Parallel practices is a project that has been running art residencies since its initiation in 2014 and aims to demonstrate the mutual benefits and value of collaboration between medical and scientific academics and makers. The project forms one part of the Crafts Council's Innovation strand and is supported by the university's Culture team.
The 2014 pilot project consisted of four collaborations, with each lasting four months and involving a team of at least one maker and one medical and scientific academic. These pairings stimulated learning and innovation through a focus on the body, materials and processes.
During its second phase in 2016, a longer six-month Parallel practices programme titled Learning through making was set up and allowed maker-academic collaborations more time to explore the benefits of their partnership. The programme gave careful consideration to the pastoral and educational outcomes that were touched upon in the pilot project. One of these collaborations was between glass maker Dr Shelley James and Dr Riccardo Sapienza, Lecturer in Physics, which explored the synergies between glassmaking and design. The project ran various physics projects involving fibre-optics and flexing, hyperuniform structures and colour, and lasing surfaces. Integrated in the Department of Physics, Shelley explored with glass structures based on active research projects, such as the study of hyperuniform photonic materials (below). During the residency, Shelley has also enriched her practice by borrowing scientific and maker tools, such as 3D printing and fluorescent nanoparticles.
Regarding the collaboration with Shelley, Dr Riccardo Sapienza said: 'After our first discussions we realised we had a common language of light and matter, and have dived into fascinating speculations on light, crystals, colours and lasers.'
film about Parallel practices and its 2016 residencies is available below:
For the residency, Shelley was based in the Maker Space or, as it is better known in the Faculty of Natural & Mathematical Sciences, the Wheatstone Innovation Lab, named after Charles Wheatstone, a 19th century scientist, industrialist and general innovator in electronics and telecommunications. This new space, developed for students to synthesise technological thought with making, was set up by Dr Riccardo Sapienza and Dr Matthew Howard as a way to enable students to engage in messy making, risk taking and inventiveness, outside of their taught curriculum.
Shelley shared the space with automata maker John Grayson and both artists used the residency to engage in a period of research and development in order to progress their own creative practice. Shelley's practice in glass making explores the intersection between material and virtual space, combining the optical qualities of glass with the graphic range of print to investigating the dialogue between eye and brain. Both Shelley and John supported the culture of making during their respective residencies by providing workshops for students in their respective disciplines. Pieces resulting from the residences have been exhibited at the 2016 V&A Digital Design Weekend, Somerset House's Utopia2016 programme, and at Saatchi Gallery.
The workshops Shelley created invited students to learn basic techniques in glass making and artistic practice and to devise more focused and in-depth experiments with the material. Through structured exercises and informal conversations, the project taught students problem-solving and practical skills and encouraged them to use the optical and material qualities of glass in their own research.
During the seven workshops in the Maker Space, Shelley provided materials such as coloured wires, metal hoops, cutting tools, clamps, lenses and a sewing machine for the students to use to create their own kaleidoscopes. The students brought in ready-made objects such as wine and beer glasses and learnt how to cut, drill and etch glass panels and circles to make their kaleidoscopes.
Students were asked for their feedback on the workshops and comments included:
'I enjoyed the session and would now be keen to learn some more advanced glass shaping skills.'
'I work with nanoparticles, and there's been quite a bit of work on stained glass so the session was particularly relevant to my studies.'
'It was nice to be able to have a chance to practice glass cutting because manipulating and shaping glass is a useful skill in chemistry.'
These hands-on, creative activities stimulated students to be inquisitive, to observe and to ask scientific and artistic questions during the making process itself, and not as an afterthought. Moreover, working side by side with makers, the students realised they have a common approach to research and a shared fascination with light, material and electronics. In this way they started to develop an understanding about the relevance of their studies within the broader context of art and design.
Regarding her residency, Shelley said: 'This was an intense and wonderful experience and has sown the seeds for a rich network of relationships and ideas that I look forward to cultivating in the months and years to come. It’s also been the catalyst for me to develop a new technique for casting in glass – and to begin my first experiments in colour since my MA thesis, over 25 years ago.'
Trained in Textiles at the L'École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Dr Shelley James pursued a career in corporate design for international clients including Visa International, Shell and Habitat.
Deciding to explore the themes of perception and reality from a more personal perspective, she studied Printmaking at the University of the West of England, developing new techniques for encapsulating prints in glass with support from the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and Arts Council England. An ongoing residency with the Bristol Eye Hospital and her PhD research at the Royal College of Art in London have led to a number of collaborative projects with scientists, exploring the intersection between material and virtual space.
Recent exhibitions of Shelley’s work include the MRC Centenary From DNA to the brain at Somerset House and the Illusions exhibition at the Science Gallery in Dublin.
She has been selected for the prestigious Jerwood Makers Award and is currently working with the Institute of Philosophy at University College London, the Royal College of Art and the University of Leeds.