an arm is outstretched towards the sky with a closed fist, holding an explosion of blown glass streaked with red. The glass spiders out and clutches several stones in an array around the fist.

Playing with glass

Julie Legrand's glass craft

Juliette Pokorny (Michael Culture Association / Museu)

Julie Legrand is a French visual artist and teacher at the municipal school of plastic arts in Beauvais (North of France). She uses diverse media in her art, but the use of glass is a recurring theme in her work. Julie's self-taught journey and her experimental approach give a whole new dimension to working with glass.

Julie Legrand, please could you introduce yourself and your work in a few words?

I am a visual artist, and sculptor. I work mainly in volume and drawing on autonomous pieces, places, eco-friendly works and installations. My artistic work is fed by the hazards of my own life. My work is not completely biographical but is rather a distillation of my own emotions. I transcribe the questions I ask of myself and of my relationship with others and society in my art.

Your techniques and mediums are numerous: how did you come to use them and how did you develop them?

I started working with salvaged elements from my daily life: objects I found on the street while walking around: threads, rubber bands, spools, and mundane objects. After attending art school, I did a residency at the Centre d'art contemporain d'Albi (France), and I visited a glass bottle factory for the first time. This visit was a huge trigger, I was emotionally and physically touched by the heat and malleability of molten glass. From then on, I never stopped trying to get closer to this material.

I made my two first installations with recycled glass, and then two or three years later, I went visited the studio of the famous French glassmaker Alain Villechange for three weeks. This greatly confirmed my interest in this material, which led me to make my own kiln and teach myself to work and experiment with this medium. The glass came to mix with the materials and objects I was already using, creating the first layer of hybridity in my work.

There were techniques on which I had a “crush”, such as basketry, woodturning and ceramics. I learned basketry and woodturning in craft training centres, and for ceramics, was trained professionally at the Beauvais art school. I keep on learning and gaining experience in my craft through working. Often, I have a piece in mind that I do not know how to do entirely. So I go to find the knowledge and tools needed. Once I've found these, they ricochet off the objects and skills I already possess, resulting in works that I hadn't even imagined when starting on the project.

Do you consider your current artistic practice part of what we call “crafts”?

I don't label my work as art or craft. My positioning towards society is artistic: I search for cohesion between aesthetic relationships and intimate emotion in my work. I can do commissions, but only when I'm allowed a lot of improvisation and creativity. I can make a series of works, but I won’t redo them 10 years later. I use artisanal techniques, but they are generally modified by my experience and the other materials I encounter. I have worked with friends who are master glassmakers. As I am largely self-taught, I don't know how to do what they know, but they don't know how to do what I know. So we find ourselves teaching each other things.

Can you tell us about your work as a teacher?

I work at the municipal school of plastic arts in Beauvais, which welcomes children, teenagers and adults and hosts preparatory classes in fine arts, decorative arts, design and animation. My students have varied backgrounds: I work with young adults as well as people who are retired or changing their life course. Some of them already have a lot of experience, others don’t.

Through teaching, I've realised that I have a deep well of experience to draw from after twenty-five years of creating exhibitions. My goal as a teacher is to connect students with their own creativity and to let them discover as many things as possible. I don't want to make them copy my work, that would lock them in and create copycat relationships that are not interesting.

Teaching pushed me to learn things that I didn't necessarily need to know for my own artmaking because I felt it was important for my students. It took me out of my own needs and into theirs, and the funny thing is that after three years, what I learned to pass on to my students is helpful to me in my personal creations in the studio afterwards. I find it very nice to be able to go back and forth.

You tend to combine traditional techniques with contemporary topics such as diversity and the environment, how and why do you create this contrast?

When we make sculptures or installations, we work with materials that we buy, glaze or grow. So either we are in a mode of recycling, which is already economical and ecological, or we use ready-made materials.

In recent years, we have been confronted with the question of the future of the object. How to organise the task of collecting and recycling waste has been on my mind lately. This creates all kinds of discussions with people who have nothing to do with the art world, which finally opens up a whole new field. I set up a partnership with a big local industrial waste disposal centre, so that my students can be more aware of their surroundings and environmental impact. It has allowed these students to take that info and act at their own scale. We've also partnered with a local fab lab, which allows us to think about how objects are built, repaired and repurposed.

Teaching in municipal schools creates the unique opportunity of bringing people of different age groups, lived experiences and skills together. This leads to students teaching each other and helping each other out. Working with fab labs has allowed us to bring technology closer to our students, allowing them to learn to use different computer programs and tools, like laser cutters for instance. Our project consisted of laser engraving glass, which we then reworked into stained glass in the workshop. We find ourselves making alliances between very advanced, ultra-modern and ancestral techniques.

Can you tell us a bit more about upcoming events and projects that you're involved in?

I'm representing France at the Biot International Glass Festival this year. This exhibition starts in August and ends in January 2023. I've also been invited by Eliane Nagata and her gallery Ten Events to the Glass Week in Venice (Italy) in September, and by the Valérie Delaunay gallery in Paris (France) for an event at the Palais Royal. In October, I'm holding my first solo exhibition at the Musée de Verre in Conches-en-Ouche (France), followed up by a second exhibition in January at the Bailliage d'Aire-sur-la-Lys (France), in collaboration with the Museum and the School of Plastic Arts in Saint-Omer (France). The exhibitions in Venice, Conche-en-Ouche and Saint-Omer are the first steps of a trilogy around the theme Avoir lieu d'être (“To be”), conceived in different ways in the three places.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.