Helen Hancock Glass Blower

Helen is a support to families as a Doula, Cuidiu (Irish Childbirth Trust) Breastfeeding Counsellor, Infant Massage Instructor, Baby Yoga Instructor.

She is an artist, who has combined her passion for birth and feeding with her glass blowing skills to create unique pieces for mothers. Discovering she could make infuse breast milk into the molten glass during the blowing process, Helen creates an incredible range of pieces for you to preserve your breast milk in a permanent form to treasure.

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I was keen to feature Helen Hancock this week as it was recently National Breastfeeding Week in Ireland and currently Baby Loss Awareness week in the UK. Helen plays a special an​d important role as someone who is helping mothers as a Cuidiú Breastfeeding Counsellor, and providing an incredible service to families who experience baby loss. She creates beautiful, permanent pieces from their baby's DNA to give something so special and tangible to hold on to.

Baby loss is a highly sensitive subject and one that isn't talked about openly. I want to be as open on my site and social media as possible with all areas of motherhood. By having open dialogue we can help breakdown the taboo and barriers for those who need extra support. I am also aware that baby loss is such a sensitive and personal subject, so please be aware that this may be an interview that triggers.

Can you tell me about your journey to where you are today?

I studied glass over 20 years ago in Dublin at NCAD. I went on to work in Seattle with some of the best glass artists in the world when I graduated in 1998. It was a fantastic time to be in Seattle and there were so many glass artists set up there at that time. So much fun.

I had stopped making glass around 2005 as I found it so tough to try to get the equipment I needed to set it up here. So I would teach art classes and I worked as an art technician in a local school for a few years. Then in 2007, I moved to Donegal to restore a 400 year old Thatched Clachan. Soon after my kids were born and I had so much trauma with birth, breastfeeding and I also lost my second baby at 6 months. So I carried alot of pain and trauma from those experiences. I wanted to find answers and also help other women. When my son was 6 months old, I trained in Breastfeeding Peer Support. I felt really good being amongst other breastfeeding mothers.

In 2012 I started my Cuidiu training to become a Breastfeeding Counsellor. I qualified in 2015, then I trained to become a birth doula, baby massage, baby yoga and toddler yoga instructor. I absolutely loved being around babies and I was really enjoying the Cuidiu training too. 

What gave you the inspiration to combine breast milk with glass blowing to create these unique pieces?

I started a small business called Cothu meaning Nurture in Irish. In 2016 I became a single mother. I left Donegal and had to start again from scratch. This was a very tough time in my life and I honestly didn't know what to do.

Then Mel from Canada suggested I make glass again and combine my passions for breastfeeding with the glass by joining her to create Breastbowls. Little hand held vessels for hand expressing milk into and feeding your baby from. A decorative colourful keepsake. This was the beginning of my intro back into glass.

In 2017 I was hosting a support group from my home and would have lots of mums coming to me for help weekly.

I asked a few to donate a little milk for me to experiment with in the glass and they jumped at the chance. Suddenly I was inundated with offers of milk. 

The results were interesting so I kept working around with the milk and hot glass and it would initially turn black and when I reheated the glass it would then turn white again. I was amazed. 

Is there a particular part of the process which you enjoy the most?

I think my favourite part of the process is just seeing how the milk responds each time. Every single piece of glass I create is 100% unique. I anneal the glass over night so I don't really see the final result until I open the kiln the next morning.

I came across you work on Instagram and was blown away by the patterns in the glass that the milk makes. Orbs that look like the moon, or the glass vase lit from below that looked like a constellation of stars. I see from reading about your process that you can combine teeth, placenta or the umbilical cord as well as breastmilk. Do each of these create a different effect? 

Infusing teeth, placenta, and umbilical cord came about mainly because I didn't have any milk of my own from my own kids, so I desperately wanted something to represent them. I had kept their cords and their teeth, so I was able to experiment with them. The teeth are so cool. They create a golden void within the glass. Again it varies each time. Glass has a mind of its own. 

Listening to your interview on BBC Radio, you mentioned that the pieces you have created and the process of the mothers giving you breastmilk, then being given the final piece, is a healing process.

I was keen to feature you this week as it's both National Breastfeeding Week in Ireland and Baby Loss Awareness week. You play a special an​d important role as someone who is helping mothers as a Cuidiú Breastfeeding Counsellor, and providing an incredible service to families who experience baby loss. You create beautiful, permanent pieces from their baby's DNA to give something so special and tangible to hold on to.

Can you tell me about creating your first piece for a family who lost their baby? How involved are the family in the process and how do you think it helps with grief? 

The healing initially was for me. Making the glass was giving me back something I thought I had lost forever. Quite early on in the process of infusing milk in glass I had been asked by a fellow Cuidiu Breastfeeding Counsellor if I would infuse her lost baby's milk into glass. I made her a bowl. She spoke about how the glass made her feel at a conference the following year.

I had also seen the response from mums who I was giving the glass to in person. Most of them would get very emotional when they would hold the glass in their hands and show it to their little ones. I really knew I was making something so special from their reactions. 

Not everyone will go out of their way to buy handmade glass. But when you create a very personal concept that is totally unique to you they will. I love that the glass is not about me. It's about you. It's about a very personal and precious moment in your life. 

Having lost my own baby at 6 months in 2010 I can relate to that sense of an empty void. A space in your life where somebody is missing. Sadly in this country we don't talk very much about miscarriage and baby loss. It's something I feel very passionate about and although I do wish I had my lost baby here today, I also believe that had I not gone through that trauma I would not fully relate to women in the way I do. Losing my baby taught me so much about myself. 

I really do get very emotional when I make glass using milk or ashes from a lost baby. I channel them into my work. I ask the family about their little one. I make it clear that I am open to talking about their baby. I want to know the little details and most women who have lost a baby want to talk about the details. I ask if they would like to share any images with me. I put no pressure on anyone to do anything out of their comfort zone. I let them know I empathise. Without my own personal awareness around this sensitive area, I just don't know if i'd have the same understanding or depth of feeling about making the glass.

“I LOVE making the glass. It is my healing, my joy and my future.

I'm the only glass artist in the world currently producing hot glass infused with human milk. It's so exciting.
I receive little pouches of breast milk from all over the world to be made into glass.

This is my job, it's my passion, my joy and my livelihood.”

Thank-you to Helen for being so open with me in this interview. You are providing an incredible service and support to women as they become Mothers, face the challenges of breastfeeding or navigate the devastating loss of a baby.

I was blown away by the intricacy of the Helen's work when I came across her page on Instagram. The glass baubles and bowls reminding me of the moon, and glass vases that looked like they hold a whole constellation. Take a look at her creations here.