Family stories, feelings, mistakes, and even funeral fairs are able to stimulate the artist's creative process. Here, Bibi shares how two of her art series developed from a very peculiar commission.
Matilde Bignotti: The series of the Cocoons and the Boats are linked to each other. Could you tell me more about what connects them?
BS: I was being invited for an exhibition at the funeral fair. They sold machines for digging graves, caskets, cloth. At the time, if you were cremated the ash had to be in one vessel as, in case the government would request to see the ashes, you could show them. Then, the rules softened, the ash could be spread. For example, you could put it in a ring, and make a diamond out of it, or put it into glass. At the fair, there was a stand that represented a Gallery, which asked to 10 different artists to create something to hold ash. The theme had to be the Egyptian death culture.
MB: That is a very interesting theme, for its rituals of purification and transition to the afterlife. What aspects of it have inspired the pieces?
BS: The Egyptians’ rituals of protection and mummification of the bodies inspired the cocoons. I see it as a symbolic space where what is vulnerable and valuable can be cherished, protected and secure. The threads embrace the piece and convey a sense of warmth and intimacy.
MB: Why is this cocoon not closed completely?
BS: It is not closed because there is still a contact with the person. The soul is protected, wrapped in threads, but the sarcophagus is open.- The Egyptian ceremony also inspired the boats. They are wrapped in silver thread and copper.
MB: Are the Boats also inspired by the Egyptian theme?
BS: Yes, I was fascinated by the idea of transition of the soul. The boat represents this journey, both from world to world and person to person. I imagine the family writing down a memory of the person who passed away in a piece of and place in the boat.
The free nature of hot glass allows the artist to experiement and play with ideas. By mastering the technique and controlling all the steps of glassblowing, Bibi is able to trasform mistakes and unexpected accidents into new ideas. In this conversation, the artist suggest the stories behind what she calls 'happy accidents'.
Matilde Bignotti: In previous conversations we talked about series that were inspired by a specific theme, as the boats and the cocoons, or stand as metaphors for your feelings, such as the Houses. Could you give an example of a piece or series that developed unexpectedly from free experimentation with the material?
BS: I usually talk about the Crinkled glasses as these pieces are a perfect example of ‘happy accidents’. One day I heated the glass bubble on the blow pipe too long and the glass nearly collapsed in a wrinkled way. I thought I could control that mistake, making the glass fold how I wanted turning the mistake into a series of glasses.
MB: This reminds me of our previous conversation about your experience at Lindeal Mill. Does your confidence with the material play a role in your attitude towards these ‘accidents’?
BS: It surely does. Instead of feeling discouraged by mistakes, I am able to control the process and play with the material. Another good example of a technique developed from experimentation happened a long time ago while I was working in Leerdam, in the Glasblazerij, part of the museum. For a week, artists were invited to blow glass and the museum’s visitors could come and watch as there was a big seating capacity. I was sitting there, experimenting, while somebody with a microphone was explaining to the audience what I was doing. Which is hilarious because, you don’t even know yourself what it is that you are doing!
MB: Oh, it sounds like a stressful situation. What did you make?
BS: Yes, it was! So, to level down the pressure I started to play with the glass and make silly things. Mangoes in glass, big ugly birds, jellyfish and octopuses. I wanted to give the octopuses a more interesting texture so, I started to pull the glass and make threads around piece. Turn after turn, I started to appreciate the way these thin glass threads were reflecting the light and changing the nature of the pieces.
Later I started to explore this technique. I made the threads thicker, thinner, I made crisscrossed and parallel threads. That day at the Glasblazerij, in theory I was making ugly work, I didn’t expect the threads to come out.
MB: I see the threads as a sort of signature of your art style. It is the technique that makes the Fruits luminous and emphasize the movement of glass and the ‘alive’ nature of glass in most of your pieces! Thank you for sharing these stories.
During the early stages of her career, Bibi has been assisting and collaborating with different glassblowing artists. These experiences not only taught her techniques and methods, but influenced her approach to art and to her relationship with the material. Here, the artist tells us about her training with Willem Heesen, glass artist, designer and painter.
Matilde Bignotti: During your career in glassblowing, you have been collaborating with several artists. Who are some of the people that have had the biggest impact on your life creatively?
Bibi Smit: The first person who comes to mind, is Willem Heesen. I assisted him at the beginning of my experience as a glassblower and he has been an inspiration in many ways. He had a quiet strength around him. He was always thinking as he was working, you could almost see the words above his head, floating. He was completely absorbed in the process when he was blowing glass.
Willem transmitted me the love for the glass. He had this deep lifelong connection with the material. Starting as a designer, he didn’t just want to draw the pieces, he wanted to make them, to be the maker. So, he taught himself to blow glass and opened a studio, ‘de Oude Horn’, which also represented the beginning of the glass movement in Holland.
MB: It is very interesting what you said about Willem being a lot in his head while working. How did you communicate while blowing together? Could you really read the words above his head?
BS: The process of making glass involves a lot of non-verbal communication. You can discuss what you want beforehand, but at the moment of blowing itself, it is all about gestures, synchrony of movements. So, I think there has to be a click with the person you are working with, a complicity that goes beyond words.
MB: It looks like a dance; it is what I thought when I observed you and Katrin Mauer blowing together in the hotshop. You moved as you knew where the other was going, following the same pace. How was your personal experience with William Heesen? What was it that made you click?
BS: That is also still unknown, especially because of the way it started, it very funny. ‘I don’t want anybody because I prefer to have silence around me. I don't need anybody, I already have an assistant’, this was what he replied to my application letter. ‘However’, he said afterwards, ‘there is an opportunity that you can come and work with me’. I was very surprised, so I went there and then he totally took me under his wing. I was allowed to live in his house, with his family. He took to me to the glass school and museum in the north of France where he was teaching. I was by his side for six weeks, it was very intense. It was very generous of him to share all of this with me.
MB: It is indeed funny how it your professional relationship developed his initial rejection. Thank you for sharing your experiences!
In the previous post, Bibi revealed how her collaboration with Willem Heesen influenced her relationship with the material and with the process of glassblowing. Here, the artist tells us about David and Annica: the couple that mentored her for a year at Lindean Mill, Scotland.
MB: During our last conversation, we talked about the ‘soft’ aspects of glassblowing, the love for the material and the complicity between maker and assistant. What other experiences were relevant in shaping your experience as a glassblowing?
BS: After graduating from art college, I was assisting David Kaplan and Annica Sandstorm at Lindean Mill Glass in the south of Scotland. Annica was the designer, and David, her husband, was the glass maker and I was assisting. We were mostly making tableware, wine glasses, water glasses and from time to time we would make unique pieces or bigger pieces with lots of color.
For over a year, I was blowing glass every day from eight o'clock in the morning until six at night. Repetition, repetition, repetition and work ethic, that’s what I learned from them and how I really learned to understand the material and the techniques.
MB: It looks like an intense training, especially as you spent over an year there. How was your relationship with them?
BS: It was very nice; I enjoyed their energy! They had ideas, a good sense of what they wanted out of the piece and how to achieve it. Their attitude has taught me a lot about work ethic, how to be precise and make structured plans. Besides making glassware and wine glasses, I was learning the rules of glass making which I could then apply to shape my own projects.
MB: I guess that mastering the techniques is what allows you to create what you have in mind more independently. What else has influenced your approach to the creative process?
BS: Besides structure and repetition, what made me grow as a glassblower was that I was allowed to make mistakes. I had the freedom to experiment, to try out different things and make my own choices and they were always there guiding me. David and Annica were very good mentors! Not only I could improve my technique, but I learned about hotshop maintenance, how to charge the furnace and even talking to clients, talking to galleries, how to get to galleries. The whole package.
The ‘Cutlery’ series consists of compositions of tableware made by the artist around 2008. In their shapes and materials these pieces carry stories where time, family and symbolic meanings come together. Here, Bibi talks about the memories and lines of thoughts that inspired these artworks.
Matilde Bignotti: In your gallery, I noticed these very unique sets of spoons and knifes. Could you tell me more about these series? I assume they are not mean to be used to set the table.
Bibi Smit: The Cutlery series is inspired by a real story. During the war, a family member had to flee his house. He took his silver cutlery set with him as payment. During his journey he would sell parts of the cutlery set to pay his way. To this day, a surviving relative is hunting small antique fairs to find back some knives and forks in order to complete the set. Individual parts can form a set. This story fascinates me, I imagine the knifes reunited after a long time, exchanging stories and experiences.
Are the glass knives maybe the lost property of the future?
Has time staggered?
MB: In their simplicity, these objects have seen so much history. Is it the same for the spoons?
BS: Quite the opposite. I continued the thought but in the opposite way. Some objects, like the knifes, are used and worn while other are beautifully untouched. As a set of spoons that a couple may receive as a gift for their wedding. Really nice, but too delicate to be ruined. So, these objects never lived, probably they were always kept in a drawer.
MB: The composition of the pieces, and the materials they are combined with, also differs. What are these choices suggesting?
BS: The knifes are entagled on the floor, I imagine them enjoying the reunion. Conversely, the spoons are lying in order on the tray, untouched. However, there are these other spoons that are lying in beeswax and one is kept in a felt pocket. These materials express a different type of intimacy: the glass is gently protected. Like a parent who is protecting her child, and nurturing her. The spoon is used to feed, to nurture, to nourish.
MB: I was not expecting these simple objects to hold such intriguing stories and symbolic meanings, thank you for sharing them!
In this conversation, Bibi talks us through ‘Houses’, one of her earliest art series. With its intriguing name and unique structure, each house invites who observes it to reflect on feelings of belonging and life transition.
Matilde Bignotti: ‘Moving through’, ‘Hiding in my castle’, ‘Inner feelings’. What do these names reveal about the Houses series?
Bibi Smit: House is belonging somewhere, right? Whether it be your house or your community or your town or your country. It is also who you are and if you feel rooted and you feel strong and you feel that you are where you belong.
MB: Does the colour suggest something?
BS: Some houses are dark, they do not allow you to see what is inside. Other houses are transparent, you can see through. And some of them are crowded: other small houses are placed inside.
MB: It is intriguing to 'read' your experiences by interpreting the symbolic meanings suggested by the house. How did you get the idea of connecting the house to the soul?
BS: In Thailand outside of each house, school, even gas station, there is a spirit houses, a little miniature house that works as an offering table. Every week, the owner of the building places an offering in the spirit house. It is a gift to the Gods to thank them for their protection. This action makes the object, these small spirit houses, not only meaningful, but alive.