Turning plain clay into coveted art
The Queen of England has one at Balmoral Castle presented by the president of South Africa; so does the Queen of Malaysia; and the Obamas had one at the White House. The Empress of Japan got a baboon platter from the Speaker of the South African National Assembly; former South African First Lady Zanele Mbeki bought a leopard urn; while a bowl was used to illustrate a South African postage stamp.
Royals, prestigious collections, the Venice, Istanbul and Seoul Biennials, London Christie’s auctions, French fashion house Hermes scarves and now surfboards (!), British Cole and Son’s wall coverings/borders, Italian and Viennese furniture shows, trips to Kuwait and Dubai and most recently our own Santa Fe in August…. In short, Ardmore Ceramic Art gets around and has come a l-o-n-g way from humble origins on a farm in the South African foothills of KwaZulu-Natal.
Founder, prime mover since, inspiration and so-called “Gogo,” (Zulu for grandmother), Fée Halsted is a white native of Zimbabwe and ceramicist. She came to South Africa for art school, fell in love with a farmer and married, which has led to an abundance surpassing anything she ever imagined…leaps of recognition, local income generation, transformed lives.
Fée noticed their farm workers making sun-baked figurines from the mud clay found along embankments of the river flowing through the property. Turns out Zulu boys learned to model as herders tending their fathers’ goats and cattle, relieving boredom and creating toys. While rural women made hand-coiled pots, so-called “ukumba,“ for storage as well as water and beer vessels. They were low-fired with wood, smoked, burnished and rubbed with cattle dung, then decorated with geometric abstract patterns.
Recognizing such “raw talent,” beginning in 1985 she gradually developed a school on the farm, plugging into ordinary people’s love of color emanating from Arab trade beads, the story telling and animal symbolism of Zulu culture, and its fanciful, witty, even naughty spirit. “Zulu people love jokes,” she explains, ”they laugh at life and because they are a rural people, they live close to life and death and sexuality.” She is careful not to dilute such creativity with prudishness nor to censor natural violence.
Her enterprising nurturing assisted by friends, some in high places, has paid off in extraordinary ways. Over the decades, a stable of about 70 local artists and their unique sensibilities, have responded to the encouragement and opportunities presented by modern technology, electricity, underglaze colored paints, studio guidance, marketing and sale of their ceramic creations.
Generally the men sculpt and the women paint a truly astonishing variety of vases, jugs, candleholders, cofFée and tea tureens, urns, bowls, platters, trays, sculpture, masterwork extravaganzas…. Their designs have morphed into fabric collections, wall covering and tapestry, scatter cushions and furniture including a limited-edition sofa, everything needed for a table--dinnerware, tablecloths, runners, placemats, napkins, also handbags and scarves, gift items and cards, and the latest--surfboards!
The aesthetic scope and range of Ardmore’s bustling studio defies categorization. Closely observed or fantasy flora, animals, humans in nature as well as African tradition, culture and Zulu spirit worlds…magically transform clay. Ceramics can be bold and bright or soft pastels and earthly toned; traditional bead and basketlike designs or densely patterned geometrics, zigzags, chevrons, squares or given lightly stylized and haunting new life. But always enshrining something that is eternal in the African soul.
In the process simple, ordinary, rural people have grown in confidence/self-esteem/ambition, earning income to buy houses and educate children. Ardmore Ceramic Art has fostered careers, created community, mentored leadership, motivated management skills like sales/kiln operations/quality control/restoration/packing/shipping, even supported HIV-AIDS education/medical expenses/funeral costs/ nutrition and care for orphans--in short, changed lives. And that continues in yet another generation.
Just one case in point, sculptor Jacob Khomare credits Ardmore Ceramic Art with consoling and healing his soul. Making each piece, he says, keeps his mind busy; and even when he is not at work, he is thinking about his art. Ardmore has saved his life from poverty and bad influences, he sums up. (For more capsule biographies/artworks of all participating artists see the website ardmoreceramics.co.za; for Ardmore’s main US distributor, see www.pascoegallery.com, based in Miami with prices ranging from $400 to $25,000, among galleries and specialty shops around the world.)
Andrea M. Couture is a writer in New York City. She has had two careers--visual art and international development and rarely gets a chance to combine them both as here.