April Surgent Glass Artist

How did you first meet John Piatt?

I met John in the spring of 2018, after a mutual colleague that I met on a job in California suggested I contact him. I had been working from the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge (30 miles offshore of San Francisco) on a northern elephant seal project that winter and said mutual colleague knew that we both lived in Port Townsend, WA. Also that John frequently needed volunteers to help with fieldwork.

John Piatt, Research Biologist, USGS- Alaska Science Centre, Anchorage, Alaska

What did you say or do to get John to ask you to join his research team, at Cook Inlet, Alaska?

I’m not sure what I said or did that got my foot in the door, other than sending John a blind e-mail introducing myself; I live in Port Townsend, I am an artist that has been working with different research teams in the field and if he ever needed any extra hands, perhaps I could help. We sent a few e-mails back and forth, met for coffee at his home office and a few months later I got an email asking if I would like to help out with some research in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

Suspended in the Atmosphere, 28.5 x 28.5 x .75” installed, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

It was an opportunity for him as well. Having an artist along is also a unique opportunity for a different type of outreach for his research. The first research cruise must have gone well enough as I was asked to come back on two more occasions this summer!

Kachemak Bay, Alaska

How has your interpretation influenced people to go beyond the research?

Hopefully my work has introduced people to places and ideas that they hadn’t either known of or considered before. The goal of collaborating with research and conservation scientists is to share some of what I learn and experience in the field through my work. I’ve had incredible opportunity to work from some of the most remote places in the world. The idea is to introduce these places to people and help lay the groundwork to understanding and why we should care about them, despite their inaccessibility.

Much More Than a Picture of Ice, 25.75 x 36.5 x .75”, Cameo engraved glass, 2015

For the first time in human history, more people live in urban centres than rural environments and we are becoming increasingly disengaged to the natural world.

Berlin Interchange, 28.25 x 36.5 x 2”, Cameo engraved glass, 2011

This disengagement comes at a time when it is especially important that we understand the world’s ecosystems so that we can be better stewards of the environment.

Into the Green Mountains, 17 x 41 x 2” installed, Cameo engraved glass, 2013

Hopefully my work helps build that connection to nature or at the very least is a reminder of the beauty that can be found in the natural world.

Decadal Time Scale, 19.875 x 30.25 x 2”, Cameo engraved glass, 2014

Discuss the importance of combining art and science.

Wildlife Biologist Ryan Berger on whale watch, the lighthouse on Southeast Farallon Island, Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, California, 2017

This is a big question and one that I have spent years thinking about.  I believe that combining the arts and sciences is important for so many reasons! When you break it down, artists and scientists from all mediums and fields are ultimately trying to accomplish the same thing only through different methods: At the end of the day we’re all observers of life trying to grasp a better understanding of our existence.

Walleye Pollock caught on a forage fish trawl for USGS study, Lower Cook Inlet, Alaska, 2018

My interest in fieldwork lies in the ideology that the dialogue between artists and scientists is imperative for a most informed and diversified understanding of life and that knowledge is the greatest agent for change. With science far too often inaccessible and unattainable, the goal of these collaborations is to bring awareness to the environmental crisis’ we’re facing in order to create a platform for understanding.

Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program remote field camp at Pearl and Hermes atoll, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Permit: PMNM- 2016-011

After all, it’s difficult to care or have compassion for things that are unfamiliar to us.

It has been my experience that cross-disciplinary exchanges are invaluable catalysts for facilitating complex ideas to the public at large and hold significant cultural value. With the consideration that many people only see and understand the world through pictures and or artist and writer interpretation, I see it as part of the artists’ role to illuminate thoughtful and knowledgeable observations on issues critically relevant to our times.

Your exhibition opening from this current research.

In The Space Separating opens at Traver Gallery in Seattle, WA on October 3rd and runs through November 9th, 2019.

The Stark Beauty of a Planetary Landscape, 18 x 66”, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

The show will have eleven engravings inspired by my time spent working as a research assistant in Alaska and a large installation made from disposable lighters that were collected as marine debris from the shores of the North-Western Hawaiian Islands.

Ice Field; Anonymous, 17 x 25.5 x .75”, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

All the engravings for this show focus on light in land or sky scapes. Lower Cook Inlet is a remote and wild place with glacier topped mountains that surge from the ocean.  The surrounding environment skews ones everyday perspective and gives you a palpable sense of being on a planet. Ice Field; Anonymous. is a nine-panel engraving that depicts an ice-capped mountain reflecting the light of high latitude, late afternoon sun. I had this piece hanging in my studio for a few months after I finished it and when I looked at it, it gave me a measurable sense of what it felt like to be at that place, at that time; for me that made it a successful piece.

Lighters….

Portrait of an Ocean, or, The Lighter Project as I have dubbed it, started when I was working for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program from Pearl and Hermes atoll in the North-western Hawaiian Islands in 2016.

The Unnatural Movement of the Ocean with Plastic, 30 x 30 x .75, Cameo engraved glass, 2017

Although the North-western Hawaiian Islands are considered to be one of the most remote and wild places on earth traces of mankind can literally be found in every step. The tiny islands and islets are covered in marine debris from nations all around the Pacific.

Prolific amongst the debris were plastic disposable lighters.

That Dream then, it was Here, 19.25 x 13 x .75”, Cameo engraved glass, 2017

Our team started to casually collect them, in part just to see how many we could collect and in part for something to do along the way while looking for Hawaiian Monk Seals. By the end of the season we had a five-gallon bucket full of them.

When I returned to my studio, I knew that I wanted to make a piece that spoke to the problem of marine debris and looked to the bucket of lighters as a symbol of that problem.

In the end it was the sea, 15 x 22.75 x .75”, Cameo engraved glass, 2017

I asked the Hawaiian Monk Seal Program if they would collect lighters for me in the 2017 field season to add to my collection. This time, they were collected from five different field camps by nearly 20 biologists from French Frigate Shoals to Kure Atoll and a total of 2,240 lighters were collected. With those lighters I made a 9 x 9 foot installation. I glued the lighters to 16 metal armatures and when it was completed the piece hung like a large monolith.

Pinhole Image of Disposable lighters arranged onsite, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, 2016, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Permit: PMNM-2016-011

Biologists from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program continued to collect lighters for this project in the 2018 filed season and I now have over 4,000 lighters. For my upcoming exhibition, In The Space Separating, I have used the additional lighters to double the size of the original installation; as marine debris accumulates on shores around the world, so too grows the installation. The composition of the second generation of the lighter installation is fashioned after a non-pyrotechnic distress flag.

Portrait of an Ocean, 9 x 9 feet installed, Disposable lighter marine debris, metal, 2017

The lighters are all different shapes, sizes and colours. Many of them have writing on them, advertising businesses and brands. I have counted a handful of different languages from English to Japanese to Russian. The reaction to the installation is more often than not, of total disbelief.

Detail: Portrait of an Ocean

When you first see the installation, it looks more like stained glass than marine debris. As you get closer to the piece and start to recognize that they are in fact thousands of disposable lighters it is a kind of shock.

Detail: Portrait of an Ocean

Many people ask how I have made them or aged them; assuming that I have bought them all.  When they learn how they were collected the next reaction is to assume that perhaps a shipping container full of lighters spilled. It is a slow connection of the dots to realize that there is just that much debris in our oceans that you can pick out and have so many of just a single item.

What has led you to observe and allow us to be pulled up so sharply?

A deep love for the sea was instilled in me as a child who grew up on and around the great Salish Sea. A lifetime of observing the declining health of our oceans has turned me to science for answers, and over the last 6 years, I have collaborated with scientists from around the Pacific to learn about global warming and it’s impact on ocean ecology. Warming sea temperatures, ocean acidification, over-fishing and pollution are all taking their toll on one of the Earth’s most precious natural resources.

Drifting on a gentle wave, 15 x 24.5”, Cameo engraved glass, 2018

What led you to mural glass engraving?

Growing up in Seattle, an area known for it’s high concentration of glass artists thanks to Dale Chihuly, I was introduced to the medium of glass as a teenager. From the moment I saw people blowing glass in a hot-shop I knew that it was what I wanted to do.  I ended up blowing glass throughout high school and then looked for university art programs that had glass departments. I spent one year at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI and then transferred to the Australian National University’s School of Art renowned glass department. It was there that I was introduced to other approaches with the medium.

I started playing in the cold-shop (term used to describe the working area where one can cut, carve and polish glass) on the different equipment and was especially drawn to the engraving lathe. In 2003, my third year of studies in Canberra, Prof. Jiri Harcuba, a master engraver from the Czech Republic, was teaching an engraving course at Pilchuck Glass School. I had known several of his past students and was determined to take his class. It ended up being a life-changer, as from that class on I put down the blowpipes and really focused on engraving.

Harcuba ended up becoming my mentor and we worked and taught together for nearly a decade before his passing in 2013. He was an exceptional human being who inspired and encouraged me to experiment with engraving, not to be bound by the historical limitations of the craft. He also introduced me to the world of beautiful ideas and instilled in me the importance of being a lifetime student.

Discuss your 2019 work using panels to show the ‘Whole’ images.

Sky Trail, 16 x 20 x .75”installed, Cameo engraved glass, 2017

How do you decide on the number of panels and shapes in each piece?

My engravings are divided up into multiple panels to show a single image due to the process of wheel engraving. There are many ways that you can carve glass but my approach is on an engraving lathe; a machine that is much like a metal smith’s grinder. The shaft distance between the wheel and the machine more or less determines how large I can go per panel.

Sea and Sky, 30 x 30 x .75”, Installed, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

Another consideration is that I need to lift the panels to the grinding wheel; wheel engraving it is a lot like drawing but bringing the paper to pencil. This means that I am continuously moving the glass around. If the panel is very large it becomes very cumbersome not to mention heavy. Although the panels don’t weight much just to pick up, when you’re holding them all day long and pushing against a wheel they get heavy.

Larger works like, Sea & Sky need to be broken up for all of those reasons. Determining where and how I will break up an image into panels is always though and takes a lot of consideration.

Sea and Sky, 30 x 30 x.75, Installed, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

Expand on ‘That Which is Beyond Imagination’.

That which is beyond imagination, 25.25 x 25.25 x .75”, Cameo engraved glass, 2019

That Which is Beyond Imagination is a piece that I made in response to my work with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program in the North-western Hawaiian Islands. It depicts the sooty tern colony on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals. Although Tern Island is only a mere 34 acres it is home to over 300,000 seabirds and over 80% of them are sooty terns. Despite the chaos, deafening noise and overwhelming smell, being in the middle of a seabird colony of that size was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life!

Like the vast majority of my work, each panel of this piece is comprised of three layers of Bullseye sheet glass that have been fused together. Each sheet is about 1.5 mm thick so the total panel thickness is just about 5-6mm. Each panel has a layer of white on one side and two darker layers under the white.

Using a photograph, drawing or combination of the two, I then roughly draw the composition onto the white layer with a wax pencil. Once the composition is complete, I take the glass to the engraving lathe and start cutting away. Because engraving is a reductive process, I usually end up marking the panels out several times.

Once the engraving part is complete, I wash the glass and put it back into the kiln to lightly fire polish to a matte finish. After the fire polish the panels are ready to have brackets glued to the back of them to be hung on a wall.

Look at four of your research destinations:

Antarctica – NSF

Palmer Station, Western Antarctic Peninsula, 2013

Farallon Island National Wildlife Refuge

Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, 2017

Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program – NOAA

North Island, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, 2016, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Permit: PMNM-2016-011

Alaska – USGS

USGS RV, Alaska Gyre in Homer Marina. Homer, AK, 2018

Discuss one or two aspects that gave you artistic inspiration while there.

I’ve always been interested in the inherent connection between person and place. Whether in Antarctica, the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a city or in my own backyard I tend to draw inspiration from my surrounding environments no matter where I am. I like to observe how we interact with our surroundings and how our interactions with our surrounding influence the way that we navigate through life.

One huge difference in each location you had not expected.

One of the biggest pleasures that I enjoyed in Antarctica was on a solo glacier walk. On a clear afternoon I took a long walk up and over the glacier behind station to work on some drawings. I had come to a point on the glacier where there was a mind-blowing view of the Western Antarctic peninsula mountain range full of glaciers and especially crisp against the bright blue sky. The surrounding waters were a deep blue except for the areas full of bright white pack ice. The snow-covered landscape was all contours and almost appeared to be breathing; the planet itself was alive!

Although I have always felt a closeness to nature, I had never really felt the grandeur of a planetary landscape in that way. For the first time in my life I really felt like I was on a planet, spinning away in the universe. Actually feeling like I was on a planet like the ones I had seen in the night sky opened up a whole new perspective of life.  Though the feeling does not come often, I have since had similar experiences both from the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and in remote Alaska.

If wilderness areas like Antarctica and Alaska represent our existence on a planet, then Pearl and Hermes Atoll represents the womb, or the life-source. Atop the very peak of an ancient volcano sunken into the sea over countless millennia, the world there seemed to vibrate with palpable energy, as if life itself were boiling up to the surface of the ocean.

Accessible only by boat and some 1,200 miles from Honolulu, Pearl and Hermes is a 450-square-mile atoll that is largely underwater. It has only six small islands and islets that have a combined landmass of about 80 acres. At first glance the watery landscape appears to be incredibly hostile and incapable of sustaining life. But on second glace, one realises that it is actually an oasis that can support untold numbers of marine and terrestrial species.

Great Frigate bird on marine debris, Pearl and Hermes Atoll. 2016, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Permit: PMNM – 2016-011

Contact:

April Surgent

https://www.aprilsurgent.com

april@aprilsurgent.com

Deborah Blakeley, Melbourne, Australia

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, September 2019