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Drawing Faces on Buttons. (How I came to be a Glass Engraver)

Certain memories stand the test of time, some are lost altogether and others grow with time as you begin to understand the importance and gain new perspectives. I have a raft of memories of being creative during my childhood. Fun hours spent with paints or crayons. It was something that was encouraged and certainly what set me on my own path of creativity. But one story almost lost within the noise of activity and events of a happy childhood has now thunder-clapped its way forward into my present day. It’s how I first came across glass engraving.

I can remember sitting on the floor with my dad, I like to think it was on those long drawn out afternoons in the summer holidays or a rainy Saturday when we were idling time away. This particular afternoon was exciting because dad had come across a new gadget. To give some context my dad loved gadgets and tools. Most of them used once, if at all, but all were acquired with interest and curiosity. My childish memory from the time can’t recall the precedence of this gadget, or how we came to be sitting on the floor with it, but it was an engraver. From memory I now know it to have been a rather cumbersome Dremel-type drill. With an electric buzz it would allow the handler to scratch a drawing or names into the surface of different materials. Looking back this must have been a spontaneous purchase as there was no grand project in mind. Instead, and to my delight, we found things to graffiti from around the house and my dad let me be his partner in crime. We scanned the room and the house for different materials to test. Some too hard, some too shiny. We settled on my mums button tin. My mum, like all good sewers has a tin full of buttons, sequins and embellishments kept for ‘just in case’, and for the practicality of being able to mend missing buttons and keep clothes going. The button tin also was a place of delight in my childhood, shiny treasure lay inside and I loved counting and sorting the various button shapes. There must have been an element of mischievousness when, in our pursuit of things to engrave (scratch) we landed on mum’s button tin! But we had found what seemed to be an endless supply of material to test our new skill. We started doodling faces and names and squiggles and marks. We had lots of fun, but then we always did have lots of fun. I have no idea how long we spent in this activity. When we were finished, I took my favourite button and the rest of the newly decorated buttons went back in the tin. And that was that. I cannot recall ever seeing the engraver again. The button I liked best went in my jewellery box like all treasure important to a seven-year-old. That is where it stayed, it moved with me to university and then to my first home and still lives in my treasure box today.

A hand holding a button with a face engraved on it
My Favourite Button Face

This could have been it. Except it wasn’t. This deeply personal story from my childhood lives on because years later I got my own gadget, my own engraver. Still not knowing quite what or why I might want it. I have the same love of gadgets and tools as my dad. I unboxed this basic hobby engraver and, in my studio, scanned for things I could graffiti, it was just as mischievous and delightful the second time around but no button tin for me to land on. I came across an old frame that I was no longer using and I used the engraver to scratch away at the glass. It worked; a little engraved feather scratched beautifully into the glass surface triggered that part of my brain where new ideas are created. I was hooked. I bought more of the cheap glass frames from Asda to practise on. I practised a lot, getting used to the weight of the machine in my hands and learning how to counteract the buzz to draw straight lines. I watched YouTube videos and googled the best ways to improve my skills. I followed my curiosity, grew my confidence and my understanding, and would now call myself a Glass Engraving Artist.

Button with an engraved face.
Button Face

At some point along the way I was asked how I came to be engraving into glass. I said that I really like experimental drawing techniques and that engraving evolved out of my studio practice, true enough in itself. But when I thought about it, the memory of the button tin was rumbling in the background. It’s not that I had long forgotten about the afternoon, it was just so fragile a memory that if I didn’t still have my button, I wouldn’t have thought more of it. But my button was there and the thunder clap of the significance of the memory happened. I wrote an Instagram post about the button which my mum read. She never knew about mine and dad’s engraving escapade. She told me that over the years, when she had come to use a button from the tin, she would occasionally find ones with faces or marks on them. She would remove them half annoyed, half amused and put them to one side in a separate bag for safe keeping and there they stayed not thought of and unimportant. Reading my story, it all made sense and she remembered the bag of buttons with faces that she never understood but also never threw away. Another memory thunder clap happened for me, as she handed over a bag of buttons with faces on to me and gave me a full tangible link to my childhood and my dad. He passed away in 2013 and so cannot fill in the gaps in this story, that fragile memory cannot be elaborated on or explained, it belongs to me and strengthens every time I use my engraver.

There was no grandiose plan to build on the memory, it wasn’t the lynch- pin to me doing what I do but I love the way we can find these connections and with hindsight see the value and importance of smaller moments. I now have a connection to my dad that reaches through time and space and every time I pick up an engraver, that thunder clap of a memory takes me back to an afternoon spent drawing faces on buttons with my dad.

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Such a moving story Jess x

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