Glass Biennale: People who work in glass houses...

...will be showing off their skills at the Glass Biennale in Stourbridge this summer. Ian White gets a preview

In case you hadn't heard, glass is cool. Not all glass, you understand. Not double-glazing or dusty tumblers in charity shops. No, the glass that is cool is glass that is being turned into exciting, contemporary works of art by a new breed of studio glassmakers. And the place to see the biggest and best collection of glass art in the country over the coming months is Stourbridge in the West Midlands.

Stourbridge's historic Glass Quarter is where the International Festival of Glass, a biennial event billed as the "greatest glass gathering in the UK", will be held from 25 to 28 August. And it will be complemented by the British Glass Biennale, a three-week juried exhibition of work by Britain's top glass artists, which will run from 25 August to 27 September.

In recent years, the ancient craft of glassmaking has been elevated to the status of serious art by exhibitions such as the V&A's annual "Collect" fair of contemporary applied arts and the International Festival of Glass. The first festival, held in 2004, attracted visitors and exhibitors from all over the world to the Glass Quarter. Fashion luminaries Zandra Rhodes and Andrew Logan attended the finale of the accompanying British Glass Biennale and almost half the exhibits were bought.

Rhodes and Logan are back for this year's festival. And adding weight to the Biennale's judging panel for 2006 is Jennifer Hawkins Opie, former head of the ceramics and glass collection at the V&A. Yet, the International Festival of Glass offers more than big names and a chance to see some stunningly beautiful work. It gives visitors the opportunity to get to grips with the medium itself. You can have a cast made of your hand; have a go at glass blowing; attend glass-painting workshops; spend an hour beadmaking; watch demonstrations by world experts in all manner of glass-making techniques; you can even try your hand at glass cutting on a full lead crystal glass. When you're not doing any of the above, you can choose to be amused by street entertainers, go on a sculpture trail, watch glass-related plays and films, bid at a glass Fun Auction or just soak up the atmosphere.

The festival will be spread over the Glass Quarter's key sites which straddle the A491 leading out of Stourbridge towards Wolverhampton. Visitors can travel between them by car, bus or, to make the experience more fun, hop aboard a narrowboat taxi on the Stourbridge Canal.

Ruskin Glass Centre, which occupies the former Royal Doulton crystal glassworks, is the venue for the launch of a touring exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of London Glassblowing, a demonstration of Viking glassmaking methods by Torben Spode and a masterclass in glass-eye making from Walter Hellbach, Europe's top practitioner in this rather specialist field. Ruskin Glass Centre is the main venue for the Biennale. But it is well worth seeing at any time of year as an example of how a disused brick-built factory can be expertly converted into an attractive site for admirable projects such as the Glasshouse College, which provides an opportunity for people with learning difficulties to master glass-making techniques.

The Ruskin Centre will be running taster sessions in glassblowing and beadmaking. Under Diane Kimber's watchful eye, I discovered there is an elusive knack to blowing a "gather" of molten glass on the end of a heavy blowing iron while rotating it to stop it drooping. Just as tricky is the manoeuvre in which you have to reheat the glass in the furnace and then walk it back at the correct angle to the glassmaker's chair, which has flat metal arms so that you can sit down and roll the rod horizontally with one hand while shaping the burning hot glass with a wedge of wet newspaper.

About half a mile up the road is the beautifully restored Red House Glass Cone (one of only four complete cones left in the UK). Now a Grade II-listed building, the 100ft Red House cone was built in the late 18th century and housed a central furnace around which the glassmakers worked. Underground tunnels drew in air to enable the furnace to reach the high temperature required to melt and fuse the glass.

It was essentially a factory inside a giant chimney; the heat, smoke and darkness must have seemed like hell on earth to the workers, many of whom were boys. Home to Stuart Glass in the 1920s and 30s, the cone closed as a factory in 1936 and was left undisturbed until restoration began in 1999. Now it is thriving.

Two miles up the road, Broadfield House Glass Museum, whose all-glass entrance bears the etched message, "Glass is one of the true fruits of the art of fire", is putting on two Pâte de Verre exhibitions for the festival - one devoted to historic pieces, including early 20th-century work by Amalric Walter and one highlighting pieces by 10 contemporary artists. Glass is cool. And that's no mean feat for a material that comes into existence at 1,400C.

For free copies of the 2006 International Festival of Glass brochure, call 01384 399444 or visit ifg.org.uk

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