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Penelope Stewart

Late in 2009 I applied to assist Canadian artist Penelope Stewart to actualise her project of turning a traditional Bee Skep into glass.

The Bee Skep was made from rye straw and was the form used to transport bees before the 13th century, later the hive design developed into the square wooden box we are familiar with today. Penelope’s time was limited so I decided to create the mould to produce her waxes prior to her arrival into the country. For this complicated task I employed the services of Joshua Rowell as he makes intricate moulds professionally at the bronze casting foundry, Meridian.

It was a very tricky mould because Penelope wanted the texture of the inside as well as the out, the form narrowed from a girth of 35cm to an aperture of approx. 25cm creating a substantial undercut. We needed to make a rubber mould of the inside and out, which meant we needed to make plaster support moulds for both. The outside was straight forward, the form cut in two, symmetrically, the inside however was a complicated equation of five separate pieces including a key stone that locked the internal tightly together. Once the rubber was made we could remove the original Skep, replace the mould and cast a wax positive.

Once Josh and I had proven that the mould worked, I travelled to Canberra Glassworks (CGW) to rendezvous with Penelope and commence the secondary process of casting the Skep into glass. We made a new wax at CGW to make sure Penelope was familiar and comfortable with the process, the idea was, Penelope would return to Canada with the mould and use it for future projects.

The wax skep was then invested into a refractory mould that could withstand temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Celsius for approximately 12 hours, allowing the glass to melt into the detailed of the mould. I aptly chose the honeycomb technique for this job, a methodology of mould making developed by world renown caster Helen Stokes. It is light, strong and flexible, I had hoped that it would be flexible enough to cope with the shrinkage of the material as well as strong enough to hold without splitting.

We had good results even though the two moulds that we attempted in Penelope’s time both cracked during the cooling process. In both cases the glass split into three equal pieces making it clear that this was due to shrinkage, I believe it was the refractory layer placed on the inside that didn’t have the flexibility to shrink alongside the glass within. It is certainly not easy to achieve such a complicated project first time we hope to continue this project, funding permitted to work through the final issues and achieve a cast in one piece.

I cleaned up the pieces through a series of coldworking processes and then glued each work together, images of the final works and further information about Penelope Stewart can be found following this link.

Penelope Stewart Bee Skep

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