Keith Rowe is one of Australia’s most respected glass blowers, and lives and works in Blackheath. We spoke with him about his work and his current major exhibition in Katoomba.
Q: How did you get into this?
A: I went to art school in my mid-twenties and my main interest was photography. This was the second half of the seventies. We had to do some glass blowing, and that first contact with the material opened up a whole world of challenge. I decided to go with that rather than photography. There were a lot of photographers out there, it was very competitive, and I wasn’t in the mood for fighting and battling.
Q: Was art glass appreciated back then?
A: It was just starting in Australia. When I finished art school I worked with a glass maker in Victoria for a year as an apprentice. When I got back, the studio in Glebe where I’d previously trained had closed, and I was able to rent the space. Then I learned how to be a businessman. There used to be small galleries all around the country back then, often even framing shops would have a few pieces on sale. So I went around to some of these places with samples of my work and got orders.
Q: So you started earning a living from glass?
A: The first week was a nightmare, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I used to go home in the afternoon and just lie down for an hour to calm myself down, because I was so distraught. But I got the work done and the galleries paid for it, and it just launched itself from there. I did a bit of teaching and rented out the studio to other glass blowers, and that worked for about 10 years.
Q: I suppose in a way you had to create your audience?
A: There were about a dozen glass blowers in Sydney then, and between us we educated the galleries and the buyers. And each year we were getting better at what we were doing. It just grew. I’d go out and find galleries in places like Orange and Parkes, get them to put on shows. Most of those places disappeared in the late nineties, but for a while there it was a great arrangement. I was doing road trips out west and even to galleries in Melbourne and Adelaide and Brisbane.
Q: At the same time you were developing your own approach?
A: After a few years’ hard work and experimenting, I started getting positive comments and people wanting things I’d made. I realised I’d developed my own style even though it was a bit of a melange. That gave me the confidence to keep doing my own thing. Every year after I’d finished art school I’d attend workshops, here or overseas. I’ve been inspired by all those people, and a few of the greats. There’s Lino Tagliapietra,and Dante Marioni who are highly gifted and respected glass blowers in the art glass movement in America They drive me to really improve my skills. A lot of glass blowers here were producing just a few types of things, but I’ve always been keen to experiment with new skills and designs. I’ve stayed doing that. Another big influence was one of Australia’s great potters Peter Rushforth, who lived in Blackheath for many years.
Q: What work do people like the most?
A: My most popular piece now is the bushfire design. That came from standing on top of Anvil Rock in 2019/20 and seeing the bushfire spread along the far ridge of the Grose Valley. From the distance it was magical and exciting, I’d never seen anything like it - there was a huge number of people watching it. But that night it came down into the valley and up to where we’d been standing. It took out Anvil Rock and reached Blackheath.
Q: How did you come to the Blue Mountains?
A: My then wife and I decided to leave Sydney, we had a three-year-old and we wanted a clean place for him to grow up. I didn’t want to live on the coast because I’d done that already, when I was a boy in New Zealand. We came here and found a house. It was different back then up here, you couldn’t get a proper cappuccino - there was nothing here. After living in Glebe for 20 years, that was so nice! The Mountains gave me space after the madness of the city.
Q: Was it difficult setting up a business in Blackheath?
A: I needed an industrial space for the studio, and Blackheath doesn’t have much of that. Luckily someone had just started to build these industrial units here on Station Street. It was only a slab of concrete then, but I bought one of them. We moved here in 1990. The first few years were tough, but then it came good. I’d go to Sydney on Fridays to do my deliveries to the galleries, then do Paddington Markets on Saturday. We got the shop in 2007, over on the highway, that’s helped.
Q: You’re now one of the country’s most respected glass blowers, you have an international reputation. Has the scene grown much since you started in Glebe 40 years ago?
A: There’s probably a few dozen successful professional glass blowers in Australia now, and a few hundred in total. The market’s a lot bigger. The main galleries for sales these days tend to be shops attached to the regional art galleries, at places like Bathurst and Maitland. We sell a lot from Blackheath, and there’s still some good private galleries. I’ve an exhibition right now at the Lost Bear Gallery in Katoomba.
Keith Rowe’s studio is at 7/134 Station Street, and his shop at 241 Great Western Highway, Blackheath. For opening times contact him via his website: keithroweglass.com. His current exhibition at Lost Bear Gallery Katoomba runs to 29 January.