Visiting Oriel Hicks workshop is like entering an Aladdin’s cave. When I arrived I found tiny brightly coloured fish shapes shimmering across the work bench ready to be fashioned into coasters, jewellery, ornamental dishes and bowls, window hangers and more. Besides creating beautiful gifts from fused and tiffany glass and running workshops on glass making Oriel designs and creates stained glass windows several of which can be found in the different island churches and indeed further afield. Alan and I have admired the windows on several visits and so it was great to have the opportunity to speak briefly with Oriel about how she got started and what inspires her.
She told me of how when she left school some of her teachers tried to steer her in the direction of teaching however she chose instead to do a foundation arts course at college. She said to me ‘I soon discovered it was the most fun you could have in life with your clothes on’ and from that point on her career really chose her. Oriel moved back to Scilly in 1989. Her first commission on Scilly was the St Christopher window in St Mary the Virgin church. She told me it was quite a daunting prospect with the sheer size and scale of the window. In fact she acquired the Phoenix Craft Workshop at the Porthmellon Business Park specifically to cope with the commission, it was one of those things that was meant to be, she said.
Other commissions followed and when All Saints Bryher discovered that its windows were in a serious state of disrepair Oriel was at first asked to restore them. Pointing out that there was a choice either to restore or repair the existing windows or to replace them with new designs the church opted for the new windows. The old windows were removed and the glass fragments refashioned in to glassware which was sold to raise money towards the cost of the new windows. A wise decision all round.
An unusual commission came from Little Harbour, the Cornwall Children’s Hospice at St Austell. I had so much fun making that window, she said, I included lots of tiny creatures which children were encouraged to find, a bit like a ‘Where’s Wally’ picture.
Having seen quite a few stained glass church windows on our travels, I love the way that Oriel uses local scenes and colours in her designs. The natural life and island colours are an inspiration for her, the colours of Scilly she told me are predominantly blue, turquoise and green. As a photographer I am also fascinated by her use of light and the way the light plays on and through the windows. This is seen especially in the lighthouse window in St Agnes church where, especially on a dull day, the white of the lighthouse really seems to radiate brightness. Again in St Agnes Oriel designed a 2nd window which shows 2 gigs being rowed out towards the Western Rocks it so realistic you can almost see every muscle straining the effort of rowing and underneath are the words ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you’.
I asked Oriel how the inspiration comes from for her designs. Some are specific commissions with the designs or elements of the design already chosen but others leave her a free hand. Sometimes the inspiration comes very quickly sometimes over a period of time, family members have been known to appear in her designs. Oriel admitted that she is always one to tinker with designs and keep changing things I am a bit of a perfectionist looking back at my designs there are one or two things if I had the opportunity I would change A window takes around 6 weeks to make but far longer to design.
One of the challenges of working from an island is the cost and effort in bringing across the glass which needs to be treated delicately. Likewise the problem of sending it back if the colour turns out not to be right. I understand that the glass used in the process is extremely costly. These days for Oriel most of the stained glass and lead work takes place during the quieter winter months when there is time for experimentation, the summer months being taken up with creating items for the tourist trade.
I met her at a busy time as she was just about to open a new gallery called Tamarisk in the centre of Hugh Town. As I wished her well in this I went on my reflecting on the value of using local colours and scenes and characters from everyday life in church windows. Somehow it unites the life of the church and the life of community, bringing together the holy and the every day. It opens our minds to see our world in a different light, reminding us that everything is part of God’s creation from a gig to a passenger ferry, a tiny seal snail to a towering lighthouse and that, if we take the time to look, God’s presence can be glimpsed even in things we might at first think of as ordinary.