From Royal Marine Commando to hot glass artist - Craft & Material Practices student Nathan Soper
Wander into the hot glass workshop in Plymouth College of Art’s £7.7m Craft, Design & Fabrication building and you’ll often find Nathan Soper, working at a bench, blowing molten hot glass. The 35-year-old BA (Hons) Craft & Material Practices student is only in his first year but is already making himself at home by the furnaces. We caught up with him to find out more about what brought him to the college, after serving in the military for over seven years, four of which with the Royal Marines.
Nathan Soper in the hot shop
What made you decide to do a crafts degree?
I remember the glassworks down on the Barbican and being fascinated by the glass blowing there as a kid. After serving for years in the military, I was signposted to charities such as Help For Heroes and Combat Stress for my mental health, but they tend to offer outdoor activities like kayaking as therapy, and that’s not always what everyone wants to do. I met Gayle Matthias at Leadworks, and after seeing Blown Away on Netflix, I really wanted to get into glass. I applied and got a place on the Craft & Material Practices degree.
Before that, I’d spent two years floating around, not knowing what to do with myself. For anyone suffering from mental health issues, they should seriously consider trying glass. You might get the same effect as I get from glass from metals, but you’re not forced to concentrate in the same way. You constantly have to remain focussed, and that’s what it’s all about for me.
Nathan assisting master glassblower Ian Hankey in the workshop
Why is glass the material for you?
Glass is so good for refocusing your attention away from things that are bothering you. You can’t think about anything else when you’re blowing glass. You have to be in the zone with glass. I wish someone had told me years ago to come and try it. I wonder how many more veterans would benefit from it. Seeing someone like me doing it might make them think they can too. The military lads are always interested. They always ask questions, but they don’t know how to get involved as half of them don’t even think it’s possible.
What type of glass do you like to make?
I’m really keen to get into interior design, such as lighting. I love glass and goblet making, I like to create vessels mainly! I’m currently working on a range of pendant lights for a customer, which is pretty cool. Crazy that I’m already getting commissioned! It really took off after I made some baubles at the Plymouth College of Art’s Christmas Makers Fair at the end of last year. There are people who bought a bauble there that are still messaging me now for commissions. I’m doing alright and I’m really grateful for that!
Nathan's glass work at a pop-up shop on campus
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I don’t really know who I am as an artist yet. I’m still only in my first year, so I don’t know what I’m going for. When you first start off in glass, you just want to keep bashing them out. Keep making and creating, practising your shapes and getting to know the material. I learn something new every day. Glass has got such a mind of its own, it’s all about learning how to be in control of that process.
Nathan assisting glass artist Bethany Wood during our Melting Pot: Hot Glass Gathering event
You assisted ‘Blown Away’ winner Elliot Walker at this year’s Melting Pot event, what was that experience like?
Melting Pot was so good. It was mentioned last year and there was a talk about Elliot Walker visiting. One day I’m smashing through the whole series of Blown Away, the next I’m assisting him in the hot shop! That was easily my favourite part and was so reassuring and validating to know I can do this. The assistant is just as important as the guy on the bench, I mean, you’ve seen the sizes of the pieces we were making!
I also got some great connections from the event, such as Andrew Collins, an awesome glass artist who makes blow moulds of boots and shoes. He’s currently working on a large urban chandelier, made up of blown glass football boots and trainers and wants me to assist him in making it! It’s all happening, it’s really great.
Nathan assisting Elliot Walker and Bethany Wood during Melting Pot
What exciting things are you up to now?
Well, I got my foot in the door at Teign Valley Glass. You can go down there and see glass being blown seven days a week. I work with Richard Glass, the head designer and glasswork manager and also with alumni Charlotte Scurlock. Funnily enough she messaged me back in January saying to come up to the studio and meet Richard, and I’m there now! Can’t believe I missed that message. Must have been meant to be. The pace is intense but it’s so good to see how an actual studio works. It’s so quick, you’ll look round and there’s 20 vases made. I’m happy if I manage one or two a day!
Nathan is taking commissions, and if you’d like to keep up to date with his work, check out his Instagram @benchblownglass.
Are you a veteran like Nathan? Interested in studying a creative degree? Come along to our Open Day on Saturday 2 July to tour our studios and meet our lecturers.