The painted clay

This essay will investigate the history of Ardmore and particular works in relation to the characteristics of the 'vernacular' in order to examine how Ardmore has created 'something new' that is specific to a certain time and place, here and now, i.e. a South African 'vernacular' art rather than "reinventing tradition.' This essay also discusses the shift from modernism to postmodernism and what this shift meant for ceramics, this shift is important as it ultimately affected the way Ardmore practices ceramics as it has allowed Ardmore to focus on pattern and decoration as a high art form without simply limiting Ardmore ceramics to craft.

Fee Halsted - Berning studied fine arts at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, in the late 1970s/early 1980's and furthered her studies with a two-year postgraduate certificate in ceramics. Fee also lectured at the Technikon in Durban and worked under one of South Africa's most distinguished potter's, David Walters, before establishing Ardmore as a decorative ceramic enterprise on her husband's farm in the Drakensburg. Fee Berning explains that it was under David that "I learnt the business of running a studio and making commercial pieces to sell" (Charles Creig, 2004: 25) It was by chance, ingenuity and by thrift that Fee developed the beginnings of the style that has made Ardmore famous. She comments amusingly about the process of adding decorative detail to ceramic forms, which is the distinctive signature of Ardmore ceramics: "I used to make tiles, and when one cracked I would stick a rabbit or bird on top to hide it." (Charles Creig, 2004: 25)

In 1984 Fee was preparing for her first exhibition of her own ceramics under the title Painted Clay, this show announced that some rules of ceramics might be broken in that she did not adhere to the conventional ways of colouring her works by way of traditional glazing. For Fee the rules were not seen as sacred and she was happy to adjust them to her needs as an artist. (Vester, 1990) Fee began as a painter and even through her transition from canvas to clay it is evident that she never abandons her roots, but at the same time Fee avoids disguising the qualities of the clay with paint. Fee explains that far too often clay is forced into an uncomfortable role, obliterated by glaze and its tactile qualities lost to over - workings. For Fee the best response is when the clay 'comes alive', by which she means is that the clay acquires shape and form that is dynamic and exuberant. (Vester, 1990) Painted Clay, with equal emphases on both words, neatly encompasses Fee's philosophy, her history and her technique. It is also key in understanding Ardmore today as it was over 2 decades ago in 1984.

When Fee came to Ardmore Farm in 1985 she felt the urge to teach again and also needed help in the studio. She felt that this would be a good opportunity to take in an assistant who she could share her art with. It was at this point that Fee's domestic worker Janet Ntshalintshali introduced her daughter Bonnie to Fee. Bonnie was born on the Ardmore farm and as a child contracted polio, which resulted in her inability to perform strenuous tasks such as picking tomatoes in the fields. It wasn't long before Fee noticed her new assistant's affinity for working in clay. This was the beginning of a journey where teacher and student pushed the limits of ceramics together. Bonnie had no art background or formal art training although she had reached STD 8, which during the apartheid era was unusual for black rural men and women. Fee recalls the first thing Bonnie made which "was a bird based on one of those Zimbabwean guinea fowls you buy by the hundreds outside Masvingo, (the old Fort Victoria). It was not very well shaped." (Vester, 1990: 8) As Bonnie's confidence grew so did her originality. In the beginning Fee encouraged the use of Plaka paint, an acrylic poster paint, as the colour was immediate and intense. Bonnie borrowed books from Fee and took from them what she wanted and made her own versions. Fee, together with Bonnie, continued to break with the traditional techniques/conventions of ceramics at the time. This may have dismayed the purists but enchanted everyone else.

Fee's earlier works are filled with good-natured jokes about style, manners, tradition and source - today the references are personal, the mood introspective. Fee's own work has reached a level of maturity and one has to acknowledge that working alongside Bonnie has played its part in extending the exploration of new possibilities. Working on her own would have produced an art very different from what it is today.

As Bonnie's confidence in modelling in clay grew with Fee's technical support, advice and friendship, functional objects made way for more sculptural works. Bonnie's new challenge dwarfed learning how to mold a bird with its own challenges of how to make her sculptures bigger, as the clay has its conventional size constraints. Initially Bonnie used a technique known as coiling, building up the form from the base in a series of layered 'worms' of clay welded each to the previous one and smoothed on the outside. This technique is good for creating pots, as this allows the sculpture to remain hollow whilst being able to create height. However as each section dries, the artist is unable to alter the shape and therefore the end result must be visualized in advance.

This process thus limited Bonnie's designs as the "initial decisions determine the end" (Vester, 1990: 7) and she was eager to overcome this problem. Fee suggested that Bonnie make the sculpture in pieces which were then stacked on top of each other. This is an example of how Fee "helped her with the technical side." (Vester, 1990: 7) But when it came to style and content, Fee always stood back and allowed Bonnie to experience her inspirations and directions, "at first she would do anything I said", explains Fee, "now she has the confidence to argue and to go her own way." (Vester, 1990: 8)

Five years later in 1990, Bonnie and Fee were joint winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award. They were the first ceramicists in a collaborative effort to win this award. The reason that the committee decided on awarding both artists is because Bonnie and Fee had worked together in the same studio, though their works were still very different, it was felt that there was a very close creative bond between them. They relied on each other's technical and creative influences. The late Professor Alan Crump - past chairman of the festival committee explained "to separate them would have been a falsification of what was produced." (Crump, 1990: 1) News of Bonnie and Fee's success spread fast and many more young women and men started to come to Ardmore so that they too could learn the skills that Fee had to offer. To date Fee has trained, mentored and inspired over 100 artists, many have become internationally recognised. There is a recognisable basic Ardmore style and each of these artists have found a way to adhere to and find individuality at the same time.

The artists at Ardmore have separated themselves through their own particular styles: the 'decorative collectable' artists rely on their realist focus to create elegant charm inspired by nature, the 'exotic naturalist' artists add artistic fantasy to their painting and through their exotic realism following natures patterns and bringing depth and movement on the painted surface through delicate shading and details. The 'free spirit' sculptors and painters who use the expression of imagination without inhibition or apology express themselves through art, pushing the frontier of what can be done with clay and taking it to its limits. The works produced by these artists is particularly inventive. Lastly the 'storytellers' incorporate human figuration as they sculpt and paint Zulu history. This is a new dimension for Ardmore ceramics and allows the use of history to create something new. (Ardmore Ceramic Art Catalogue 2009)

Sadly Ardmore has been affected heavily by HIV/AIDS, which is rife in the rural community in the Drakensburg. Ardmore has lost much talent to Aids in the past years and many of the artists are living/struggling with the terrible disease. Bonnie Ntshanlitshali was the first Ardmore victim in 1998 and the South African art world lost one of its most prolific artists.

The Ardmore excellence fund was set up in 1998 to help cover medical expenses for Ardmore artists suffering from Aids, it is also an educational programme which warns about the dangers of HIV, and teaches prevention measures. The fund does not only help the Ardmore artists it has also reached far and wide in the local community. Many Ardmore artists have contributed to the collection of works that are dedicated to educating about HIV. Some artists have also dedicated specific works to artists who fell victim to AIDS.

In 2004 Fee introduced the AAA award for excellence and is Ardmore's certification of certain pieces that form examples of excellent quality and that they qualify as collector's items. Fee selects each piece that qualifies and signs the certificate herself. Fee is the sole adjudicator and each certificate records the authenticity, a description of the piece, height and a detail as to who made and painted the piece is all recorded on the certificate.

Intricately designed and painted this handmade zebra themed teapot (above) exudes technical excellence and skilful painted work. Awarded the AAA certificate. The vibrant orange and red colours used are contrasted with the black and white zebra stripes. The teapot is moulded by hand and sculpted zebra heads are designed as the teapot's handle as well as for the teapot lid. And this small milk jug (above) is also hand made and was awarded the AAA certificate for its brilliance in craftsmanship and beautifully decorated surface, placing this piece well within the Ardmore criteria as a collectors item. The viewer is spoiled with all the intricate details from the elephant handle to the delicate leaf pattern carefully painted on the inside rim of the jug.

There is also the Fine Art certificate (FA Certificate), which is given to pieces that show a true unique style and voice of the artist. These pieces are very different from Ardmore's traditional vision of a decorative collectable piece but show the same excellence in craftsmanship and unique artistic craftsmanship. Some of the characteristics that Fee looks for when adjudicating the FA certificate are: to what extent the maker has experimented with materials; new sculptural forms depicting worlds beyond physical form of the piece and a unique painting style.

The Bonnie Ntshalintshali Museum opened in 2002, the museum was the first to be dedicated in the honour of a South African black artist. Initially it was established to house the works of the late Bonnie Ntshalintshali but recently has also showed off the best of Ardmore's art as well as its collection of Zulu history and Ardmore's aids campaign. Fee hoped that the museum would give back to the community as it is used as a training and educational centre for the artists as well as visiting students. The museum is also always open to the public.

The museum houses Fee's private collection of Bonnie's work. Other pieces include compelling activist sculptures by artists such as Josephine Ghesa and Zulu war masterpieces created by Wonderboy Nxumalo. Wonderboy has also contributed to the museums collection of AIDS awareness pieces. The viewer is also treated to the beautiful intricate sculptures by Nhlanhla Nsundwane and Petros Gumbi which illustrate the dynamics of Zulu social and cultural life.

'Vernacular' meaning the "local or regional, that which is used and associated with a particular people or place." (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 9) The term 'vernacular' is one which has been neglected within a South African context as it is heavily loaded with certain negative colonial/patronising connotations, this means that 'vernacular' may in the past be associated with as terms such as 'native,' 'indigenous' or 'tribal' art. This considering South Africa's political and social past is problematic, although with the more recent use of the word 'vernacular' and the re - socialising of the 'vernacular' with contemporary art there has been a shift in the traditional canon.

In the Invention of Tradition, Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) discuss the 'vernacular arts' as usually being invented and not necessarily based on national traditions. The constructed nature of the 'vernacular' is highlighted here and usually uses images appropriate for that country. These images are more than likely based on local fauna and flora, landscapes, history, personal narrative of ordinary/marginalised people or a combination of these. (Stevens & Munro, 2009) It may even be that these arts have reconstructed indigenous national styles, sources for this can include elements from indigenous arts and history, colonial influences might be found in some of these elements. Ardmore is accredited with a particular African vernacular and the majority of their design iconography is African flora and fauna. Early pieces were decorated with kitsch 'English" flowers but recent works make use of more exotic ones, Fee refers to this transformation as the 'jungle look.' This can be seen as a move towards an aesthetic that is much more 'African' rather than a 'European' one. Ardmore's aesthetic may be seen as not particularly South African in a traditional or indigenous sense as it is more a constructed/ invented traditional. Natural subjects are taken from all around the world; early examples of Ardmore Ceramics were certainly based on European and English ceramics. However stylistically, there is an African sentiment to Ardmore's designs. The visual foundations of Ardmore are rooted firmly in the aesthetics of African art: the ability to model from nature and Ardmore's use of rhythm, pattern and colour, especially Zulu aesthetics. There is also the African tradition of figuration and naturalism and for many viewers around the world Africa is associated with its flora and fauna. "So nature can be said to be the ideal subject for an art that seeks to situate itself as 'African.'"(Stevens, 2008: 106) Ardmore established the idea that their ceramics were African and helped to invent and construct the ideas around what notions constitute Africanness in the visual arts.

One of the main idea's that remain central to 'contemporary vernacular' arts is 'honesty.' This is achieved by using local materials and/or techniques of production, even if the original purpose is lost. (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 12)

The imagined is also not uncommon within creating a 'vernacular' and is usually based on foreign elements. In the example of Bonnie's sculptural work Daniel and the Lions, created for the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1990. Tradition is not simply reinvented but she rather uses imagination to create something new. This is seen in that Bonnie wanted to depict more than one lion and so she created a two - headed lion. This 'imagined' is likened to artistic licence, and gives the artists the ability to express themselves without being confined to the static of the real traditional world.

One of the characteristics of 'vernacular' arts is the socio - political and developmental aims. It is concerned with job creation and thus raising the standard of living condition of the poor local community, such arts may be made by "uneducated, elderly, black, poor ... and rural [dwellers]" (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 12) The result being an "integrated community of makers." (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 12) therefore the individual is usually lost and replaced by the communal. This social structure of 'contemporary vernacular' arts results in the product being identified by their makers. The maker's story forms the basis of the narrative as well as the appeal for such products. Ardmore is strongly built upon the ideals of contributing to social development uplifting the community by providing jobs to local, rural men and women. The local community has been able to earn an income through Ardmore and support themselves.

One of Ardmore's plans is to open a training and design centre where students will learn from the history of Ardmore that by helping others they can help themselves. Bonnie Ntshanlintshali's Toyota sculpture (1991) tells her story of being able to afford a truck by selling sculptures after winning the Standard Bank Young Artists Award.

The makers are seen as non - professional artists and their products are localised to the popular rather than the 'high' art culture. The souvenir market (or international market) belongs to popular culture and it is this market, which is usually where the viewer will find such art. "Vernacular" art is also aimed at the middle class as well as the sophisticated urban elite viewer.

'Vernacular' arts improve on existing local arts and advance the current market systems. The rural and indigenous traditions seem to be idealised and the product is based on the ideals of craft, but it is important to note that there is a reaction against the mass production and commercial nature of crafts and designs and this is why there is a specific devotion to handmade - craftsmanship. Ardmore has been successful in shaping markets for their ceramics and understood the importance of exposing and marketing their ceramics to selected audiences and they use particular 'vernacular character' to achieve this. Over the years the simplified and nave naturalism of the animals, birds and plants that embrace the vessel shapes has developed and is more naturalistic, convincing, inventive and complex. The sculptural aspects of the vessels and figures have also seen a considerable amount of development and improvement in recent years. The animals are now energetic and depicted in dynamic, complex and flowing movement, rather than in static, symmetrical poses. Sculptural aspects of these works have become more dramatic, bold and dominate.

These qualities have increased the marketability and simultaneously the prices that Ardmore ceramics fetch. Ardmore uses local Zulu traditions and history, although the ceramic products are imaginative and innovative. Ardmore has become fashionable and in the affluent communities a house hold name. Ardmore is unique and can be seen as being part of forming a new or invented 'vernacular' art.

It is more likely than not that the 'vernacular' will express the ideals of both art and craft.

This brings into question the effects of modernism and postmodernism and how these movements relate to ceramics. The postmodern has changed how the art world has experienced ceramics. In the past and under modernist rule it was very difficult to marriage ceramics with high art. Describing the 'relationship' between modernism and ceramics would be pushing the meaning of the word to its limits. (Vecchio, 2001) Ceramics, rejected by Modernism as decorative and ornamental, derived from low art forms rather than from what was considered as high art forms, and its two primary form types, vessels and figures, were both considered as unfitting for the modernist canon. Modernism simply throws out the figure with all realism and representational art, and replaces the figure with abstraction.

Whilst the vessel is considered too messy to deal with and so is disregarded as being too complex, embedded with too much meaning, too domestic and evokes too many associations with the past and present. (Vecchio, 2001) The idea of a costly handmade was replaced with a more affordable machine made which was a socialist/modernism movement's way of solving the decadent taste of the "modern bourgeoisie." Although "this argument does not hold water, to use a vessel metaphor."(Vecchio, 2001: 9) Modern fine art (painting and sculpture) defied this replica theory created by the machine and held onto its exclusivity and elitist market. What the modernist viewer can conclude is that "the aesthetics of art changed, but the high - art mechanisms of control and canonization remained the same."(Vecchio, 2001: 9) In the early 40's idea's started to shift about ceramics although art works which were being produced were still more or less modernist in nature, this being true to material, purity of concept, originality, authorship, a commitment to abstraction, a rejection of decoration as well as other principles that make them members of the modernist camp. It is only in the 60's and 70's that postmodernism founds its roots and ceramics is prevalent from the start. In 'Art History and it's Methods' 1995 Eric Fernie confirms the opinion that postmodernism is "intentionally difficult to define" (Vecchio, 2001: 10) With Postmodernism came a host of styles, theories and approaches to art. Edward Rothstein's comments in the New York Times - 'Modern and Postmodern, the bickering twins' that "postmodernism is almost impossible to pin down, like a blob of mercury it slips away under pressure, only to pop up again in its original form."

Modernism also banished almost all-historical reference, which left the artist without a connection of the continuum of time. Postmodernism sought to reconnect the past with the artist/designer and encouraged history as a source of inspiration. Through this history/past the artist is able to create something new. An important shift in postmodernism effected ceramics dramatically: this was the return to the pattern and decoration as well as allegory, narrative, figuration and a new type of historicism. Postmodernism saw the revival of the contemporary craft. The movement known as 'pattern and decoration' (P and D) was formed and the main agenda was to build credibility for artists who worked in this genre. Amy Goldin argued: "While decoration can be intellectually empty, it does not have to be stupid." (Vecchio, 2001: 17) With this movement came the indirect empowerment for ceramicists who had long worked with pattern and decoration. Decoration, the fine arts pejorative, was suddenly given a new respectability, which convinced a role that was neither passive nor secondary. Ceramics was excluded from the fine art market for years but this changed with postmodernism although many ceramicists were still concerned as 'visitors' such as Jeff Koons are not just passing through and have remained with ceramics and are intensifying their involvement. Meaning that ceramicists have tight competition in the with name artists who have high - market profiles, although this should in the long run prove to be beneficial for the development of the ceramic realm. (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 24)

Justin Clemens explains in his paper 'Postmodernity, or the shattering of the vessels' that it was only with the post - modern that arts reliance on craft was revealed. Clemens states "craft was a fundamental condition of art and not simply its aesthetically degraded shadow." (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 24) This has ultimately liberated ceramics from previous conceptions and permits the expression of its historical literacy, humour and the relationship of everyday life and the decorative arts. Through this process ceramics has come alive, it is more diverse, literate, adventurous and ambitious. "Ceramics is gaining increasing clarity and relevance within the arts." (Stevens & Munro, 2009: 24)

It could be said that Ardmore follows a postmodern aesthetic in that they juxtaposes widely divergent, hybrid sources in complex ways. In Ardmore Pattern and Decoration has taken precedence. All the artists at Ardmore strive for a technical excellence in modeling as well as excellence in the pattern and decoration used to bring each piece to an exuberant beginning. Fee explains that as rural people, the Ardmore artists have known nature tacitly through an attentive observation. (Stevens, 2008) This is interesting when applying this idea to exotic animals, which are modeled without ever actually being seen. Fee also explains how the painter's consideration of their decoration, sensitivity to rhythm, texture and colour, for example, Zulu beadwork and basketry, as well as natural subjects is extremely responsive. There are basically two different functions of the painted decoration within Ardmore, firstly it creates the naturalistic details seen on the animals - fur for the mammals, feathers for the birds and scales on the fish, and secondly the painted decoration fill the spaces between with patterns. These patterns are complex, naturalistic two-dimensional animals, birds, flowers and foliage. (Stevens, 2008) The postmodern engagement with history is evident in Ardmore's style specifically within the work of Ardmore's "story - tellers.'

These artists use specific reference to Zulu history and culture to create pieces, which show the return to allegory and narrative. It is through this history/past that the artist is able to create something new.

Through looking at the history of Ardmore and specific works in relation to the 'vernacular' and its characteristics it is evident that Ardmore creates 'something new' rather than 'reinventing tradition.' Ardmore uses images based on local flora and fauna; whenever possible Ardmore makes use of local materials and techniques; a hybrid of the local and the 'imagined' enhance South African design and tradition in innovative ways. Ardmore looks both 'backwards' to discover invent or reinvent possible pasts but at the same time looks at current socioeconomic conditions. Together with the new aesthetics of postmodernism and the characteristics of the vernacular Ardmore has developed a new South African tradition in ceramics.

Bibliography:

Books:

  1. Gillian, S. 1998. Ardmore - An African Discovery. Published by Fernwood Press: Cape Town
  2. Steven, I & Munro, A. 2009. Inventing the 'vernacular': Cases in South African Crafts. De Arte 1 (79):9 - 22
  3. Vecchio,M. 2001. Postmodern Ceramics. Published by Thames&Hudson: London
  4. Barfield, C. 2002. Craft art in South Africa. Published by Struik:Cape Town
  5. Fraser, S. 2002. Craft South Africa. Published by Pan Macmillan SA:Johannesburg

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