Meet the Maker: Alma Caira
Working with glass is like working in a sweet shop. The colours are just incredible and I adore the alchemy of pairing different glass shades together.
Whitstable artist Alma Caira spends her days in an impossibly beautiful garden studio, making equally beautiful glass and jewellery. We caught up with Alma to learn more about her kiln fused glass techniques, the inspirations behind her colourful creations, and why she’s sure her neighbours hate her…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
Hello, I’m Alma. I live in Whitstable, Kent, with my husband Stephen, and I create lots of different things with glass and metal in my garden studio where I also run monthly glass fusing workshops.
I’d heard from a young age about a magical place called “Art School” where you were allowed to do creative things ALL DAY and I was determined to get there.
Have you always been creative?
From as early as I can remember, I was always drawing and making things out of cardboard boxes. As the youngest of five girls, we couldn’t afford Play-Doh apparently, so my Mum attempted a homemade version that involved flour, water and food colouring. Predictably, it didn’t have quite the same modelling properties but you have to admire the effort. I’d heard from a young age about a magical place called “Art School” where you were allowed to do creative things ALL DAY and I was determined to get there. Careers advice at school was pretty futile as a result.
You originally trained as a silversmith. How did you move from jewellery to fused glass?
After leaving Glasgow School of Art, I worked in Hatton Garden in London and continued to make silver jewellery to commission, which was predominantly monochrome silver. When I moved to Whitstable 16 years ago I decided to study Digital Media as I loved making animations. I pursued this for a while but then started itching to make again and began playing around with silver, copper and glass enamels. I realised that I was becoming obsessed with the beautiful colours of the glass and the reactions they made with the metals. So I began to experiment with small glass objects in my little enamelling kiln before my husband rather kindly offered to buy a larger kiln for a significant birthday. It’s the best present ever – I love my kiln!
I never get tired of opening my kiln and looking inside – every time it’s like Christmas morning!
You also work in mosaic. So many talents. Are there similarities between the three practices?
Why, thank you! Absolutely. There’s an extreme likelihood of injury in all three disciplines and I have a constant supply of plasters to hand. There’s a definite crossover of tools and techniques between all three and having experience in designing and cutting tiles for mosaics definitely helped me conquer any fear of cutting sheet glass for fusing. You certainly need patience to get good results in all three practices.
Who are your heroes – in craft and design or just in life?
My heroes are those who manage to juggle full-time jobs and caring for children while working late into the night on their creative pursuits because they’re driven to do it and STILL managing to file their tax returns on time! I only have to walk a few steps from my back door to my studio every day, but I still find it a struggle to complete even the most basic tasks, so it’s a massive hats off to them!
In terms of glass, I just adore Dale Chihuly’s work and it’s my dream to work with hot glass some day. I think Grainne Morton’s jewellery is just beautiful and really inventive. Cleo Mussi’s mosaics are wonderful, and all-round good egg Grayson Perry is hard to beat – he can do just about anything!
Living in Whitstable, I spend most of my time away from my studio outdoors, surrounded by nature – either in my garden or walking on the beach or in our nearby woods.
What or who else inspires you?
Living by the sea in Whitstable with a huge artistic community, there’s always lots going on. Regular trips to London mean I can catch exhibitions and visit independent shops and design galleries, where I’m always looking out for display ideas – glass is so difficult to show and photograph at its best.
Does living in Whitstable influence your work?
Most definitely. I spend most of my time away from my studio outdoors surrounded by nature – either in my garden where I love photographing the different seasons or walking on the beach or in our nearby woods. I’m off to Australia for the whole of February, so I can’t wait to see how that influences my work.
There’s an extreme likelihood of injury in fused glass, mosaic and jewellery making… I have a constant supply of plasters to hand!
Can you talk us through your making process?
I start any new design by sketching down ideas but I very quickly move on to glass as it’s the colours and how they work together that really interests me. With decorative glass, sometimes the ripples and streaks suggest a design and that sparks the creative process. When I’m working on new designs I’ll keep notes in the early stages as my working pattern is regularly interrupted with teaching and I’d forget the outcomes of my experiments otherwise!
I cut everything by hand and the initial stage of glass fusing is very similar to stained glass where you are scoring the shapes with a glass cutter and then creating a controlled break in the glass with running pliers. Most of my designs consist of two layers of glass with metal and wire ‘inclusions’ but there can be several kiln firings for each piece where I gradually add the detail in layers. My larger bowls consist of many kiln firings with ground glass added to the base and surface for added depth in the designs.
When I’m keeping up stock levels of my most popular items – my birds, fish and jewellery – I have a bit of a production line going in terms of cutting out the basic shapes by hand and cutting and shaping the wire hangers that are integral to the designs. Then I apply whatever decorative elements are involved such as frits (powdered glass), enamels, metal foils and dichroic glass. I love experimenting with layering and different colour combinations. Glass is fluid and impossible to replicate so I never try – every design is different.
Glass is fluid and impossible to replicate so I never try – every design is different.
What’s your favourite thing about working with glass?
It’s like working in a sweet shop. The colours are just incredible and I adore the alchemy of pairing different glass shades together, which can often result in a third colour appearing after firing. I never get tired of opening my kiln and looking inside – every time it’s like Christmas morning! I also love seeing what my students produce, as very often there are colour combinations I’d never think of trying.
I have a weather-boarded studio at the bottom of my garden, which we had built when we moved in 16 years ago and I have to say I regularly pinch myself as it’s rather splendid.
Can you describe your workspace?
I have a weather-boarded studio at the bottom of my garden, which we had built when we moved in 16 years ago and I have to say I regularly pinch myself as it’s rather splendid. It has a wood burner, so it’s toasty in the winter and double doors to the garden in the summer. Sure, it’s in need of some rather drastic DIY after 16 years and, yes, it could be a little bigger for my glass fusing workshops but I’m really pretty happy with what I’ve got. I have a cut out jewellers’ bench for my metal working, a bench space for general glass cutting and assembling and an area for grinding and polishing.
When I have a workshop scheduled or an Open Studio event, it can be tidy to the point of not being able to find anything. When I have a big craft fair looming, every surface is covered including most of the floor. It can be noisy – lots of hammering, drilling, grinding – and me singing along loudly to Spotify. My neighbours must HATE me.
Is it your perfect studio?
I’d be perfectly happy with the same studio but maybe when it was shiny new… and it would be nice to have a view of mountains or horses, but then I wouldn’t get any work done. And running water would be a big improvement.
In January and February I make a point of seeing the last of the light each day and take great pleasure in seeing the days lengthen.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
Just making whatever comes into my head and following my own hours so that I can go for walks on the beach when the sun shines or when I just need to be outside. This means the most to me in the winter days of January and February when I make a point of seeing the last of the light each day and take great pleasure in seeing the days lengthen. Making things for a living that people want to have for themselves or for friends and family – I never take it for granted.
What would you say to someone thinking about selling their work?
Without doubt, give it a go. There are so many reasons to think you’re not ready and you’re bound to make mistakes in the beginning but unless you get your work out there, you’ll never know. Decide early on if you’d like to go down the wholesale route or sell direct. Do as much market research as you can. Try different craft fairs and markets to get some feedback and find out what’s working. Spend time planning your displays at home before you go. There are so many craft fairs happening every weekend that it’s important to find those organisers who work hard to promote their events. Try to be realistic with your pricing, we’re all guilty of this but really try not to undersell yourself.
What does craft mean to you?
For me, craft means making something by hand with care and attention. Every piece you make will ideally have some of your personality and hopefully, some humour. It means that someone, somewhere is wearing, using or looking at what you’ve produced on a daily basis and taking pleasure in it. I‘ve lost count of the number of customers who’ve told me they’ve hung my birds from the kitchen window so they can look at them every time they’re washing up and it makes them smile. How great is that?
I‘ve lost count of the number of customers who’ve told me they’ve hung my birds from the kitchen window so they can look at them every time they’re washing up and it makes them smile. How great is that?
How would you spend your perfect day?
Having recently been to the Green Man Festival in Wales, I’d say every day at a festival is pretty near darned perfect. But, assuming this was a day off at home, my perfect day would have to involve sunshine, friends and family, some gardening, a swim in the sea, ice cream, chips, dancing, catching a film, a walk somewhere with beautiful views and fizzy wine. Not necessarily in that order. I’m pretty low maintenance really.