Northern Ireland artist turns breast milk into glass
A Northern Irish woman has come up with an innovative way to turn the spotlight on the power of breastfeeding.
Helen Hancock (42), a mother of two from Londonderry, is a fully trained glass blower, a breastfeeding counsellor and doula (birth companion).
Frustrated with Northern Ireland's low statistics in breastfeeding take-up, she decided to get creative in promoting its benefits, so has created a world-first in contemporary glass art - breast milk infused glass or Milk Glass.
Mothers from across the world send Helen pumped breast milk which she incorporates into beautiful glass pieces to cherish long after breastfeeding has finished.
"I'm a glass blower by trade," she said. "I started in Dublin about 20 years ago and when I lived in Seattle I worked in glass also.
"But I stopped making it when I came home to Ireland. A few years back I found myself being drawn to it again.
"I was working as a breastfeeding counsellor in Donegal, then I moved to Derry and wanted to start up here."
Helen said she is always trying to find alternative ways to help people understand what breastfeeding is about.
She runs a breastfeeding support wagon at the local Stendhal Music and Art Festival.
"It's breastfeeding with a hint of rock 'n' roll," she said.
"I remember looking at Melanie Scholz's work in Canada, she made glass breast bowls for hand expressing.
"I contacted her and told her that I was a glass blower and breastfeeding counsellor and that I loved her work. She wrote back to me and said I should do the same here, so we now work together.
"Then I asked some of the mothers who were in my breastfeeding support group if they would be interested in donating some milk to me and they were delighted to. I experimented with it and the results were incredible.
"I gave the pieces back to the mums and they were amazed. It has grown from there."
Mothers express milk into a bottle, which is posted to Helen, who infuses it into glass to create simple objects.
According to Helen, mothers love the paperweights, vases and smaller pieces she creates as a precious reminder of a special time in their babies' lives.
"It's important for me to use my glass making skills to best represent the milk in the molten glass," she said. "The design is important, but it's about the precious cargo that is infused inside that is most magical.
"Milk glass is made from the mother's breast milk, flaming hot glass and the loving, capable touch of a woman who truly understands what breastfeeding means. I create a captivating piece of art that will preserve their milk forever.
"I just help mothers honour their journey and create a lasting memory of the liquid gold that came from their body.
"A lot of the glass is posted out but I also am there to give the mothers their glass in person.
"And you never know what way they are going to react. They often open it in front of me and there are always those few minutes when you think 'are they going to like it?' Most of the time they start to cry and get very emotional.
"I have made glass using milk from babies who are no longer here," Helen added. "I can really feel the overwhelming trauma of that when I make the glass using their milk. It's hard to focus on those pieces and you can become very emotional.
"Mothers give me their milk and that can be very emotional because, to look at the piece, it looks so vibrant and full of life inside the glass. It is like part of their DNA and is really amazing.
"As a mother who has experienced birth trauma, breastfeeding trauma and baby loss I can truly empathise with the many women who make contact.
I also have made pieces for people who are battling cancer, who have had milk donated to them to help them heal. They have sent me milk to create a piece for the woman who donated their milk to them.
"It's really positive, that's why I love it. It's an art concept that is celebrating the joy of breastfeeding. It's really special."
Helen will feature on Soundscapes with Stephen McCauley to be aired tomorrow at 10pm on BBC Radio Ulster. For more information on her work go to www.breastbowl.com