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Glass As An Expressive Medium

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Written by Life in Kansai

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Eye of the Hunter. Drill engraved on Nachtman Vase. Dominic Fonde 2016_edit

Eye of the Hunter. Image: Dominic Fondé

Viewed on-screen, the beautiful, intricate, monochrome image of the head and upper body of a great horned owl resembles a soft, detailed ink sketch by an artist who wields a pen with talent. Yet in person, up close, the work’s surface is shiny, cold and uneven, criss-crossed with tiny lines and indents. It’s engraved glass. The apparent pen strokes turn out to be tiny, measured scores of a handheld drill.

Not a dentist’s drill, though. Unlike most professional glass engravers, Dominic Fondé finds dentist’s drills on the heavy side, preferring a lightweight hobby craft drill. A glass artist since the mid-1990s, Dominic not only engraves but also blows glass, creating original, visually striking artworks that take the viewer beyond first impressions, transcending the object’s overall physical appearance. Look closely at his owl, engraved on a large, upright vase, and you’ll see the prey reflected in its eye: a minute hare.

Now working from his home studio on Rokko Island, Kobe, where he has lived for the past couple of years with his wife, Yoshiko, native Englishman Dominic spent many years in Singapore as the only professional glass engraver in the country. He began incorporating images of birds into his art, taking inspiration from places such as Singapore’s vast Jurong Bird Park. ‘Birds are kind of a default setting for me,’ he says. ‘I just enjoy drawing them.’ Java sparrows, crows, owls and mockingbirds adorn his works, which include a series depicting songbirds positioned as musical icons – including Edith Piaf and Johnny Cash – on memorable album covers.

Before birds, it was words that characterised Dominic’s work. Language and stories opened the door to the world of engraving back when he was working with glass in London. An engraving drill is held in a very similar way to a pencil, and so he was able to start inscribing his own short stories on to blown glass to create unique objects. The handwritten tales add an extra dimension to his art, going deeper than the visual to touch on something emotional. Each new piece features an original story. ‘I always have a fear of making a spelling mistake,’ he admits.

9am Sunday morning. Drill engraved sheet glass. Dominic Fonde 2015. www.dominicfonde.com_edit

9am Sunday morning. Image: Dominic Fondé

Setting up as a glass artist in Kansai wasn’t too difficult, Dominic reports, partly thanks to contacts made during a residency here in 2010. The transition was also smoothed by Yoshiko, who, as the other half of the business, takes care of accounts and administration. And Kansai provides a welcoming environment for a glass artist out to produce individual handmade items, given the eternal popularity of handicrafts in Japan. ‘Even just around Kobe there are lots of handworkers, making beads and so on,’ says Dominic. ‘Seeing the quality of work in Japan was a real wake-up call after years of being the only engraver in Singapore.’

A busy year for Dominic so far, 2016 has seen him preparing work for exhibitions in New York, Tokyo and Taiwan. On top of this, he offers workshops and one-on-one tuition in engraving and hopes to take some students to experience a session of glassblowing at GGG Glass Blowing Studio in Osaka later in the year. Following this session, students can learn to engrave their work at Dominic’s Rokko Island studio. A short walk from Island Kitaguchi Station, it offers lovely views over leafy Rokko Island to mainland Kobe. In good weather engraving classes are held on the balcony.

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Leviathan. Image: Dominic Fondé

After a warm-up exercise to kick minds and drawing muscles into action, Dominic’s students first practise their engraving technique on tumblers before moving on to blown-glass items. Blown glass is fairly soft, making the drill relatively easy to control. To create designs, short, accurate strokes are needed, following marker-pen lines applied earlier. The techniques and movements required for engraving are most similar to those produced when drawing with a ballpoint pen, Dominic’s medium of choice for sketching. Importantly, they both require the same level of concentration, with zero margin for error – if you make a mistake there’s no going back!

The act of creating your own personalised glass object that goes on to fulfil both a functional and a decorative role is incredibly satisfying. When you clean the glass after the engraving is completed, the design disappears as it gets wet, stripping the object of its newly added aesthetic appeal and relegating it to no more than a plain drinking vessel or paperweight. Yet, as it dries, the engraving reappears and the object regains its dual status: no longer a simple household item, but a thing of beauty that carries meaning and emotional weight.


By Life in Kansai


Dominic will be holding a group engraving workshop at CHIC on Rokko Island on 20th September. If you are interested in attending, or would like information on individual tuition, please contact him at

Engraving Workshop
Address: Craft room, CHIC, The Entente, 5-15 Koyocho-Naka, Higashinada-ku, Kobe 658-0032
Date: Tuesday 20th September
Time: 10:00–12:00
Fee: CHIC members ¥6,000; non-members ¥6,500

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