Heart of Glass

Heather Kremen’s love of glassblowing was set alight as a teen at her first class. After establishing Amokura Glass in 2017, she’s not only still innovating but also set on training future artists.

Heather Kremen’s love of glassblowing was set alight as a teen at her
first class. After establishing Amokura Glass in 2017, she’s not only
still innovating but also set on training future artists.

Heather Kremen has her father to blame for where she’s ended up.

The founder of Rotorua’s Amokura Glass studio and gallery had an interest in arts and crafts while growing up between Aotearoa and the US, but had never really considered it a solid career option.
It was when her arts-loving dad (a psychiatrist who liked to weave blankets on a loom in their lounge) signed her up for a glassblowing class at the age of 18 that she started to fall in love. “The first time
I got glass out of the furnace, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do with my life and now,
16 years later, here I am. I remind him all the time that this is his fault!”

Even after that three-day course, it took a while for the head to catch up to the heart in terms of career goals. Heather was on her way to a career in international relations, “in one of those serious, adulty jobs,” when she stopped to ask herself if she’d ever have time to work in diplomacy and work with glass. The answer was no. So the serious jobs were not applied for and an altogether different future started to take shape.

While living in Japan in 2010, Heather took classes at the Tokyo Glass Art Institute, and upon returning to the US she attended various institutes and workshops before purchasing what’s now Amokura Glass, sight unseen, in 2017. “I’d always envisioned setting up a glass studio in Central Otago or Marlborough because wine and glass just go together so well!” she laughs. But while chatting
with fellow glass artist Evelyn Dunstan, Heather heard tell of a hot shop that was up for sale.

Just two weeks after getting in touch with the seller, Heather was the proud owner of the studio. Within a few months, she had fired up the reheating chambers (also called glory holes) for the
first time — rather poetically, with her dad by her side.

Cooling the tip of some molten glass.

Stretching glass colour into thin rods that are used to decorate pieces such as the Bach Cups.

The team at Amokura Glass create a wide range of items from fine art and decorative through to functional, and it’s this variety that keeps them excited. “I like really complex patterns and find a lot
of inspiration in nature,” says Heather, who says she especially loves making murrine, an Italian term for coloured patterns made in glass canes (long rods), which are revealed when cut in cross-sections.

“I like making fused glass murrine using sheets of glass, which you then cut up into strips that will form a pattern. I put that into a kiln to heat up and melt the slices of sheet glass together so it’s like taffy and I can pull it from the ceiling. It’s a really long process, but it creates these intricate patterns on the outside of a vessel.” The more detailed murrine might have so many layers that it can take
up to three months to form the patterns before the final piece even gets made. “I love the intricacies.
I love the detail of that type of work. It’s unlike anything here in New Zealand.”

And then there are cups. “Lots and lots of cups!” says Heather. “We have three lines of cups that we sell out of constantly in our shop, and they also go to different stockists around the country. Everyone likes a glass cup but you can go to Kmart and buy one for like $2, so sometimes people don’t understand why it costs $52 to buy a cup from us.”

Running a glassblowing studio in a small country like Aotearoa has its challenges. When her equipment breaks, Heather has had to learn to fix it herself. She’s even had to teach her electrician how to rewire the studio’s furnace. Then there’s the fine balance of running a business in the
creative industries.

“I knew when I returned to New Zealand that I would be the only one within about 50km that could blow glass, and that
I’d have to train anyone who assists me from scratch.”

“During the pandemic, when I realised I really would have to shift to wholesale to keep the shop
open, I struggled as an artist. It was hard to go into more of a ‘mechanical’ way of working, making the same object over and over again — it’s not how I like to work,” she says. “But there have definitely been things that have helped keep me interested. In our Bach cup range, we lay down lines of colour in a random way and how each cup turns out is totally up to fate. I love that.”

While it’s true that glassblowing is a lifelong learning journey, Heather’s now increasingly taking
on a teaching role and encouraging others to take up the art. The cost involved is one major hurdle. “Glassblowing as an art form is probably the most industrial art form out there, because we need furnaces that reach over 1200 degrees, we need reheating chambers that also reach 1200 degrees. You need kilns to cool down the glass and you need places to cool down the pipes. You need a lot
of tools. And so it’s not something you can just get into on a whim because even one of those things will cost as much as a luxury vehicle.”

Financials aside, Heather notes that finding good people to work with is often one of the biggest hurdles. “I knew when I returned to New Zealand that I would be the only one within about 50km
that could blow glass, and that I’d have to train anyone who assists me from scratch. The process
of teaching someone takes at least two years to be semi-decent, and six years to go from mastering the basics to being able to blow glass yourself,” she explains. “A lot of people compare glassblowing and assisting to a dance — where every person has their own set of moves to work around each other and [also] together. Especially in a small shop like mine — you need to know exactly where the other person’s going so you don’t run into them with hot glass.”

Heather using the ‘jacks’ (a tool specific to glassblowing) to shape the glass.

The team have been working with Rukingi Haupapa from Ōhinemutu to create glass kōauau (traditional Māori flutes).

An illuminated spiral paperweight.

With trust being so important, it’s not surprising that Heather’s sister, Ann, assists her full-time in the hot shop. The pair didn’t necessarily have a great relationship before they started working together. “Ann used to live in London and I was in the US, and we kind of both agreed it was better for us to live on opposite sides of the world,” says Heather. “She came back to New Zealand during the pandemic and, unable to find other work, started assisting me. Reconnecting and building a better relationship with my sister has been a major highlight for me.”

Rounding out the small, close-knit team is Peraniko (Niko) McCauley, who started as gallery staff
in 2022 but quickly “got the bug” and has been with the workshop team ever since.

Setting up a glass school is the next project for Heather: “I want to be able to teach people who want to do this for a living — the glassblowing, of course, but also the business side. And all forms of glass, from flame working to fusing and cold working, maybe even neon. In the US people can learn glassblowing in high school.”

Heather has purchased a mobile glassblowing studio so she can hit the road, taking the art form
to more people. She’ll also continue to mentor people and continue to bring guest artists in from overseas for Kiwis to learn from. “I’m not afraid of the competition,” she says. “I’m afraid of not
having competition.”

For now, you’ll find Heather at Amokura hot shop, creating colourful, intricate pieces with her team. “No matter how many years I do this, there’s always something new to try, something new to learn and something new to make. Glass is not the static, cold, clear thing that we use every day. In the
hot shop, it’s this molten beautiful mass glowing red orange, so fluid, so glowy. There’s no way I could ever get bored with this material — there are endless possibilities.”

amokuraglass.com @amokuraglass

Words & photography by Adrienne Pitts