It was on a day trip to the world-famous island of Murano – lying offshore from Venice – where first I witnessed the art of glassblowing. I was entranced by the way liquid glass flowed under the influence of human breath and then solidified, retaining the characteristics of its molten state. Equally, I was wowed by the resultant colourful, art-glass pieces borne of a thousand years of creative learning founded in the glassmaking skills of ancient Rome. Those memories flooded back to me the day I visited the Scottish studio of Elin Isaksson – a glassmaker whose influences are far less Mediterranean and rather more Scandic, with a heavy sprinkling of Scottish and an exotic hint of Indian.
It was a bitterly cold and frosty morning when I arrived at Isaksson’s studio – a converted garage at the rear of her family home in Dunblane. The patch of melted frost arcing across the footpath from the foot of the studio door suggested a warm welcome awaited me. As she opened the door, I could feel the heat from the furnaces inside. She was taking the opportunity of a quiet period to create new pieces for her studio shop. On display in a small window fronting the street was a stunning collection of tactile whisky glasses, intricately shaped and coloured candleholders, oil lamps, vases, and amorphous pieces of glass, rock art. Drawn by the fluidity, inherent fragility, and sculptural qualities of this fascinating material I bent to see the rays of morning sunshine pass through the window, penetrate the pieces and bring the colours to life. Clearly, I was in the presence of an artist and a highly skilled craftsperson.
Isaksson was born in the Philippines, although her name, blond hair, and blue eyes are indicators of her Scandic heritage. Her father was a geologist and worked for a company that located and extracted gold – a precious metal that would eventually find its way into the layers and coloured strata of her later works. When she was two years of age, the family left the Philippines and settled back in the north of Sweden where the young girl was schooled. After completing her school years, she studied at the National School of Glass in the tiny village of Orrefors, Småland, in the south east of the country. Located in the middle of a forest, Orrefors is at the heart of an area known as Glasriket or The Kingdom of Crystal. It was here in 1742 that Småland’s first glassworks opened, and by the late 1800s the area could boast some sixty glassworks with the surrounding forests providing the wood for the furnaces.
Originally producing simple, practical items of unremarkable tableware, the glassworks of Småland would go on to attract some of the finest names in Scandic glass design.
Influenced by Swedish culture and the surrounding natural environment many unusual techniques were developed here that raised the profile of Swedish glass from utilitarian objects to sought-after works of art. Today, only a dozen or so glassworks remain but the area is still renowned for the quality of its designs and its glassmaking skills.
Following completion of her course at Orrefors, Isaksson went to work for a year as an assistant to three female glassblowers in Gothenburg, after which she applied to study art in Scotland and Denmark – finally accepting a place at Edinburgh College of Art. Here, she studied design and applied arts, specializing in glass. She graduated with Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and Master in Design degrees, after which she was offered – and accepted – a two year placement as the College’s Artist in Residence. This, she notes was an important period in her development as an artist, “For the first time I was able to create a portfolio of works based exclusively upon my own designs, interests, and influences. That enabled me to become more experimental and to start exhibiting my glassware.”
During her time as a student, she undertook research into Studio Glass – the art of using glass to create three dimensional sculptures – at Konstfack – Arts, Crafts and Design University, Stockholm. Later, as Artist in Residence, she undertook masterclasses with acclaimed designers such as England’s Simon Moore and America’s Dante Marioni at North Lands Creative – an international center dedicated to the art of glass – at Lybster in the historic county of Caithness – the most northerly part of mainland Scotland.
In 2006, Isaksson married and with her husband went to live for nine months in Mumbai, India. Home to a population of over 17 million, it is one of the most densely populated urban areas on the planet. Known as the City of Dreams, its eclectic mix of history, culture, arts, and cuisine gives rise to an explosion of colour and a vibrancy that is often a source of inspiration for any artist who visits there. In Mumbai, Isaksson networked with Asian glassworkers discovering the joy of a newfound palette of ochres – the yellows and reds of the earth – that would eventually infiltrate the cool blues and greens of her earlier works influenced by her years in Sweden and Scotland.
It was during her stay in India that she made the decision to establish her own studio upon returning to Scotland.
In 2010 she launched Elin Isaksson Glass in The Makers Village, Alloa – a regeneration initiative designed to create an artisan quarter within an area of urban decay. The town had a three-hundred-year history of glassmaking that had long-since disappeared and Isaksson’s studio was an important part of the regeneration story. Three years later she relocated to a farm steading outside Dunblane where she operated for six years before the family moved into Dunblane. With the help of funding from Forth Valley and Lomond LEADER – a Scottish rural development program, Isaksson established her studio in late 2019 in the former double garage situated behind the family home. This is where she now creates and teaches – offering glassblowing opportunities to those wishing to ‘have a go’. She undertakes private commissions, including lighting design installations, pieces of sculpture, and works of art for public and corporate clients. Previous clients include Abrdn (Standard Life), Glenfiddich, National Museum of Scotland, and Oil and Gas U.K. She has been the recipient of several awards and her work can be found in many galleries across the UK – from Liverpool to Orkney.
As you might expect, Isaksson’s creations embody the influences of her journey from an early appreciation of gold, through the glassblowing years in Sweden, a life part-lived in Scotland, courses with experts from across the world and a transformational period lived in India. When she isn’t blowing glass and sculpting its hot, molten shapes she is casting it in depressions pressed into sand – the shapes themselves being formed with objects such as fragmented bricks and large rocks that she finds during dog walks in the countryside. She describes her work as, “Simple and unfussy, with the sleek elegance of Scandic shapes, coloured by the places I have experienced and where I have lived.”
On the shelves of her studio, I see gold-crowned, two-toned dewdrops, rock-pool ornaments bearing the turquoise colour of Hebridean waters, and ‘Scotland in a Droplet’ paperweights – where watery blues flow over undulating sands to meet fields of bright heather along with further exotic colours carried by eastern currents and influences. Sand cast rocks with blown shards stand like chunks of the frozen north or, perhaps, they are hewn rocks borne of childhood memories where a geologist once sought gold. However you look at Isaksson’s work, it is the elegant, inspiring and evocative product of a master designer, maker and artist. ~ Story by Tom Langlands