By Jill Herron
If it were not for the efficiency of our New Zealand embassy staff of the early eighties, Swedish glass artists Marie Simberg-Hoglund and Ola Hoglund would probably have been Australia’s gain rather than ours.
The renowned artists recently moved to Cromwell where they are setting up their glassblowing studio, adding a certain lustre to the Central Otago arts scene.
Ola’s father Erik was a celebrated glass artist, responsible in part for Swedish glass art becoming recognised worldwide. Ola, who knew from a young age that he too would live by the craft, wished to move far enough away from his famous father to make his own name. He and Marie, who met in high school, set off and first found themselves in Swaziland setting up a studio as part of an aid project.
Casting about for a more permanent base they wrote to both the New Zealand and Australian embassies.
“We couldn’t seem to get any information out of Australia but the New Zealand Embassy was so helpful, they sent us all the information and pictures of houses stacked on the hills in Wellington and the lovely old street in Arrowtown,” Marie said.
The charming cottages of Arrowtown caught Marie’s eye and were never forgotten. When the couple eventually arrived in New Zealand, Hokitika was their first home, then Nelson. Raising two boys - who are now both glass artists - the couple’s business savvy flourished along with their skill in crafting exquisite pieces of art.
They have owned studios and galleries in various countries –most recently India and Australia - and exhibited literally all over the world, gaining a considerable following. Customers have include Bill Clinton and the Americas Cup and Sydney Olympic governing bodies and individual pieces can fetch over $15,000. In Nelson, as their staff numbers swelled to around forty and the boys matured, Ola and Marie began migrating each winter to a glassblowing studio they built in North Queensland.
This past winter was their last at their well-loved tropical rain forest haven which has had such an influence on their work.
“Our container has just arrived in Dunedin with all the glassmaking equipment and tools including the 15 ton glassmelting furnace. It has been sad, we have said goodbye to all our friends and customers there of 16 years but coming to Cromwell has been such a positive experience and we are very excited.”
Bringing the studio from Australia was necessary to set up in Central Otago, Marie says, as the glass business is as expensive as it is challenging.
Equipment costs a small fortune – Ola’s furnace is worth $100,000 alone -and some of the sand required to make their glass has to come from Europe.
The glass-blowing process is notoriously difficult and no one piece can ever be replicated.
Marie equates it to being a classical musician - regular practice is essential. Without it the pieces would lack the high technical standard and sophistication that has made the Hoglund’s work so sought after.
The glass is made from silica sand, some very clear which has had the iron removed by magnets, some slightly green like window glass, which comes from Mt Somers in Canterbury.
People often assumed, Marie says, that the couple bought readymade glass in great blobs to start the process, not realising that they make it themselves.
“We melt a mix of sand, lime and sodium carbonate in the furnace at 1380 degC for a minimum of 12 hours.”
The couple use the ‘Graal’ technique, one of the most complicated in glassblowing and practised by only a few glass artists worldwide.
Marie starts with an ‘egg’ of solid glass which she decorates by painting, etching or other methods. Ola takes this and heats it to temperatures that make your eyes water just thinking about them…again over 1300degC, Marie says. He heats it and blows puffs of air into the blob then heats it some more and a shape is formed. Two assistants are required and it’s a race against time to shape the glass before it cools and hardens.
“You have an idea in your head before you start of how you want it to be but it never works like that. It always comes out differently and we often don’t like the result so put it away in a cupboard. Sometimes you find it six months later and then you like it and get it out again.”
Occasionally, when somehow all the right elements are present and the creative gods allow, another masterpiece is born, which is then buffed and finished to perfection.
But mostly, she says, Ola polishes his technique through practice sessions and once their new studio is built visitors will get to see that in action.
The Hoglund’s new gallery is lined with heavy-walled multi-coloured vases of great beauty as well as Marie’s large paintings. Each is utterly unique and perfectly finished including flocks of tiny glass birds in glorious greens, reds and blues. The birds are probably instantly recognisable to many New Zealanders who have grown up with the couple’s work.
Glass blowing workshops are in the pipeline, where participants would travel from overseas and all over New Zealand to Cromwell to learn the craft and explore Central Otago.
“We are loving it here everyone is very friendly. I’m impressed especially with our artist painters, there is a very high standard. This area has lots of potential in the arts especially if everyone works together.