As temperamental as a typical woman, glass is never an easy media to work with. Not surprisingly, this is the very challenge that has kept veteran artist, Raja Azhar Raja Lop Idris, interested even after 17 long years sculpting it.
“Glass is so unpredictable. Working on a glass project is almost the same as falling in love with a woman. Firing the glassware is akin to bedding her. One never knows what to expect the ‘morning after’ as opening the furnace, one is always greeted with a surprise,” described Raja Azhar of his feelings as a glass sculptor. Wearing his trademark beret, he looked relaxed as he laughingly added, “I fall in love all over again if my sculpture turns out more beautiful than I had imagined. If my sculpture is shattered during firing, my heart breaks, too.”
Being on an emotional roller-coaster is part and parcel of Raja Azhar’s daily life as a glass artist and he will have it no other way. Despite having achieved critical acclaim as a painter in Australia, Raja Azhar returned to Malaysia only to find too many painters doing similar things in their art.
The famed painter and master glass artist recalled, “I wanted to do something different; to step out from my comfort zone. So, I decided to venture into glass. Although I did have experience with glass cutting due to my previous work as a framer, I would say that I started from scratch as an isolated glass artist in Malaysia. There was no one whom I could consult with when I needed information. Instead, I had to call up more established glass artists in Australia and America, who readily shared their knowledge with me.”
Shortly after that, in 2000, Raja Azhar left for a three-week glass convention in Melbourne, Australia, which provided him with an opportunity to exchange notes with fellow glass artists plus participate in various glass workshops. “It was during my stay in Melbourne that I received a commission from MaybanLife Assurance for a huge textural glass and stainless steel sculpture. With that order, I requested for an advance in payment which was used to purchase a large furnace to facilitate my work. Basically, everything kicked off from there,” he reminisced.
Raja Azhar Idris has been one to buck convention since he was a boy. If he had not persevered in his painting, going against his father’s wishes, today, he would be the boss of a soy sauce factory, taking over the family business.
Born in 1952 in Beruas, Perak, Raja Azhar packed his bags after completing his Form 5 education and left for the big capital city of Kuala Lumpur to realise his dream of becoming a painter. “It was the Seventies and it was not easy to make a living through art. I remember selling my first painting in watercolour for 50 sen,” said Raja Azhar, who was then a street artist.
That four years spent in Kuala Lumpur saw Raja Azhar’s painting fetch RM10 to RM30, and rose in value to RM100 per piece. By then, Raja Azhar hosted his first solo batik exhibition, which he also took to Paris, France. Raja Azhar subsequently managed to gain a place at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne to pursue a degree in fine art. He was one of fifteen applicants accepted for the course that term, out of a total of over five hundred. Needless to say, it was a very stringent selection.
Raja Azhar’s talent was apparent but he was somehow never awarded any prize as the best student artist at university. Nonetheless, he surprised his lecturers when he won an open art competition in 1980 and topped that by bagging both Artist of the Year Award at the Victorian Artists’ Society and Lord Mayor’s Art Prize (City of Melbourne), the following year. This was the beginning of an illustrious painting career.
Although Raja Azhar has not entirely hung up his paint brushes, most of his time is now devoted to glass sculpting, which is not only expensive due to imported glass and paint but time consuming. He explained, “Unlike painting, glass sculpting is a one-way-street process. There is no turning back, no retouching, if things do not work as planned. Therefore, I put in a lot of thought on how I want my glassware to turn out, before cutting a piece of glass. One needs to visualise in his mind first, and it helps to draw it out in 3D. Apart from the shape, form and layer, there is the technique to consider and blend of colours to decide upon. These are just some of the things that I debate with myself in my mind, usually up to a week!
“Still, I relish the challenges that come my way. The larger the sculpture is, the more enjoyment I get out of it. To date, I would say that my masterpiece at the National Heart Institute titled ‘Tree of Life’ that measures 38ft x 36ft x 60ft has given me the most satisfaction.”
After 17 years, it is still a learning process for Raja Azhar, who has found much joy in glass, albeit in a journey that has been peppered with frustrations. “I wish more people would work with glass. It helps if there were university courses offered. Glass is a media that is still not taken seriously by our educators. I am willing to offer my expertise and impart my knowledge to more artists as I am keen to develop this art in Malaysia,” Raja Azhar said.
Right now, Raja Azhar conducts glass sculpting classes in his own workshop in Bukit Antarabangsa, Selangor. The first term of eight three-hourly classes is only RM600, with supplies provided. Some of his students have already gone on to become professional glass sculptors, much to the delight of Raja Azhar. “Anyone who would like to know more about glass sculpting may contact me,” he offered.
Note: An edited version of this article [Handle with care] was published on 7th January, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.