Artist on File: Opal Seabrook

Behind her bubbly and friendly exterior, Opal Seabrook is quietly determined to play her part in keeping the traditional art form of stained glass alive and to explore new techniques. On top of a full-time day job, she produces handmade fusion and stained glass wall art as well as a wide range of craft that is very popular with Open Studios visitors. Opal is also HVA area co-ordinator for Harpenden. Fiona Gaskell finds out how she fits it all in.

Funnily enough, the story of Opal’s passion for glass starts with an unscheduled comfort break on holiday in Scotland in 2005. She happened to come across a glass workshop that was open to visitors and was entranced by what she saw. It was the first time she had seen stained glass being made using the copper foiling technique, and her introduction to traditional leaded stained glass was the beginning of what has turned almost into a vocation. It has led her to experiment with glass in a way that nobody else does and to achieve some surprising results.

“I like to push the boundaries” says Opal, “and I am especially proud of my work using wood to create glass that follows the intricate shape of bark. To be honest, I am always looking for something new.”

Opal likes a challenge, and when she is told that something cannot be done, she likes to try to achieve it. She has produced stained glass that incorporates fusion glass, and work that is 3D on both sides. Another first is a stained glass mirror that plays with optical illusions, and which aroused a lot of interest at the recent HVA exhibition in Harpenden.  Her latest interest is working with a blacksmith to melt glass around wrought iron.

Despite producing some work that is reminiscent of Pop Art, such as her Big Boom Theory piece, Opal is a firm believer in using the traditional techniques of stained glass craftsmanship - stained glass was first recorded in England in the 7th CenturyShe produces stained glass using lead cane, preferring it to copper foil techniques which we have all seen in Tiffany lampshades. Once Opal has developed her design for the art work and chosen the types of glass or other materials to be used, she is ready to prepare the elements for her creation. She hand cuts the glass to size using glass cutters and pliers, and only uses a grinding machine to take off a millimetre here and there, rather than using a band saw or excessive grinding to get the correct proportions. Opal then puts all the elements together to build her creation, cutting the lead cane to size, fitting it around the glass, holding it all in place with horse shoe nails in the wooden base, continuing to build up the design as a very complex jigsaw puzzle! Once the lead and glass is all in position, Opal solders the joints, then cements and polishes the entire piece to ensure a stable and secure yet stunning finish.

Back in 2005, when Opal had chanced across glass-making, she decided to find out more by studying with Elisabeth Roberg in Breachwood Green. She was a strict teacher, and instilled in Opal the importance of not taking short cuts. Opal followed this up with courses at the University of Hertfordshire with Ewa Wawrzyniak. By this time Opal had installed a kiln in her parents’ cellar, raising the necessary finance by selling her work at craft fairs. She is now becoming established as a regular on the artists and makers scene, which has led to several commissions.

Open Studios works very well for Opal, and I asked her for the secret of her success.

“It’s word of mouth” says Opal. “A lot of people in Harpenden know me because of my day job at Snips the barbers, where I have been working since I left school.”

She also finds her local pub, the Gibraltar Castle, is a useful source of visitors to her studio. Her unusual name works in her favour as people remember it – some people even ask if it is a stage name.

Working as HVA area co-ordinator for Harpenden keeps Opal very busy, especially at Open Studios time. She organises monthly get-togethers for members, which are a great way for newcomers to feel part of HVA. Working at Snips means the local group can use the shop to drop off or collect material. Opal even arranges for them to publicise their open studios in the shop window. Altogether it is a huge amount of extra work, and Opal admits that sometimes she has to virtually go without sleep to fit it all in. “Really it is a team effort,” says Opal, “and I owe a great deal to the other members, especially Hillary Taylor and Barbara Weeks, for all their support.”

Current projects include participation in the Giant Monopoly Sculpture Trail in St Albans on 15 September 2013. Opal was asked to lend her work to the project by Chris Blanch, the Arts Development Officer for St Albans Arts Sport & Health, who spotted Opal’s work at the recent HVA exhibition in Harpenden. Opal has plans to try exhibiting at the Parallax art fair in Chelsea Town Hall in October as a result of a contact that came through HVA. She will be taking her usual stand at the Artists and Makers Fair at Waddesdon Plant Centre organised by Sally Evans, which takes place on 5-6 October.

No profile of Opal would be complete without a mention of her adorable dog Dexter, who is familiar to all her customers at Snips. There is an award-winning photo of him, as well as more on her work, on her website.

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