Glass and the Language of Virology: An Interview with Luke Jerram

In this week’s blog, I interview British artist Luke Jerram. Refer back to last week’s post for a more detailed look at Jerram’s career working with glass and our unique connection.

When the time comes to sit down and interview Luke Jerram (virtually) he’s in a hotel room on the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago 28 miles west of the Cornish coast and the most southerly tip of England. A peek out his window reveals a beautiful half-moon bay with a white sandy beach and endless blue skies stretching away across the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly not what you imagine when you think about the United Kingdom. “Not too shabby,” he says about his location.

Luke Jerram with Luna at the Community Observatory, St Martin’s on the Isles of Scilly.

Jerram has just finished installing “one of my moons,” he continues, referring to Luna, a 1-meter diameter sculpture designed using extremely detailed NASA imagery and topographical data of the lunar surface, that is now on permanent display near the island’s observatory.  Jerram has an interest in astronomy and has been making celestial bodies of varying sizes since 2016.

Once the unveiling is complete, he’ll be boarding the ferry for the choppy ride back to the mainland, but first, he’s chatting with me, and I can’t wait to get started.

Luke, tell us a little about yourself and where you’re from.

“I’m from Stroud, which is in the countryside just up the road from Bristol in the UK. I did my degree in Cardiff, Wales. Originally, I was going to do an engineering degree then decided to switch to art instead. But I still use those engineering skills, I’m still interested in science. Within my practice, the artworks are inspired by science and engineering, but now there’s also a public participation aspect that’s slightly more playful.

“But whilst I was at Cardiff, I spent probably six months in America studying at Saint Lawrence University in far north New York State (Canton, NY). That was really interesting. And then I traveled around the country on a Greyhound bus for about a month, living off subway sandwiches and orange juice with gin. It’s really nice to come back to America whenever I can and explore the different cultures and regions of the amazing country that it is.”

Whilst you work internationally, you live in Bristol, what’s that like?

“I’m lucky that I’m now established as an artist. Each year we have over 100 exhibitions in around 30 different countries. It would be impossible for me to make a proper living by just working in my home city of Bristol. But Bristol is a great place to live. In the southwest of England, Bristol has a population of about 600,000 people. It’s a very creative place. It’s the home to bands like Massive Attack and Portishead and it’s also famous for the artist Banksy, who is based there. And Bristol’s got a certain independent spirit, I suppose. We like to get things done and as an artist, it’s been a really useful city to grow and build my practice. Certainly, when I started living there, it was quite a cheap place to rent, and you could work part-time as an artist and then start to build a career out of it. And now it’s still a very interesting and useful city for me. I’m able to build and test ideas within the city and the City Council is quite supportive of that. And then when artwork begins to have traction, I can tour them around the country and around the world after that. But nowadays, Bristol hasn’t got as much money. Fifteen years of conservative austerity has decimated people’s budgets. So, we just don’t have the funds to do large-scale, ambitious artwork in Bristol anymore. It’s a real shame.”

Ideas like Play Me, I’m Yours started out locally but have since been adopted all over the world, as seen here in New York City.

Speaking of large scale, many of your projects are out in the open for people to engage with freely.

“Yes, I enjoy presenting work outdoors in the public domain because you know you’re gonna reach a very broad audience there. And I like thinking of the city as a blank canvas, a space for creativity where anything can happen. Often you create an artwork and then find out where it wants to go afterward. It finds its own place in the world, and I think that that’s fine.

Jerram’s Gaia installed inside Salisbury Cathedral, UK, with a choir performing underneath.

“I’ve got these very large sculptures of the Moon and the Earth. But I like to leave space for other people to be creative as well. The sculptures are an installation, but they also act as a venue for events to take place beneath them. We’ve had choirs performing and film nights and bands and fashion shows and yoga underneath the Moon, all sorts of stuff. Leaving space for others to be creative is a way of bringing everybody to the party.

“I like the way that sounds in particular paint pictures inside people’s imaginations. When you close your eyes and listen to a piece of music or an interesting story, you’re transported. It’s still quite a visual experience. And I also work with sound as a way of connecting sculptures to an environment. Now I’m known around the world for putting pianos in cities for people to play or for boats that tell stories. And also, for installing a big slip-and-slide in Bristol. That was fun!”

And on the flip side, many of your artworks focus on the very small, like your Glass Microbiology series, which is on view in the Museum, tell us about that.

“I’m interested in exploring those spaces on the edges of our senses, like the far edges of the universe, things that are so far away you can’t see them, that you need a telescope to look at. But I’m also interested in exploring the other end of the dial, looking at things under microscopes, things that are beyond the limitations of our senses, and then making the invisible visible.

“I’m interested in the beauty and the transparency of glass and how it changes. It’s all about light, fundamentally. So, it was an absolute delight and a privilege to have my work selected by The Corning Museum of Glass. It’s a really nice legacy. Both for me, but also for the glassblowers. The glassblowers have their initials on all these sculptures because it’s very much a collaboration and now their work is in Corning and museums right around the world too.

Smallpox Virus and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), Luke Jerram, Bristol, UK, 2010. 25th Rakow Commission. 2010.2.46. Photo: The Corning Museum of Glass.

“The original inspiration for the Glass Microbiology series came from looking in newspapers and finding colored images of viruses used to illustrate a story about science. And I remember in 2003 seeing an image of HIV and it was bright red and yellow, and I was thinking, is it really bright red and yellow? Of course, if you dig a little bit deeper, you realize that viruses are so small they don’t really have any color at all. So, I made the first sculpture, it was about the size of a cricket ball. There was a beauty to it. But there’s also a tension between that beauty and what it represents. This virus has killed millions of people, but I’m interested in exploring that tension. The first one we sold to a collection in London, and they promptly dropped it. So, then I had to make them another one, which is fine, and that led to this body of work and over the years we’ve been adding to it.

“And then, of course, the pandemic hit—the COVID virus pandemic. It was strange, in January of that year, Duke University in America said their scientists were working on this new virus that was discovered in China. We didn’t really know its significance at the time. But they asked if I could make a sculpture of it. When the COVID-19 model finally arrived in my studio after we had designed it and made it, it was literally about six hours before the national lockdown in the UK began and I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, what!’ I quickly realized the significance of it and then all the press seemed to descend upon my studio to take photographs of this thing. The imagery of my sculptures was then used in new stories all around the world. Which was cool. Now my sculptures have become part of the language of virology and their images are used in medical textbooks around the world too. We ended up making many of the COVID-19 sculptures and models of the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine, which we then sold, raising thousands for Medicine Sans Frontiers.”

Jerram besides his Glass Microbiology models of COVID-19 (right) and the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine.

You’ve worked with glass several times now, will that continue?

“I’m actually working on a glass project at the moment, with the University of Sheffield, where we’re making sculptures of diatoms, which are underwater microscopic algae. They are really beautiful. They will also be transparent, like the pieces in Glass Microbiology, because that’s what diatoms look like. They are wonderful, beautiful things.

“I was in Boston a few weeks ago and it was lovely to go and see all the Blaschka models at Harvard. It was absolutely extraordinary to read about that dynasty of glassblowers and the work they’ve done. They were master craftsmen. And actually, the Glass Microbiology viruses and the diatoms I’m working on now are pretty similar in that we’re recreating something that is invisible and beyond the human senses and helping to create educational tools. And so, in some respects, there’s a nice connection there, I think, with the Blaschka work.

“But in general, there’s something about working with glass and in hot shops that’s very addictive. The heat and the beauty of it are quite something. So, I always enjoy visiting hot shops and watching and being part of it. It’s amazing. And also, it’s really collaborative, you can’t really just be a glassblower on your own. You have to have a team of people around you to help make stuff happen, and that’s really important to me.”

What’s next for you?

“I used to have to run around struggling to get lots of work, and now I’ve got too much work. I don’t have to worry about money necessarily anymore, and I’m realizing, oh crikey, I’ve got a responsibility to try to help other people now. So, I’ve set up a fellowship program for young artists, giving them the studio for the year. I’ve got a school arts program giving money to 15 schools across Bristol to help with their art materials. And I’ve just come back from Sierra Leone where we’ve done a project installing solar-powered street lighting in some cities. I’m juggling and developing lots of different projects because of the position of power and privilege I’ve been given. I’m trying to get things done that can actually make a difference in people’s lives.

“Now, there’s an environmental aspect to my work that I’m obviously concerned about. As someone interested in phenomena and in the world, when I start looking at the graphs of carbon dioxide emissions and see temperatures that are going up and the potential collapse of civilizations, actually, it’s really scary. And so, some of the artworks I’m making are there to help communicate those problems. I think with the climate crisis we are potentially heading for disaster, but we’ve all got skills to try to help fight this new problem. Whether you’re a scientist, a lawyer, a teacher, a journalist, or even a chef, I think you can apply your knowledge to these issues around climate change and the climate crisis. And as an artist, I’m able to create strong imagery that can help generate press coverage and help keep the issues of the climate crisis on everyone’s agenda.

Jerram photographed with Gaia, a light and audio installation which reflects the wonder of looking back at Earth from space. Gaia embodies Jerram’s renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.

“And that’s really the problem with glassblowing: it’s incredibly energy intensive. I’d like to look into that more. Ideally, we’d come up with a system where we’re making glass using power from the wind and sun, which would be really cool. There could be a wind turbine installed right next to The Corning Museum of Glass creating all the energy it needs. I’ve never been to the Museum, but one day I want to get there and see my work on display. I’d love to visit when the building and all its activities are carbon neutral or ideally when Corning is producing more energy than it needs, providing power to local homes and other businesses. I hope I won’t have to wait long?!”

And on that note, I said goodbye to Luke Jerram, leaving him to enjoy his surreal, exotic getaway while I thought about who to ask about building a wind turbine next to the Museum.

*All images are courtesy of Luke Jerram, unless otherwise noted.

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