Black Box: Life, walls and houses

Judi Elliott – a solo exhibition

21 July - 27 August 2016


Highly acclaimed artist Judi Elliott uses her signature technical style of cast, cut, fused and assembled glass to describe one's life journey. View the colourful panels from one of Canberra's first glass graduates.


On our street 1 and On our street 2 by Judi Elliot, Image: Rob Little


In the presence of one's home by Judi Elliot, Image: Rob Little


Journeys Boxed in Glass – Judi Elliott’s Black Box: Life, walls and houses
By Grace Blakeley-Carroll

Black box flight detectors, domestic houses and glass art could not be more different. So different, in fact, that it seems odd to mention them in the same sentence. Designed to withstand intense force, heat and submersion in water, black boxes record both flight data and cockpit sounds to assist in accident and incident investigation, whereas houses provide shelter and a home for individuals. Glass, for its part, is both a strong and incredibly brittle amorphous material that is prone to shattering when dropped and changes in shape when exposed to extreme heat. Although most commonly used for practical purposes, glass artists use the material to create artworks that communicate their worldview.

For acclaimed Canberra glass artist Judi Elliott, black boxes and houses offer the inspiration and glass the means to explore the journey of life. The black box has become a metaphor for the capturing of the cycle of life. The Australian invention has inspired her latest body of work, which is featured along with her celebrated glass houses in her solo exhibition Black Box: Life, walls and houses, at Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre.

Works responding to the theme of the black box occupy most of the exhibition, and offer a metaphysical engagement with the experience of being alive. They consist of a small series of two dimension-dimensional glass wall tablets made using Elliott’s distinctive kiln-formed glass technique. This new direction, which has evolved over the past year, is not as much as a departure as it might seem. Both Elliott’s black boxes and her houses are characterised by the abstraction of inorganic forms. People have an implied presence yet are absent from the works. This allows the viewer to bring their own life journey to their appreciation of the exhibition.

Like much of Elliott’s work, the inspiration of the black box came to her through happenstance. After seeing stories about black boxes on the news, she identified a link between the journey an aeroplane makes from take off to landing and the cycle of human life. The black box contains the story of a flight and Elliott’s latest body of work is an attempt to show “the journey of life encapsulated in a work of art”. As she reminds us, most planes finish their journeys safely and the black box begins its recording process anew once it has exhausted the memory it possesses; much like the continual cycle of human life.

Born in Armidale in the 1930s, Elliott was drawn to art from her childhood. Despite always wanting to be a painter or an architect, she took up ceramics and worked as an apprentice to a studio potter in the late-1950s. After raising a family in regional NSW, she studied ceramics in London in the late-1970s and then in Sydney a few years later. Elliot gained critical success in the medium before coming to glass in 1982. She was part of the first intake into the Glass Workshop established by internationally-renowned glass artist Klaus Moje at the Canberra School of Art (now the Australian National University School of Art). Like much of Elliott’s career, her embrace of glass was unplanned, and something she puts down to destiny. Under Moje she learnt kiln-formed glass techniques, which she has been working with and adapting ever since. Her glass artworks have entered a number of prestigious Australian and international collections, and they have been exhibited in Australia and overseas since the 1980s. Most recently, she was a finalist in the Hindmarsh Prize for glass artists living and working in the Canberra region.

Black Box: Life, walls and houses features the latest evolution of Elliot’s distinctive kiln-formed method. She works in her home studio in suburban Canberra each day. For her, the creative process begins with the development of a theme for a new series and then progresses to a series of drawings. Once she has completed a full-scale drawing of each work, pieces of glass are cut to size from it. This process is similar to how glass for stained glass windows is cut from full-scale cartoons.

However, the finished works do not mimic the initial drawing. The glass changes considerably during the firing process. Once cut to size, pieces of glass are then laid out in her kiln. “I make the glass move” Elliott explains, referring to the way in which the pieces of glass fuse together and are distorted when fired in the kiln. This is due to the chemical reactions between the sections and often results in the appearance of blurred organic black lines where two pieces of glass meet. (Another chemical reaction sees black dots pepper the glass.) Elliott has experimented with various temperatures and has developed her own method of heating the glass to achieve her desired effect. Her interest in the expressive potential of line was partly inspired by Australian artist Brett Whiteley and the use of distorted lines in his iconic paintings, prints and drawings.

Black Box: Life, walls and houses reveals a new dimension to Elliott’s characteristic use of vibrant colours. Previously she has focussed on primary colours. However, her œuvre over the past decade is notable for an expansion in her palette. Her black boxes are distinguished by the introduction of black into the works. Despite its name, aircraft black boxes are, in fact, bright orange and are more rectangular in shape than square. Elliott plays with these contradictions by incorporating black and orange squares, rectangles and other four-sided shapes in the works. This is seen in Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall and Black Box Unfolding (both 2016), which juxtapose her vibrant colour palette with dominant pieces of black glass that add a poignant tone to the works.

The exhibition is enriched by the inclusion of a series of glass houses. Architecture has long been a key motivator for Elliott, as Dick Aitken has shown.[1] While she admires the work of glass artists, it is architects from whom she chiefly draws inspiration. From the streamlined qualities of Art Deco to the bright colours and sleek designs championed by modernist Mexican architect Luis Barragán, Elliott responds to the built environment and to houses and the square in particular. The artist draws on these influences to craft meditative explorations of human habitation and the traces left behind in the built environment. This is similar to the way that a black box captures the experiences of passengers on a plane.

For the past five years Elliott has been “building” three-dimensional houses in glass. These are progressions from her earlier two dimension-houses, and involve a process of firing, cutting and assembling. An example is House with Extension and Addition (2011), which employs the three primary colours with touches of turquoise. An extension has been glued on the right hand side, whereas two additions have been added to the top of the piece. Here Elliott has used her distinctive firing method to great effect. Both clean and distorted lines are visible and small pieces of turquoise and pink glass are juxtaposed


Grace Blakeley-Carroll is a freelance producer and a PhD Candidate in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University



[1] See: Dick Aitken, “Inspired by synchronicity,” Craft Arts International, no. 64 (2005): 28-32.
Judi Elliott and Dick Aitken, Reflections on the built environment, (Wanniassa, A.C.T: Judi Elliott, 2005).