The Witness | Estelle Sinkins:
Juliet Armstrong’s work drew on an intimate knowledge of classical sculpture, an understanding of the early British modernists and her own African experience.
It was also an expression of her passion for the art of ceramics that remained undimmed throughout her life.
Juliet Armstrong’s “A South African Carrier Shell from the time of the Sao Joao” (2011)
Sue Akerman and Gill Gerhardt, speaking ahead of the opening of a retrospective exhibition devoted to Armstrong’s work at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, said: “Juliet loved anyone who was passionate about anything and mostly about ceramics.
“She would sit having a smoke on the steps of the ceramic department [at the Centre for Visual Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus] trying to persuade any student who showed a smidgen of interest to come and join her classes.
“We went to lectures at her home and her love for ceramics, and in particular for South African Zulu pots, was tangible, and her knowledge of her subject was amazing. She shared it with anyone who would listen.”
Armstrong, who inspired hundreds of young artists while she was alive — including Ardmore founder Fee Halsted, rising star Fahmeeda Omar and celebrated potter David Walters — is now being honoured for her contribution to the South African art world in For Juliet: Ceramic Sculptor (1950 to 2012).
The exhibition is being staged in the main exhibition hall at the gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street, Pietermaritzburg, from Sunday to August 17.
It is accompanied by the Legacy Exhibition, curated by Walters, which pays tribute to Armstrong’s legacy. The latter can be viewed in the ceramics room from Sunday to July 20.
Professor Terence King, who along with Tatham director Brendan Bell, members of the Hart family and potter David Walters, will speak at Sunday’s official opening, described Armstrong’s work as truly democratic.
“One work never outshone the other,” he said. “The link was always function … that understanding of the vessel was always there. Another constant in her work was the deeply symbolic gestures that go in preparing rituals, as was the importance of skin and membrane.”
SHELTERING AND PROTECTIVE
Another element that shines through Armstrong’s work, from the glass blowing she did in her early career to the fine porcelain works she created, is the idea of sheltering and protecting people and objects.
It was that protective instinct that helped her nurture the students who studied at the Centre for Visual Arts, including Halsted, who said that she wouldn’t have taken up ceramics without Armstrong’s influence.
“After my first year at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, I chose to major in painting and after completing my degree, BA FA honours, it was Juliet who persuaded me to do a two-year advanced diploma in ceramics,” she said.
“Juliet bent the rules for me and I was encouraged to paint with clay. No wheel work for me, instead she introduced me to the ceramic fans of Margie Hughto. She encouraged and taught me how to become an innovative teacher. Juliet was not a purist, she was always thinking of innovative ways to work with clay and it was she who changed the ceramic department at the university.
“The year before Juliet died, she and I were pulled together by some divine intervention to realise our life’s work. We were invited to the Hotchkiss School in Lakeview, Connecticut.
“Juliet went with two traditional potters, the Magwaza sisters from Zululand, and I went with Punch Shabalala and Betty Ntshingila from Ardmore.
“We lectured and demonstrated and held a wonderful exhibition of Ardmore works juxtaposed among traditional Zulu ukhamba. I am still in wonder at what a special time we had together and can reflect upon it now and say ‘thank you!’”
The Magwaza family, whose beautiful Zulu ukhamba are highly sought-after, both at home and abroad, was also influenced by Armstrong. A spokesperson for the family said: “They [the pots] are now everywhere because of her, even overseas. Juliet was part of our family.”
During her long career, Armstrong’s work was inspired by many sources, including archaeology. When archaeologist Aaron Maizel unearthed an interesting object with a beautiful form but a mysterious function, while he was investigating a site in the Tugela Valley, Armstrong made ceramic copies and then variations of it. Several of these objects form part of the exhibition.
Also on show are pottery sherds from the Ming dynasty, works that were lost at sea when a ship was wrecked near the present Port Edward in 1552. The tiny bits of pottery, which had been buried in the sand, were used by Armstrong to create glittering works such as A South African Carrier Shell from the time of the Sao Joao (2011).
Other works, especially those from the late seventies and eighties, are characterised by breathtakingly delicate, translucent conical forms set upon a variety of scaffold-like supports, often made of cast bronze.
Speaking about these works, ceramics expert Wendy Gers, said: “Her porcelain casts of breasts and other body parts from the seventies and eighties pushed the boundaries of the formal and curatorial categories of the priggish ceramics fraternity, the former Association of potters of Southern Africa.”
For Juliet: Ceramic Sculptor (1950 — 2012) is an unmissable exhibition because, says King: “This retrospective gives us the opportunity to see the best of Juliet’s work and what was so important about it.”
FOR Juliet: Ceramic Sculptor (1950 — 2012) and Legacy (curated by David Walters) can be viewed in the main exhibition room and ceramics room at the Tatham Art Gallery in Chief Albert Luthuli Street, Pietermaritzburg, from May 11 to August 17. There will be walkabouts of the exhibition at 10.30 am for 11 am on May 18 by Professor Ian Calder; on June 8 by Chris Morewood and Michelle Rall, and on July 20 by Walters.
An illustrated talk by Gavin Whitelaw is planned at 10.30 am for 11 am on June 22.
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