UnderCover: Artist Interview with Kevin McKay

In our latest UnderCover interview, we chat with Kevin McKay, owner of Bayshore Gifts and the artist behind the cover of Shirley Camia's Mercy.

Can you walk us through the process of creating the candy glass art that appears on the cover of Shirley Camia’s Mercy?

I start with a clear piece of glass and some coloured rods and pull stringers out of all of the different colours we’re using. I coat the piece of clear glass with the colours just a little bit so that it’s not too dense and so it will sparkle. Then I mix the colours and glass around and press them together to give me the round middle of the candy. Once you get the round middle and press it, there’s stress on the glass, so I have to flame polish both sides and that brings out the shine. Then I get a blob of glass on one end and crimp it with pliers and turn it while it’s still warm and then flame polish it. Then I do the same thing on the other side, and that’s the piece.

You have to keep the glass really hot throughout the process, otherwise the stress will be too much on it and it will crack afterwards, especially when you’ve pressed it flat. So I put it in the warming oven once the piece is done and then I’ll put it in the main oven for eight hours. It allows the glass to go up to a certain temperature and then drop very slowly, allowing the thin and the thick glass to both cool down at the same time; that takes the stress out.

What are the specific challenges that come with working with a glass medium?

Basically, with the hot glass you can’t touch it with your fingers. You hold the ends of the glass rods, so you have to feel the flow of the melted glass through the rods and that’s the hard part.

The “flow” means feeling the softness of the hot glass. You can never pull it or push it; instead, you use gravity to let it flow naturally, rather than pulling it out. If you pull it out and you don’t do it correctly, it’s going to stress the glass. And at the same time, you’ve got to keep the design and the shape of the glass there as well as keeping the flow, so that’s tricky.

You can make something in half a day but it will probably crack so you’ve got to really know the glass and the feel of the glass. That’s the hard part to teach and the hard part for people to learn. It takes about 7 years to teach someone properly to do figurines.

Mercy 9780888016614 1000What kind of glass do you use in your creations?

I use borosilicate glass, which is basically similar to Pyrex. Most of the coloured glass comes from the States and some of it comes from China. And most of the clear glass comes from the Czech Republic. When I lived in England, I went to the actual place in the Czech Republic where they make it; it’s a factory in a little village in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, and all they do is make glass tubes and rods. It’s amazing. That’s where I get most of the clear glass from now, anyway.

Do you have any experience working with other artistic mediums?

Nothing. I can’t draw. (I can draw a curtain!) I never took art in school; they wouldn’t let me. I was a musician before I started glassblowing. I had a friend who was a glassblower and I said, “If you’ll teach me, we’ll see what I can do.” So she did, and I started my own company and employed her and that was it. That was 39 years ago.

What are some of the more memorable/challenging/unique pieces you’ve created?

Someone commissioned me to make a Royal Coach with six horses. The coach itself is only about 8 or 9 inches long but it took me a month to do because it had gargoyles on it and half-men, half-fish holding it up and then I had to paint it all gold and fire it in the oven, so that took a while to do. I do so many custom orders; it’s crazy. I’ve just done this piece that’s Hawai’i with a turtle in the middle. I do all sorts of things. Probably each week I do at least 10 custom orders.

Have you had any extra-memorable clients?

Yes; Margaret Thatcher wasn’t one of my favourite people, but the Blackpool City Council ordered a Blackpool Tower for her when she came for a visit. It was the biggest resort in England and probably in Europe at one time, back in the 70s before air travel. The tower in Blackpool is half the size of the Eiffel Tower, about 600 ft. high, so I used to make a lot of glass ones. I used to sell 25,000 towers a season.

How long does it generally take you to make your creations?

It depends what it is. I’ve sold about 5,000 hummingbirds this year and I can make one probably in 5 minutes. I’ve probably done about 90-100 hummingbirds in one eight-hour day.

You first began your glasswork business in the UK before moving to Canada in 2000. Have you noticed if the climate has any effect on the glass that you work with?

Not really, you’ve just got to have the temperature right. If you’re in a cold garage, the glass is going to crack quicker so you’ve got to be careful about the temperature. Glass melts at about 1300 degrees Celsius so you have it keep around that, or upwards from 900 degrees; you don’t really want to go below 900 or 800 when you’re working on a piece. It doesn’t matter too much what the temperature of the room is where you’re working, but you don’t want things to cool down too quickly.

Is there a particular time of day during which you work best?

I prefer the morning, coming in early and working from 7:00 a.m. onwards. 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. is probably the best time I work. I get more done then; it takes about 2 or 3 hours to get going and then you can really flow.

You have almost 40 years of experience as a glass artist. What were some of the hard lessons you learned in the early stages of your career?

The glass blowing wasn’t hard, but because I didn’t go to school for business, the hardest lesson was actually building the business. Within 3 years I had 8 shops and 26 staff so that was a challenge. The worst thing I ever did was employ family, especially in managerial positions because they don’t do what you say and then they don’t know what they’re doing so it’s just hard. I wouldn’t do that again!

Given your long and successful career, how do you continue to challenge yourself and push the creative limits of your art?

The different custom orders people ask for really push me to decide what we can do. And figuring out how to do a piece in a certain price range; a hard part is when someone wants a $100 piece for $50, I’ve got to see how I can do it for $50. To this day, it’s hard to cost something correctly, especially if it’s something in-depth that you want to try and you think it will take you half an hour and it takes you three; that’s the difference between profit and loss sometimes.

To learn more about Kevin's work, to place a custom order, or a to book a class, visit his website, www.bayshoregiftsinglass.com.