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At first glance, Finnish artist Anu Penttinen's carved matte-glass vessels suggest Aboriginal and African primitive art, but their economy of line derives from Nordic design of the 1950s. "She's taken traditional techniques and given them a contemporary twist," says Jane Bruce, who taught Penttinen at the Canberra School of Art and calls her work "well-made and well-resolved." Penttinen's palette comprises black, white, oranges, and reds—a departure from the traditional Finnish blues and greens in glassware, yet quintessentially Finnish in its adherence to simplicity and conscious limitation of components. The vases are striated, bisected, or traversed with gridwork, double-walled and engraved to uncover a contrasting color.
In the world of Finnish glassmaking, Penttinen's technique is unusual. Where Finnish glassblowers generally work with a single bubble, the 29-year-old Penttinen learned a process in Australia called overlay (first practiced in Bohemia in the 19th century) in which the first bubble is enveloped in a second. She prefers black for the exterior because it is much softer and more easily tooled. The carved result consists of an interior wall encased in a vestigial "skin." A second unusual aspect of Penttinen's process is that she spends most of her time "cold-working," using diamond carving wheels on a lathe. She grinds away parts of the outer layer to create a pattern by revealing what lies beneath. "I don't need to explore form to make a new collection," she says. "I prefer exploring the surface and color." Refining is done with a diamond-tip engraver.
"I love the immediacy involved in working with glass," says Penttinen. "Glass as a material makes me very decisive and ambitious." These impulses serve her, as a glass artist must be fast and accurate: "Hot glass has a mind of its own and at the same time a quality of total plasticity," says Penttinen. "For a brief moment you can pull, stretch, tweak, and wrap this glowing mass. Then it stops moving and turns completely transparent."
Introduced to ceramics at the age of 17, during a high-school year abroad in Cincinnati, Penttinen tried her hand at glassblowing while studying ceramics at Helsinki's University of Art and Design. "I never touched clay again," she says. Since graduating in 2000 from the Canberra School of Art, she has caught the attention of curators on three continents, and two museums—the Finnish Glassmuseum and the museum at Australian National University—have included her work in their permanent collections.
It's easy to appreciate the visual power and tactile appeal of her pieces. Tall and graceful, Grid suggests the rippling of a giraffe's patterned coat; the robust Cityscope: Helsinki I looks like an aerial view of city streets; and the black, bottle-shaped Monotone is carved with small red disks that practically pulsate. (Penttinen counts electronic music as an inspiration.) "I like them as objects," she says. "I can't imagine them as flower vases or anything like that."
Penttinen recently moved her workshop to the fourth floor of a former rubber factory in Kerava, half an hour outside of Helsinki. Her new 500-square-foot space holds the basics: an engraver, diamond lathe, and a flat wheel. "I've bought a lovely apartment nearby," she says, "so working late is not a problem." And work she does: In September she begins a collaboration—designing one-off works and perhaps a series—with the 105-year-old Orrefors Swedish glass company; at month's end, she mounts an exhibition in Auckland; and in spring she plans to exhibit at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. Right now, she's also focusing on getting representation in New York City so that her work will be available stateside. Where would she have channeled her creative tempo, her desire for dramatic resonance, if she hadn't discovered glass? She says without missing a beat, "I'd be a drummer in a rock band."
Works by Anu Penttinen are priced from approximately $2,000 and are available through Axia Modern Art, Melbourne (www.axiamodernart.com.au) and Quadrivium, Sydney; or they can be ordered directly by calling 35-8-506-0081.