FEATURE: Art and glass helped Sudbury artist see her way clear to a brighter future
If Gail Bushell’s partner wakes at 5am and realises she is no longer beside him, he knows exactly where to find her ... down at the bottom of the garden.
At the crack of dawn, with maybe just a sleepy blackbird for company, she tiptoes out to check on what has been cooking overnight.
And it is with a mixture of thrill and trepidation that she enters the studio at the end of the garden and opens the kiln.
This is the moment when glass artist Gail finds out if her long hours of meticulous work have succeeded or failed.
Firing her fused glass artworks at up to 800 degrees is the final stage of a process that can take days.
And she is constantly experimenting and trying out new techniques as her style changes and develops.
“I’ll get up at 5am, make a coffee and take it down to the studio, and often I’m still there an hour-and-a-half later,” she says.
“If Kevin, my fiancé, wakes up and I’m not there, he never worries because he knows where I’ll be.
“I really love my studio and it’s wonderful when all you have to do to go to work is walk down the garden.”
Gail’s career is set to reach new heights this year with invitations to show at a series of prestigious art and craft fairs and exhibitions.
Her work, which now ranges from small panels to windows, is full of the translucent colour she has always loved.
“Ultimately, I want to be a maker of big pieces,” says Gail, who is currently gearing up for the Parallax art fair at Chelsea Town Hall.
Glass pictures, including brilliantly-colourful rows of hollyhocks, are being carefully bound in layers of bubble wrap.
Also lined up this year is the Harrogate Craft Fair, one of the top trade shows in the world, plus numerous others.
Transporting larger works can be one of her most nerve-racking challenges.
“The biggest window I’ve made so far had to be fired in Chelmsford because my kiln wouldn’t take it,” she said.
“I had to deliver it straight to the client, which meant driving very, very carefully up the A12 in horrible weather.”
Going into Gail’s Sudbury studio is like walking into a rainbow.
The walls are lined with containers filled with coloured glass in every form, from powder and sheets to granules known as frits.
There is also incredibly thin glass confetti, and stringers which look like spaghetti and are used for things like the stems of flowers.
Cutting and grinding glass is hard on the hands. The end result may be beautiful, but it takes a toll.
“I have the worst nails in Suffolk from grinding the glass,” she says. “I’ve tried wearing false nails, but they just get in the way.”
Gail grew up in Colchester but moved to Long Melford when she married and says she has always been a Suffolk girl at heart.
“Art was my best subject at school by a long shot,” she says. “I left with one O-Level, in art, and some CSEs.”
Having few qualifications did not stop her doing a degree in applied art and design as a mature student. She graduated with first class honours.
“I’m a great advocate for those who don’t do well at school. I’ve had some great opportunities,” she said.
But it wasn’t until redundancy forced her to rethink her life that art became her career. Before that, she worked in education and training.
In Melford, she helped set up Mask, one of the first children’s after school clubs.
Gail, who has a grown-up daughter, Laura, then went into child care development and training.
Later, she worked for Age UK in Suffolk as a training and volunteer manager.
Around 20 years ago, after finding out that she could not have any more children, she got a place to study art at Suffolk College.
“It was like a dream come true,” she recalls. “When I left college, I wanted to pursue art as a full-time career, but I started panicking, thinking I need a secure job.”
Ironically, it was not until her life crumbled to an all-time low that she finally got to achieve her dream.
Her 24-year marriage ended in divorce. Then, in a bolt from the blue, she was made redundant.
“I didn’t know what to do but my family and friends said ‘Why aren’t you making your glass?’
“They helped me in so many ways, practical and financial, to set up my studio.
“I’m also lucky to have hugely supportive parents, now both aged 80, who have been amazing.
“I work very hard so I can repay them all, and I am in the position now where I just love what I’m doing.
“Life has been so risky doing this, at times I thought I can’t go on. But I did.”
Meeting partner Kevin Hatley has been a key part of turning her life around. They got engaged in 2013.
“It’s a lovely feeling that things are now settling down,” she says. “It has been quite an amazing journey.
“I don’t want to dwell on the difficult times too much.
“But I hope I can inspire others going through similar things to see it can get better.
“For me, redundancy was the pivotal point.”
Inspiring people is important to her, and she also does it by helping them to make their own glass art.
She runs two workshops a month at her home, catering for beginners and those who return time after time.
“New people do small panels, coasters or hangings. Returners might make a large dish, something more ambitious,” she said.
Gail takes commissions, and sells through galleries. To find out more about her work and workshops, go to www.gailsglass.co.uk