In troubled times like the world seems to be experiencing at the moment, the art world is a wonderful place to turn to if you’re hoping to find solace. Perhaps a solo glass exhibition isn’t exactly what you might be looking for, but that’s the magic of art ̶ you never know what you’re going to find. And that’s why this introduction to the conceptual artist, glass blower Martli Jansen van Rensburg:
In recent years we have been introduced to the world of glass blowing on a wider scale by reality series on TV, and if there’s anything these seasons brought home to me, it was that this wasn’t an easy route to follow.
Martli Jansen van Rensburg has been working as conceptual artist and glass designer for the past 20 years and this latest exhibition, Ruach, is her first solo exhibition in 10 years … and she’s excited.
It might seem a long time in-between exhibitions but with the amount of work that has to go into especially a solo exhibition, the prohibitive cost as well as establishing her brand with her own studio, a furnace where there’s also access to the wider world as well as her lecture and teaching responsibilities, it’s a big ask.
But she knew the time was right and she got cracking. In-between came covid, all of which gave her a chance to breathe, to take stock of her life and her art, and to explore her possibilities. She was also approached by a friend who offered her the perfect space to exhibit her work as the inaugural artist – and the deal was done.
She describes the show as a conclusion of things in her heart, a spiritual journey which explored why she did what she did. She started her artistic career by studying sculpture with no idea that glass sculpting would become her endgame.
She finished her degree in Fine Arts at TUT in 2000, received a scholarship to study glass design in Sweden in 2007 and had extensive training as glass blower in the UK, Germany and Scotland. Currently she is director at Smelt Glass studio together with Michael Hyam where she designs work and produces art. She also lectures at TUT.
She sees herself more than anything as a conceptual artist exploring the realm of abstract forms and then as a glass blower who practises a craft or a skill. In the past 12 years she has been part of many group exhibitions locally and abroad and has worked on many different projects including Afrika for Coca-Cola Lab, Light for Randlords Bar, an installation for the Graskop Hotel and Squaring the Circle 2 for the Michelangelo Hotel. She has also featured as a finalist in many competitions, including Absa Atelier, Brett Keble Artist Award, Ekurhuleni Fine Arts Award and FNB Crafts Award.
In 2003 she established a glass design company called Molten. The products include everyday articles, limited edition vases, bowls and custom-made lights. She also works with many architects and interior designers producing custom made lights and commissions. In 2009, Molten won the Elle Decorations – Edida Awards for best tableware in South Africa.
She has always had a passion for teaching and sharing her skills while developing glass in South Africa. She taught at TUT between 2004 and 2008 and from 2008, until 2011 she trained young up-end-coming artists and rural glass blowers from KwaZulu-Natal at Smelt glass studio. She has also hosted a student project for the National Arts Council and was part of the Ekurhuleni mentorship programme in 2009. Currently she lectures part time at TUT’s fine arts department.
But with this current exhibition she wants to showcase her work, specifically as a sculptor who works in glass. And to get to this point has been a slow process with the accent on process, which has been a tough one, but when you see the work, it has been hugely rewarding.
The reason there are relatively few (or perhaps unseen) artists who work in glass is because it is such a difficult art form.
With the title of her exhibition RUACH, a Hebrew word translated in three ways ̶ breath, spirit and wind ̶ she offers the following quote by American sculptor Janet Echelman to encapsulate the exhibition:
Breath is a strange thing, it is both tangible and intangible. You can sense it and feel it. It touches you, but you can’t grab it. You cannot completely control it, but it can completely control you. There is a power connected to wind and breath. A strong wind can tear down a city, a breath taken away always ends a human life.
It is how she feels about her work, the blowing of the glass naturally emphasising everything she feels, while the lack of control and never knowing what the final result will be following the process in the furnace, presents a specific challenge.
“Glass is a slow liquid and with the breathing and the blowing, as an artist, I am completely involved,” explains Martli. And part of the creative process is to push rather than fight the uncontrollable, because part of the process is to let the glass happen.
She describes her colourful glass sculptures as floating objects and that’s also the way the exhibition will be displayed. It’s all about movement, whether visible or not. It’s there in the sculptured pieces. Some of her work she titles landscapes, but the thing that struck me most was the individuality of her work and her electric colour combinations.
“If you engage and see it,” she notes, “you will be moved.” And I agree. With her guidance especially, the work invites you to enter this world and to learn to see – again.
“It’s about that moment just before the sun goes down,” she says. It’s brief but brilliant and if you catch it, it’s magical.
“You can choose to dwell on all the darkness in life,” but not this artist. She is intent on sharing the love. “My work is happy and features the brightest colours.” And all of this contributes to the emotional impact of the work.
She works intuitively and feels that there are specific keys that unlock the meaning of the work. She is doing a few walkabouts, which I would encourage art lovers to attend because it certainly adds to the depth and understanding of what she hopes to achieve.
But if you are fired up by your own narrative, that will also make her smile. She is intent on sharing the love and the light.