Tillie Burden’s glass isn’t exactly crystal clear. This Australian-born, Sweden-based, artist creates glass works that aren’t all they appear to be initially. With the visual acuity of a Jeff Koons sculpture and the uncanny surrealism of a René Magritte painting, Burden blows, sculpts and shapes glass into unexpected forms. In her work this often transparent material takes on opaque, enigmatic appearances, such as cake topped with a smouldering cigarette, a caulk gun emitting a drop of shiny sealant, or a banana slipping into a slinky prophylactic.
This playful, engaging take on glass has found followers in both Australia, where Burden graduated from Monash University in 2004, and in continental Europe, where the artist relocated, studying first in Denmark before settling in Boda, Sweden. She has shown her work across the globe, and has seen her pieces added to a number of impressive institutional collections. Nevertheless, Burden is one of a growing number of artists choosing to offer their work directly to collectors, via Artspace’s Artist Direct program.
Read on to discover how classic surrealism informs her work, how she stumbled upon her chosen form, and why carpentry might have appealed to her, had she not heard the call of the glass blower’s pipe.
How would you describe what you do? I make objects in glass that aim to present another perspective of glass, to express the material as a sculptural and artistic medium, containing meaning and with respect to the craft. Currently, a lot of my time is used on creating editions for other artists, I am finding it very exciting to interpret the work of others. Without disclosing any names, I can say there are some more coming down the pipeline.
Enlighten us. In essence what is blown and hot formed glass? Hot formed glass is sculpting in glass and can be combined with glassblowing techniques to create a wider range of possibilities. I create out of a workshop with a furnace full of molten glass which I blow and manipulate using specialised tools hand tools in metal and wood and reheating ovens. It is an exciting atmosphere to create in, a soundscape of all the four elements - earth, air, wind and fire. It can appear like a dance as it is very reliant on teamwork and working in tune with one another.
How did you come upon this material in the first place? By accident or by fate, whichever you choose to believe. Growing up I was fortunate enough to trial and explore with a lot of different materials and mediums and while looking at university courses I didn’t feel ready to commit to one material. Frustration led me to apply for a random art course which turned out to be a Bachelor of Applied Arts with a major in glass, at Monash University in Melbourne. I was instantly hooked.
What are the attractions and the particular challenges to working in this medium? It sounds a bit dangerous! A big attraction for me is the physicality of glass making, using your whole body to create, the timing and the teamwork needed. It takes so long to master that there is no chance to feel bored. It is dangerous in the sense that there is the chance to get seriously burnt. But we learn how to work with the glass and its equipment to avoid that.
Who are the surrealist and symbolist artists who inspired you? How do you work with, and take on, their inspirations? My biggest inspiration without a doubt is René Magritte. I love his graphic and aesthetically refined sense of surrealism. I was drawn to him during a pivotal time in my work. To this day his work permits me to confidently call my pieces surrealist/symbolist, even though they are quite simplistic. Also Meret Oppenheim. My Nurse, is a definite favourite sculpture of hers. I love her use of everyday objects to convey meaning.
Even though the work is quite immediate it is also psychologically very layered. Can you tell us a little about this? I think my works have a boldness that I feel I lack in my personality, like the shy actor able to step on stage and be exuberant in their role. When in reality the works are quite contemplative, which is more my nature.
Can you pick out three of your works on Artpsace and tell us a little about each? Lumber Sack was from a series of similar works I called Pot Logs, and pre-dating these I made tree stumps in glass with a strong emphasis on the cross-section, showing the year rings. A chronic introvert, the year rings represent me coming to terms and accepting that. Another aspect these reflect is feeling a bit rootless, or transplanted. I left Australia 17 years ago, and here I am in Sweden.
Cock Shot and Weiner are amongst my most wildly guessed at works, and I do love hearing these interpretations. But to me, they are about frustration and confidence, respectfully. Not in regards to sex, but life. But I also enjoy that these works can serve as visual puns on their own.
What was your earliest art creation as a kid? I think the earliest was making furniture and interior items for my dollhouse, I wasn’t so interested in playing with dolls as such, but I loved making, for example, tiny food items in polymer, and going into detail with those.
How would you describe your process? I start with sketching, there is an amount of planning involved, to think through the technical challenges. I often draw out the steps. There is a test phase in the glass studio, finding the right colors, textures, and expressions needed. Also practising - repetitive training is crucial until the standard is good enough. There are a lot of failures along the way.
Often when sculpting in glass, parts are made separately then warmed up again and assembled whilst hot. Pieces often require further work after cooling, these are various processes of cutting, grinding, sandblasting, sometimes painting. My works tend to develop quite slowly, taking weeks and months to create, so I have often worked on several ideas at once.
How do you get your creativity flowing? What prompts new ideas for you? A lot of my ideas have come from doodling and sketching random objects, knowing the processes and what is possible also can form ideas, but also trying to be open to intuitive impulses.
Do you buy art yourself? If so what have you bought in recent years? Glass pieces come with the territory, through trades, gifts and purchases. I haven’t bought a lot of other art pieces myself. I bought a small piece by the French artist Amigo a few years ago. I love works in pencil as the medium feels so refreshing compared to how much equipment and resources are needed to create glass. I envy the minute detail that is possible with a simple grey lead pencil.
If you could choose any artist on earth to do your portrait who would you choose, and what instructions might you give them? I would say Jakob Tolstrup, for his playful and humoristic illustrated works. I would just tell him to make it fun.
What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t doing this? I strongly considered studying furniture making, I think that could have also suited me. Just for the physicality of it, and I enjoy working with wood, even with my 'hobby-level' skills.
To see more of Tillie Burden’s work and maybe even invest in a piece yourself go here.