Through the Glass

“I’m lucky that I’ve been asked to express myself fully in two diciplines,” says the remarkably talented  Alison Kinnaird, who is both an accomplished harpist and glass artist.

Her passion for music first surfaced when, as a pupil at Watson’s School, in Edinburgh, she learnt to play the cello and studied with Ruth and Maimie Waddell at the famous Waddell School of Music. As such, she was a founder member of the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra. At the age of 14 she discovered the harp and was taught by Jean Campbell. Her love of this unusual instrument led to her winning the Clarsach Trophy at the National Mod and the Harp Competition in Pan Celtic Festival in Killarney. But it also led her to the world of Scottish traditional music and her future husband – Robin Morton, another versatile musician who founded the Boys of the Lough.

Whilst at university – reading Celtic Studies and Archaeology at Edinburgh –  she discovered the beauty of glass, which she describes as seductive and versatile.

“Harold Gordon started me off,” she says. “Then I took my work to the back door of Edinburgh Art College and Helen Turner, who was the Head of Glass, allowed me to go for ‘Special Classes’ once or twice a week.  I managed to fit them in between studies and field trips and of course music but by the time I left University, I knew that engraving was the direction I wanted to go in.”

A fellowship allowed her to pursue her interest in this demanding discipline, working with a substance which is neither completely solid nor liquid. Today she has a small studio in her home, which is full of natural light.

She also enjoyed buying interesting properties and in 1979, she bought a dilapidated church in the village of Temple, Midlothian. While husband Robin was touring and playing around the world – although he left Boys of the Lough, he became the manager of one of Scotland’s most successful traditional music bands, the Battlefield Band – Alison stayed at home in the converted church bringing up their two children. The church has also become a recording studio and the home of Temple Records. Thus the couple enjoy a lively life which is a mixture of work and home, with family, friends and other musicians calling in at all times of the day – often for meals.

There are mid levels and stairs leading you round the house in a complete circle. As you would expect there are galleries displaying examples of Alison’s work. Her studio is at the top of the former church with a desk in a window alcove where natural light streams onto the cutting wheel.

Alison engraving“I’ve worked a lot at my drawing,” she says. “You need very careful drawings for classic copper wheel engraving. The wheel is fixed and it’s the glass that moves so you need to know what you’re doing. The copper wheel picks up carborundum powder and uses it to do the cutting. Oil and paraffin lubricate it – it’s a technique that has hardly changed in 2000 years and gives a delicacy and precision that is perfect for my figures.”

Patience and precision are key to the beauty of Alison’s work. As with her music, she takes her native country as her inspiration, though the references may not be literal or specific. “The starkness of the landscape, the relationship of air and water, and recurring images of standing stones and boats, all carry symbolism on a number of levels, both personal and universal.

“Glass is pretty and can be too decorated,” she says. “Its beauty can actually be a hindrance. With experience you become more discerning. Thus the images must have a strength which belies the small scale of copper wheel engraving. The small scale then allows an introspection and intimacy of the viewer’s experience, perhaps sometimes missing in monumental artworks. The purity of the medium adds a spiritual dimension – Glass is a surreal material – it’s there and yet not there.”

It is hard to imagine how anyone could find the time to excel in these two specialist fields. But she never gets bored or stale. “They are completely contrasting,” she says. “Glass is considered intense and lonely while music is immediate and you relate to other people with it. But there are similarities. They both require dexterity and they are both beautiful in themselves.”

Her world-wide reputation, for both, has brought her many friends around the globe and she still teaches at the Corning Glass Studio in New York State in America.

Her relationship with Robin has been a long-lasting one of both love and business. Essential to the success of their 37 year marriage has been the recognition that each has talents that should not be restricted.

“When the children were small, I would just start work at 8 o’clock after they were in bed,” she says. “When Robin wasn’t away, he made up the difference.”

It was Robin who saw Alison’s unique musical talent and wanted to record it for harp lovers. Harp playing was something that was generally a demure activity, undertaken by genteel ladies in Victorian drawing rooms but, “Alison,” says Robin, “plays with balls, she plays like a man.”

Alison has clearly heard this attribute before. She doesn’t argue. “I feel comfortable with stronger music that leaves out the notes and is distilled, letting the music speak for itself. Both the harp and glass have an innate beauty that you have to fight against and not let it run away with you. You need discipline.”

Alison plays both gut and wire-strung harps and has recorded several critically acclaimed albums. She has also written several books of harp music, and, with Keith Sanger, co-authored the first published history of the harp in Scotland, The Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Teud (Harp). Her very special combination of talents was recognised in 1997, when she was awarded the MBE for services to art and music.

“The Harp Key – Crann nan Teud” produced in 1979, was a triple first. It was Alison’s first ever recording and it was the first ever recording of Scottish harp music, made by Robin because he recognised how important this music was. Other record companies declined to publish it, believing it wouldn’t sell but Robin’s faith was justified. It is still essential listening for anyone interested in the Scottish harp. It was also the first album on Temple Records’ catalogue and the start of a new entrepreneurial enterprise for this talented family.

Recently she has been working on a new technique for working with glass. “Glass can be solid or liquid, transparent or obscure, smooth or textured, heavy or apparently weightless. But it’s only in partnership with light that glass comes alive,” she explains. “It is then glowing and brilliant, reflective and refractive.

“Glass engraving is often really badly shown in galleries and museums, so I’ve been experimenting with ways of lighting it, first with optical fibre, now with LED – edge lighting. You can almost paint with the colours. People can’t see how I can get the colours!” she laughs, rather enjoying the novelty of this cleverness. “It’s layers of glass and light is trapped inside each one. I use very careful placing of light in relation to the image on the glass. This means you know how it’s going to look. Before, your heart would break when you saw your work set up in a gallery. They had no idea, or they didn’t have the facilities to display it properly. It’s light that brings it to life.”

Alison was awarded a Creative Scotland Award from the Scottish Arts Council in 2002 and used the award to investigate the possibilities of combining her passions for both music and glass.  What a challenge! The result is an award winning creation entitled Palmsong, which can be seen in the Scottish Parliament building. She began by playing gaelic psalms on harp and cello, as well as on glass, literally using the sound of the medium itself.  The resulting music was then played into a computer at the Physics Department of Edinburgh University, which analysed the notes and produced lissajous patterns derived from the sound waves – the kind of swirls and spirals you can see when playing music on your computer. Alison then combined these patterns with her human figures, adding colour by placing slips of dichroic glass under each panel of the engraving and transmitting light through them using optical fibres.

Alison Palmsong

Palmsong comprises 24 overlapping panels.  An unexpected element came when Alison was experimenting with the optical fibre lighting.  “Suddenly a wonderful shadow came up behind the glass on the wall behind it,” she explains.  “Robin suggested that we photograph this shadow and have it printed on a linen banner to hang behind the piece.  I think that gives it a new scale and a lot of dignity.”

The final stage of the project has been the creation of a DVD combining her music with images of Psalmsong.

This understanding of the medium and her determination to express it to the full  means that Alison’s expertise is in demand by curators of other exhibitions as well as her own. She is happy to do this, she says, as she enjoys getting the best out of other people’s work.

Perhaps that is the key to Alison’s success – the fact that her love of the work, whether music or glass, demands that she is never going to be satisfied with second best.
Some examples of Alison’s glass work can be seen locally in the Scottish Parliament and at the National Museum. Her music can be purchased directly from Temple Records.

Published by

Suse Coon

Suse Coon started life training to be an architect but ended up as a fashion buyer then civil servant. After some time out to bring up her family of three, she returned to what had been a hobby and entered the field of freelance journalism. After becoming regional correspondent, then editor of the orienteering magazine CompassSport, she formed Pages Editorial & Publishing Services. In this guise, West Lothian Life was launched, while Suse maintained a level of freelancing and wrote the award winning children's novel Richard's Castle. In 1999, Suse bought over CompassSport and found her time taken up pretty well exclusively with the two magazines. In 2004, West Lothian Life was expanded to form Lothian Life, however, the workload was too great. In 2006, CompassSport was sold and Suse concentrated on the web version of Lothian Life. Her hobbies include gardening, orienteering, sea kayaking and Tai Chi.

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