B. Jane Cowie
Glass Artist, Founder and Owner of Art Glass Solutions, Singapore
Master of Visual Arts, 2004
Glass Artist and UniSA alumna, B. Jane Cowie is the Creative Director at Art Glass Solutions Pte Ltd, a company she established in Singapore. Her elaborate glass sculptures and art installations, which adorn the foyers of luxury hotels and corporate buildings in Singapore and South East Asia, are testament not only to her immense talent as an artist and passion for developing new techniques and experimentation with new materials, but also to her skills as a businesswoman working in the tough Asian marketplace.
Jane has owned and operated Art Glass Solutions Art Glass Solutions since 2008. She travels widely to cultivate business contacts, suppliers and clients in Singapore, mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. Her company is now well established within the region and has created a diverse range of glass artworks and architectural installations, including “Enchanting…” at Merrill Lynch HarbourFront Place, “Complex Simplicity” at Ocean Financial Centre Singapore, and within numerous hotel lobbies such as the InterContinental Hotel in Foshan, China. Currently she is installing her latest artworks in Singapore’s imposing South Beach Complex within the interiors designed by the renowned Phillippe Starck.
Establishing a new business anywhere is a difficult learning curve, but for a foreigner working in Asia this has presented unique challenges which Jane carefully analyses, articulates and presents.
“When I started Art Glass Solutions with two colleagues, we ventured out into the business world after being employed. With little or no startup capital it was necessary to borrow money to survive. At the beginning we were lucky to get a few good projects, however most of these projects cost more money than what we earnt. Losing money is certainly stressful, especially in a foreign country, which made it increasingly difficult to continue. Yet I believed that creating artworks of excellence was important if the company was to endure and survive. Maintaining a high level of innovative development and unique creativity would ensure the long term survival. Finding the right projects and the right people to work with was hard work,” says Jane.
“Additionally, learning about who actually was the person making the decisions was also difficult to realise in the beginning. It took time and some costly mistakes to realise who was important and who was spinning us around. In the beginning we did a lot of developmental work that we were not paid for and subsequently kept losing money.
“The going was too tough and eventually my business partners went their own way and I was left to pay off the loan and struggle on. With little or no income for many years, my struggle to survive was palatable. I borrowed money just to pay rent, worked long hours, was teaching in the AGS studio, designed and developed artworks in the evening and continued to develop and promote the company. I learnt to not trust anything or anyone as I battled to do the best I could to create unique and innovative artworks. Finally I began to get the attention of a few key designers and developers in Singapore, and the projects started to come in at a regular, irregular rate.”
Jane learnt to make practical decisions, listened carefully and mindfully to observe the work practice of those she worked with in the Asian culture(s).
“Finally I learnt and began to understand the tacit knowledge required to survive. My business partners had left Singapore to find work in other countries and other sectors not as tough as the construction industry, within which AGS was positioning itself. Learning who to rely on, who made the key decisions and who would be paying was important. These were often different sets of people and required different skill sets to deal with each of these different groups.
“At one point I remember being asked ‘who is the most important person?’ My answer was considered and long, ‘Well the client is important as they have the money to spend on the artwork, the art consultant is important as they recommend me to the project, the interior designer is important they need to believe that what I design and create will complement their interior design, the architect is important as they have to like my designs and know it will fit well with the building’s structure, the main contractor is important as I need to work with them to install the artwork, my artist team is important as they have to understand and be able to create my vision, and finally the installation team must have the patience and ability to install the artwork in consideration of the timeline and my directives as the artist – after all my research, development, planning, making and layout composition.’
“As the artist I am part of a larger team of people who all work together to achieve a common goal – to design and build a very big object that is detailed, extra ordinary, interesting to look at and functional.”
Jane learnt to make practical decisions, listen carefully and mindfully observe the work practice of others.
“I have learnt not to trust the people who tell me I can trust them. This was a hard lesson to learn. I now rely more on observations, instinct and watch carefully for any signs that may indicate all is not as it first seems. Talk is cheap and mistakes are expensive. I always ask tough questions of those I work with and the many questions I ask assists me to determine if what people are telling me is correct or not.”
She found the language barrier difficult at first, but through the use of new technologies (Google translate) and her own intuition she now finds it relatively easy to communicate with project coordinators, glassmakers and suppliers.
“Not knowing the spoken language is naturally difficult, yet with translating apps on your phone and a keen eye for body language, I get by in most situations especially when someone is equally intuitive and observant. With my suppliers and the makers I work with we intuitively have a common bond of creativity and making, sharing a keen understanding of the material and process so we can understand each other without a translator, without words, but with gestures and drawings. It is these connections I truly value. Knowing we share the same passion for making, creating and innovating.”
Jane has always known that she would be an artist as her childhood home was filled with many artistic experiments. She studied at Sydney College of the Arts in 1980, one of the first years glass making was offered as a subject at an Australian university. It was here she learnt about glass casting, fusing, and cold working. She later travelled and worked in the USA, UK and Europe, where she witnessed glass blowing for the first time, and thought ‘this is what I will do for the rest of my life.’
In the late 1980s Jane returned to Adelaide as a trainee at Adelaide’s JamFactory - Centre for Contemporary Craft and Design. Living in Adelaide for the next 13 years, she had stints living and working abroad in the USA and Japan, later completed her Master of Visual Arts at the University of South Australia.
Her passion for art and for self-discovery have always led Jane to travel, so after completing her studies at UniSA she ventured again overseas to Asia.
“I had passed through Singapore on several occasions and it seemed like an interesting place to live and work. Taking the time to meet with people during my visits, I was offered the position of Glass Lecturer at Lasalle SIA College of the Arts in 2003. I was then asked to build and manage a hot glass studio at a local Architectural Art Glass Company. I designed, developed and made glass pieces for various standalone artworks as well as large architectural glass installations.
“Managing the hot glass studio meant I took a step away from the making process. I began to focus more on the concept development of an idea, was able to better undertake material research and had time to do the development works required in the early stages of each new project.”
Jane’s advice for graduates wanting to ‘make it’ in the world as an artist or designer-maker is to find a niche for their practice that is unique and specialised.
“Many ideas, beliefs and goals are shared amongst the greater global collective and just about everything can be reproduced and copied. Deciding what to make ‘your thing’ is important. You need to focus, commit and strive to go further than others, always pushing yourself to do the best you can.
“Continue to be creative, try to be one step ahead of current thinking and challenge yourself to continue learning. Remaining committed, true to yourself and nurturing your own individuality and creativity is important.”