank canvas. I knew I wanted to tell a different story about slavery but not in the way it’s been done before. I wanted to change the narrative.”
A University of Wolverhampton arts student who has created a different narrative about historical racism using glass and ceramics has sold his work to high profile galleries across the UK and in America – including the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London.
Picture caption: Emmett Till
Chris Day, 52 from Lichfield who is married with three children, was a full-time plumber who applied to the University four years ago to study for a Bachelors of Arts degree in Design and Applied Arts at the University of Wolverhampton School of Art. He is the only black glassblower in the UK.
He secured a First Class Honours Degree and is now studying for a Master’s degree in the same subject.
The V&A Museum, billed as the world’s leading museum of art and design, has purchased Emmett Till, inspired by a 14 year old black teenager who was abducted, beaten and lynched by two white men in 1955. His murder galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
The Scottish National Museum has purchased Back to Black and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, USA, has purchased Wander which depicts the tale of a luxury racing yacht setting sail from Charleston, South Carolina in 1858, on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. When it returned nearly five months later from West Africa to Jekyll Island, Georgia, it carried 487 new passengers on board – each taken against his will to be sold illegally into the slave trade. The ship was one of the last ever to import slaves onto US soil.
Picture caption: Wander
He is currently in discussions with Rhode Island Museum about the potential purchase of one of his other pieces of work.
Chris was recently one of 5 artists shortlisted for the 2021 Brookfield Properties Crafts Council Collection Award – a leading craft prize for makers in Britain which supports the individual artist as well as the Crafts Council’s national collection.
Chris recently exhibited his work, the result of his research into black slavery and the civil rights movement, at Collect 2021 with Vessel Gallery - the 17th edition of the international art fair for contemporary craft and design presented by the Crafts Council which took place online.
He also exhibited with Vessel Gallery at Crafting a Difference, an exhibition curated by Brian Kennedy showing artworks by over 70 artists represented by 4 London-based contemporary craft galleries.
In 2020 he exhibited at London Craft Week’s Vessel Gallery – an exhibition which celebrates outstanding British and international creativity. The festival brings together over 250 established and emerging makers, designers, brands and galleries from around the world.
His talent was spotted by a Vessel judge when Chris was selected as one of 74 artists out of 200 to enter the international 2019 British Glass Biennale exhibition held in Stourbridge.
His creative work has resulted in a series of personal pieces that discuss and investigate the treatment of black people in Britain and the United States. He also used materials derived from heating and electrical systems in reference to his ‘other’ career.
His research has focused on the history of the slave trade in the Eighteenth Century, with the copper cage in one piece representing the restriction of movement both physically and mentally, emphasising the complete control traders possessed over another human’s life.
Chris left school and worked in a variety of roles, first as an illustrator for marketing material with Derbyshire Life Magazine moving to baking biscuits in a factory before becoming an Engineering Apprentice and working with robotics whilst at the same time qualifying to become a self-employed plumbing and heating engineer.
Chris said: “It’s been a real whirlwind for me since last year and the interest in my work has been phenomenal with major galleries showing interest in buying my work for display which is incredible.
“I’m a storyteller at heart and I always work with a narrative behind it. I want my work to move people and continue the conversation that’s needed to heal the rift that still exists in society
“Like the glass I have pushed my approach in how I work with glass and ceramics in both traditional and experimental methods, to create contemporary artworks that represent my passion for this part of our history. As a black glassblower, I am one of few and on a quest to find and inspire more. My main purpose, however, is to engage the audience on issues that are hard to confront on many levels, using art to help overcome some of the traumas that haunt our collective past.
“When I arrived at the University, I was a blank canvas. I knew I wanted to tell a different story about slavery but not in the way it’s been done before. I wanted to change the narrative.
“I’d never thought about going to University and it was my wife who encouraged me to go to an Open Day and talk about my options. I’d never considered it, but I’d always loved art and did an Art O Level. It was something I always wanted to go back to and explore. But I was 48 at the time, with a mortgage and two kids.
“I can’t thank the University enough for inspiring me, they have nurtured me and they have instilled confidence in me. I needed something to spark my enthusiasm. When I saw the studio and facilities at the School of Art, it was such an amazing space, I knew I wanted to work with glass – I’d never worked with it and it’s something that doesn’t really want to be worked with so that was a real challenge for me from the start.
“The University gave me something that I can do for me. I’ve got my career but as soon as I dipped my toe in the water even though I knew I probably wouldn’t make money, but it’s a bonus if I do. This is my passion and it’s my personal journey.”
Paul McAllister, Course Leader in Glass and Ceramics at the University, said: “Chris came to the University as a mature student and, despite him not having a portfolio of work, we could see that he was both hardworking and enthusiastic and we offered him a place on the undergraduate course.
“His choice of working with glass is really interesting because glass making came to the Black Country when Huguenot migrants established workshops in the Glass Quarter. What Chris is demonstrating is that there is real value to making things which are more than just nik naks.
“He is using materials to talk about a very complex historical period in time and he has worked really hard to establish those skills using his own personal language. It’s difficult having to juggle full-time work, a family and study. Chris has demonstrated in his work, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter campaign, that you can really make heritage current – whilst it has its place in history, there is also a future in getting currency from traditional skills and making them contemporary.”
The University of Wolverhampton has one of the largest, best-equipped glass-making facilities in Europe and includes a hot shop, kiln room and a cold processing room.
Chris has been featured on BBC Midlands Today. He has also been featured in The Guardian.
Anyone interested in studying degree courses in the University of Wolverhampton School of Art should register for one of our forthcoming Virtual Open Days.
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