Jeffrey Sarmiento admits he’s exhausted. With only three days off since mid-June, he’s been working flat-out on his new exhibition - his first solo show in the UK - and he’s just spent over a week installing it at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland.
Even the finishing touches weren’t without challenges. One piece nearly fell off the wall, he says, and that was one of the smaller exhibits.
Imagine the difficulties of building his biggest: a centrepiece glass “roller-coaster” of an installation called Beautiful Flaws which dominates the ground-floor gallery space.
Only now can he stand back and reflect on what has been achieved with the help of his team of 25 students, including engineers and an architect, in newly-opened show Constructions, which also features a “longest” and “heaviest” sculpture alongside colourful small exhibits which combine to show the seemingly infinite possibilities of glass.
“It’s one of the most difficult mediums to work in because of its fragility and weight but it’s also magical,” says the tired Sarmiento, who is programme leader of Sunderland University’s MA glass course. “It can do things nothing else can do.”
Visitors will be able to see that for themselves from the kilos of glass with which Sarmiento and his team have been “pushing boundaries”. Although sometimes that can lead to cracking or blow-ups, he laughs.
It was seven years ago that the Filipino-American artist, who previously worked in Denmark and whose techniques include digital design, photoshop, image transfer, hand-carving and polishing, came to the National Glass Centre, having heard of a possible research position. Back then he knew nothing of the world-class facility, which has been recently refurbished; nor even which airport to fly into.
Once here, he recalls feeling “slightly bewildered”, having expected more similarities with American culture than he’d found in Denmark. But it proved harder to assimilate, and the coming together of different cultures - the idea of “fitting in and not fitting in” - is reflecting in his show’s imagery. His heaviest exhibit (160 kilos) of intersecting glass juxtaposes an old black and white photograph of runners in a Jarrow race, for instance, with a group captured on camera by a great-uncle in the Philippines.
Glass can be a lens, a window, and is “a way of looking at culture”, he says.
And it can be transparent or colourful, as in his beautiful encylopedia of small exhibits: glass “book” blocks that on close inspection reveal multiple interior layers, featuring about 150 sketches, photographs, text and patterns; many of them inspired by artefacts from nearby Sunderland Museum.
Meanwhile, the three-dimensional Beautiful Flaws, which is made from recycled greenhouse panels - the imperfections in the glass drawn to our attention - has a nod to the National Glass Centre itself in the graceful curves at the top.
Other work includes photographs, covered in tiny glass lenses, of a Filipino woman and man, called Muse and Muscles, which come more clearly into view from a distance; while one image of a coiled snake makes its impact when the viewer stands directly in front, as the image is inside the glass rather than on the surface.
Running the length of the gallery is that longest exhibit; a fun take on an elongated one-storey building that caught Sarmiento’s eye while on an artist’s residency in Bergen. “It seemed to go on for ever and I thought ‘what could it possibly be for’?”
Working on the idea of a building’s form being determined by its function, he settled on a rope factory and his model contains a 40 metre length of hand-made Norwegian rope.
“I’m known for making intricate objects,” he laughs, and this is an altogether different scale for him.
It’s a striking exhibition which melds the contemporary and traditional, foreign and familiar.
“I’ve been trying to make something like this for 10 years,” he tells me. “It took my coming here to Sunderland to make it possible.”
He’s done his PhD since he’s been here and has learned new techniques in a city immersed in glass-making traditions.
He came from doing lots of glass-blowing work in America to “making images in glass in ways I didn’t know about”.
Whereas all but two exhibits for his show have been made over the last four months, he’s used his Muse image before but here “the outcome is totally different”.
He adds: “I’ve been changed by the experience; I’ll never be the same after living here for seven years. I don’t think my work looks the same at all.”
Constructions, which is funded by the Arts Council, glass centre and university research centre, “represents what it is possible to make in an international glass centre”.
“This is one of the best centres in the world and I preface that by saying I’ve been to a lot!
“This place is distinctive and unique.”
He’s satisfied with the result of all that hard work but hasn’t yet been able to relax and enjoy it.
That will come next.
:: Constructions runs at National Glass Centre until January 5 then tours to Oregon. An associated book will be launched, accompanied by an artist’s talk, between noon and 2pm on November 28.