How Tina smashed through the glass ceiling to create colourful and quirky artistic career


Story: Caitlin Zerafa

Photos: Lisa Pearl

Breaking through the glass ceiling is something artist Tina Cooper has built her career around.
Excelling in a traditionally male-dominated art form, the Montville glassblower has overcome her fair share of adversities to be where she is today.
Having dabbled in various jobs beforehand, Tina’s career in glassblowing began 31 years ago after an illness left her bed-ridden and in search of a therapeutic outlet.
“I was a single mother at 30 years old, venturing through life as a waitress, a petrol pump assistant. I was even a DJ and ran an entertainment centre,” she said.
“I had a business background and then I became unwell and found art was quite therapeutic.
“A part of me that had never been switched on finally switched on.”
Tina experimented with clothing design, carving and pottery before a chance meeting at a Mapleton pub sent her in a completely new direction.
“I met two glassblowers there and we were chatting,” she said.
“It was basically a chance meeting. I call it the ‘a-ha’ moment where the stars aligned.
“All the hairs on my arms stood up and it was like I’d walked into my true life.”
Being a single parent, a woman and someone with absolutely no experience in glassblowing, Tina says it was difficult to find an opening into the industry.
That was until fellow local glassblower, the late Mark Galton, offered her a room in his shed.
“Mark offered me a space working out of a shed, renting a room. I said to him: ‘Yes, I’ll do anything to learn glass’.
“My career started at Eumundi Markets, selling Mark’s work, and then we created [the brand] Martini Glass – Mark and Tina – and that was quite well-known.
“I left Martini after five years and decided my passion was to do large, expressive pieces.
“I travelled the world every year and studied under masters. Because I wasn’t traditionally trained, I was basically looking outside the box and creating techniques through learning and doing it my way.”
Tina’s journey to creating and selling high-end glass has not been easy, with years spent selling bread-and-butter items, such as bowls, just to make ends meet.
“There were so many times I went to the markets with nothing, not even fuel to get home.
“If we had a good day, my daughter Jasmine would come home and we’d go to dinner and celebrate because we sold something.
“If we didn’t sell anything, we would eat two-minute noodles.
“I made glass five days a week and did markets Saturday and Sunday for about 12 years.
“So, there was no life.
“I felt that I couldn’t give up and ‘no’ is not an option. And what I found is, if there is a will, there is a way.”
Then in 2001, just two weeks after September 11 and on board one of the first flights back into the United States, Tina was invited to be part of SOFA Chicago: one of the largest, three-dimensional art shows in America, known today as Intersect Chicago.
“I eventually represented Australia in the world’s biggest exhibition in the USA. As a woman, that was pretty amazing.”
Today, you’ll find Tina Cooper Glass in homes and hotels across Australia and the world.
Her work was also featured in the Palazzo Versace Dubai in 2004, where the Sheikh of Dubai had a private viewing.
Her passions lie in creating sculptures, tribal goddesses and memorial orbs incorporating ashes, with nature her biggest inspiration.
“I love working with myths. I love working with Mother Nature because it always inspires you everywhere you go – she gets it so right.
“I love to represent the beauty of the range, the colours of the mountains and the beautiful skies.
“You gather things from your trips, and you have boxes and boxes of treasures – feathers and beads and corals.
“Everything has a story. Every part of the piece has a story.”
Tina enjoys collaborating with other artists and media, particularly local Indigenous creatives, and says the art of glassblowing happens in a team environment under physically challenging conditions.
“You’re working in a gym, doing open-heart surgery, while doing a ballet – that’s how I explain it to people,” Tina said.
“You’re working in synchronicity with up to six people on the larger pieces and everything has to flow, and every moment is critical.
“You’re one or two seconds out in your timing and your piece is history.”
Tina and her team work with heat nearing 1200C and she admits burns are part of the daily job.
“You’re constantly burning. You’d be very lucky not to get a burn each time you work.
“You have to switch off to the pain and you have to get into the visuals and know that what you’re creating will come together.
“I have no fear when I go in creating new pieces. You’ve got to trust yourself so much.
“It’s like you’re a stunt driver and you know your car and you know your moment.
“It’s sweaty and dirty and grungy and you just get something so beautiful and stunning out of something so grungy.”
Tina believes art is a “national treasure” and hopes her work “makes people feel again”.
“I feel my aim is to record history through my own perspective using glass as my medium,” she said.
“That’s what art is. You don’t have to read something to know what it’s about.
“You need to feel it and, once you feel it, then it tells you its story.”
Tina now runs a gallery from her Montville home – something that has been decades in the making.
“It’s a dream that I’ve had for 20 years to create this gallery.
“I’ve owned the block 21 years and it’s taken me that long to get it finished.
“Now it’s just an amazing place for people to come and see.”
Tina believes she will never be finished learning the art of glassblowing and that as long as she reflects herself in her work, she will keep going.
“It takes a lot of skill and it is just year after year, pushing your skill level and having the courage to go and create something new and interesting.
“It’s a really long journey to learn glass. I’m still learning and I’m 31 years in it.
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt through working glass is not to try and be better than someone. Just be you.”