Kate Billington was brought up in Ilkley, Limerick and The Netherlands, lived on the South Coast for a while, but has resided in Sheffield since 1994. As the artist behind Billigoat Designs, Kate specialises in stained glass tuition and the manufacture of leaded glass panels, copperfoil work and glass-based jewellery.
Lit with natural light, spotlights and daylight lamps, Kate’s studio in her converted cellar is unexpectedly bright. She says it’s disorganized but I suspect a method in the chaos. There’s a work surface covered: in pieces of glass, wire, paper, various wooden-handled knives, oil-filled glass cutters, pliers, copper tape, bottles of oil, and work in various stages of completion. Then around the room are boxes and drawers labeled clearly with ‘tacky wax’, ‘cups and saucers’, ‘small knives’, ‘grapes’, ‘wingnuts’, ‘forks’, ‘staples’, ‘tallow’, ‘elastic bands’ and ‘washers’. Boxes filled with coloured glass are categorized simply as: ‘red’, brown’, ‘green’. There are sketches and notes pinned to the wall, bright red glass chillis dangling by ribbon from the ceiling, and any colour of glass you could desire stacked in boxes and along shelves.
While we talk Kate works on a small mirror, pressing copperfoil to the sides of a rectangle of iridescent green glass.
Is there anything in your childhood that led you to working with glass?
Both my parents are very creative and the house was full of arty stuff, including lots of lovely glassware, which was always lined up on the window ledges. I probably spent my early childhood looking at the world through coloured glass ornaments! My sister and I were always making and creating.
You studied architecture?
I was good at most subjects at school and architecture seemed to me to be a subject that would combine art, maths, science etc…but right from the start I knew it wasn’t right. I wasn’t very good at drawing or measuring, I was best at talking to the clients. I worked in a practise in Hove for 6 months got my degree then went to work on the Palace Pier as a “ride operative”, taking money on the helter skelter and operating the ghost train. This was back in the early 90s and times were tough I also sold life insurance, but it was like throwing mud at a wall, really. I was very fit, so I trained as an aerobics teacher which set me up for speaking to groups of people. And, as I was long-term at the Job Club, eventually, they gave me a job talking to the public.
But you don’t work for the Job Club or teach aerobics now…
No. There came a point where I thought, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ And I decided to do a 2-year PGCE at Sheffield Hallam, specialising in Design and Technology. This was at the time when the National Curriculum was brought in and a lot of teachers were bailing out, so there were plenty of teaching jobs around. I taught for fifteen years.
You did an evening class in stained glass.
Yes, back when I was studying architecture. The class was a really traditional adult evening class in a proper old school woodwork room. My fellow students were the typical collection of the weird and the wonderful. It honestly took me about 2 hours to get really into the glass! Pick up a few pieces from my scrap trays and you will understand!
And now you work with glass full time?
Yes. Glass has always been trundling along in the background. When it comes down to it, I only want to work with glass.
Has your training influenced your designs and working patterns?
I am a “line” person and stained glass (as opposed to fused glass) work is very much about line. For me, the colour comes second- which a lot of people are surprised about. I find that people who come to do my workshops are often one or the other- and those with a background in working with textiles are great with colour.
Which artists do you believe have inspired and influenced you?
Good question! I have never really thought about this but I guess my early influences were continental- Escher, Lautrec, Jan Toorop. And now I think about it these artists used limited colours and a lot of line. I recommend checking out Jan Toorop’s 1894 poster for Delftsche Slaolie- it’s a work of wonderfulness. The unsung hero of British ceramics, John Clappison, is another inspirational artist.
Can you describe briefly the procedure to making a panel?
From start to finish there are about 30 stages involved in the manufacture of a stained glass panel! There are also lots of specialist tools and equipment to grapple with and its all totally hands on, messy and dangerous! I love the soldering process and dislike the cleaning up process at the very end- which can take many hours.
How do you select the pieces of glass you will work with?
At the risk of stating the obvious; coloured glass varies tremendously in its appearance depending on the amount of light coming through it. I have had several customers more than a little alarmed at the look of glass I have found them for a project-until they picked it up from whatever surface it was sitting on, to view it properly. Over the years I have accumulated a big collection of samples of glass from various manufactures- mostly German, American and Chinese. (There is some glass being manufactured in the UK but it is mostly very expensive, specialist and handmade for conservation purposes.) Colour is just one consideration when selecting glass. Texture and opacity are also key. I actually find it very difficult to envisage things in my head, I have to have tangible materials in front of me to look at. You will often see little bits of coloured glass stuck to my windows at home!
Do you break much glass?
I break glass all the time – but usually into the shapes I intended!
Have you had any injuries?
I sustain cuts on a daily basis. You can easily give yourself little cuts without realising – till you wonder where all the blood is coming from. The only real problem is when an old cut gets re-opened, this can be a bit grim.
What do you listen to when you’re working?
Usually Radio 4Extra (to be honest since the election I have struggled with Radio 4 and the grimness of the news and politics. I know I am opting to live in the past, but quite frankly, give me Dad’s Army, Sherlock Holmes and Anthony Trollope). When this gets on my nerves I go to Planet Rock and sometimes 6 Music. Pretty much all of my Desert Island Discs are New Model Army.
Do you have an apprentice?
No, though I have had numerous enquiries on the subject. I work quite random hours and at different strands of my business from one day to the next, which just doesn’t currently lend itself to taking on an apprentice
How have you found the best way of selling your work?
I haven’t found a “best” way yet, but also I haven’t been focussing solely on making pieces to sell. Around a third of what I produce are bespoke commissions, where usually people approach me having found my website or met me at a craft market.
Tell me about the teaching.
I really enjoy teaching. It’s great to be able to impart something hands on and creative to other people. There are 2 really good bits in my workshops: firstly the look on people’s faces when their first piece of glass breaks where they wanted it to! and secondly, the look on people’s faces when they hold up their panel to see how it looks with the light behind it for the first time. I teach workshops in my studio at home in Meersbrook, with a maximum number of three students at a time. I also teach courses at the Derbyshire Eco Centre and at Hope Valley College.
Have you any business/glass-connected plans?
Yes- taking a lead from my dad, who is currently up-cycling rubbish to artistic effect, I am looking at incorporating more salvaged material into my work.
Aside from your workshops and commissions is there anything else going on?
I’ll be at the Folk Forest for Tramlines again. And I’m also working at the Archer Project, hoping to do some teaching there too.
Interview by Virginia Lowes, Freelance Writer.
Images courtesy of Billigoat Designs and Virginia Lowes.