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Thursday, May 8, 2014


(Juliet Armstrong)

Combine passion with reverence and imagination, and creativity can elevate craft to fine art of the calibre fashioned by the late Juliet Armstrong. (Article by Shirley Williams)

An exhibition of the works of the late Juliet Armstrong opens at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg on Sunday (May 11)

Thanks to Skype, the voice of the young woman speaking from a hilltop in Laos is bell-clear. Jessica Hart has spent an emotional day on a special pilgrimage to fulfil a dream that her mother, world-renowned ceramicist Juliet Armstrong, was not able to fulfil. Armstrong died in late 2012, but not before writing a bucket list of the final adventures she wanted to experience in far-flung places. The mysterious Valley of 1000 Jars, on the Laotian plateau of Kieng Khouang, was at the top of the list.

“My Mum loved so many places, but I thought a handful of her ashes should be left in this special place,” says Hart. “I came before sunrise to miss the tourist buses, and climbed a hill; sketched a little, chatted to her and then let the ash blow over the valley. It seemed fitting, and she felt very close …”

At Kieng Khouang, a multitude of megalithic vessels stretch across the plain. At over 2,000 years old, they have seen the passing of civilisations and withstood the onslaught of heavy bombing during the Korean War. Fitting, indeed, that some of the remains of Armstrong, who fashioned ceramics of great beauty and intrigue, should be incorporated into this landscape.

Wanderlust and vivacity were hallmarks of the artist, and those qualities are clear, too, in Hart, as she talks with animation of her parent and the retrospective exhibition of her work at the Tatham Art Gallery. At the time of her death, Armstrong was a professor in the Fine Art Department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and had lived in the city most of her life.

“These huge jars lie as though they had been dropped by giants during a tremendous party,” says Hart. “My Mum would love that. She just adored a good party. Plenty of red wine, everyone helping chop things in the kitchen, laughter and talk and debate. No-one could entertain like she could. And you were likely to eat things you’d never dreamed of trying when Mum was compiling the menu.”

In typically devil-may-care fashion, says Hart, Armstrong would bring delicacies across continents to share them with those close to her.

“Little, absurd memories keep springing up … like the time we picked Mum up at the airport, and she kept urging Dad to drive faster. Turned out she had crammed a huge bag of fresh scallops in her suitcase just before flying out of Australia, and she wanted to cook them for us at home. She reckoned the cargo hold of the plane would have kept them at the perfect temperature. And she was right. That dish was one of the most delicious I’ve eaten. And then there was the time she flew into the UK with gorgeous fillets of beef for friends. This, at the height of the foot and mouth epidemic. Mum just got away with things like that.”

David Walters, whose reputation as a ceramicist matches Armstrong’s own, was a lifelong friend. He, too, laughs delightedly when he recounts Juliet’s exploits.

“We met in 1970 in our first year as fine art students at university. My friendship with Juliet was multi-layered, and it never waned, no matter where in the world she might be. Just before the cancer was diagnosed, we took a trip to Botswana with colleagues and family. Juliet got it into her head that she needed lion poo for her orchids back home, so whenever she spotted some, she shoved it into the university car she had borrowed. Then she found a hippo skull. In it went. And finally, on our way back she decided the meat was so cheap, she might as well fill the rest of the space in the car with it. She got stopped at the border and fined. Not for all the smelly contraband, but for a can of petrol we were carrying. All the really forbidden stuff was waved through…”

Ian Calder was another longtime friend and artistic collaborator of Armstrong. He spoke about her contribution to ceramics in the broader sense, through the work she did with rural women potters in KZN. The two were recipients of several grants to study and document traditional Zulu ceramic practice, particularly in the context of ceremonial drinking vessels like the utshwala. He lauded Armstrong’s influence in creating a new paradigm for ceramic production in this country.

“We were very lucky because in the 70s ceramics were still not a major focus in SA universities, with the exception of the Fine Art Department at the then University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus. Our work and ideas fell between mainstream fine art and late modernism. Juliet and I both became intensely involved with indigenous ceramic practices and through them we found new reasons to be.

“The ideological debate about art versus craft remained in theory,” Calder continues, “but Juliet melded the two in an inimitable way with her exploration into the medium of bone china. It is the most intractable substance, and was traditionally limited to factory production lines because it cannot be coiled or moulded by hand. Yet Juliet created her own magic alchemy. Her genius at finding new ways to work this almost ghastly material left the rest of us in awe. She combined art and craft and design in objects of great beauty, and even managed to create large-scale wall-mounted pieces from tiny fragments of bone china. These works are of huge significance artistically, and are also of great intrinsic and material value.”

Walters recalled, with more roars of laughter, many last-minute crises he had helped Armstrong resolve on the eve of major exhibitions of her work: “The thing is, bone china breaks easily. Many were the times we’d work through the night gluing pieces back together again. And then there were the rather more spectacular incidents when a piece would leap off the wall and shatter into a million pieces. But Juliet was more about the process than anything. She wasn’t precious, and she would as soon give her work away as sell it. My daughter was given a magnificent piece ‘for her wedding,’ Juliet said. My daughter wasn’t planning a wedding and is happily single to this day.”

Walters said that while Armstrong’s mood could change like the wind – up one day, down the next – being around her was never, ever boring.

“Oh, such times we had….” He mused. “The late sculptor Peter Schutz was a great mutual friend. We both got on with Juliet’s mother like a house on fire when Juliet still lived at home. It was rather a grand house they lived in, with a wonderful garden. At night Peter and I would sneak into the grounds and steal armfuls of anthuriums to give to the ladies we admired. They had a huge guard dog, but he liked us and thought the adventures were rather fun, too.”

Armstrong might have been descended from the well-to-do “old school” Butcher clan, but she had a solid work ethic and a rock-solid commitment to social upliftment. She was a Black Stash stalwart who helped run the Pietermaritzburg office of the organization for many years, and her involvement with rural craftswomen went much further than an anthropological and artistic interest.

“The women potters of KZN were her focus – almost her ‘guilty pleasure’,” said her daughter. “There were dozens of phone calls and text messages flying back and forth every day. She was involved in every detail of the women’s lives. We would urge her to take more time for herself, away from her commitment to the crafters and her students, but retirement was never on the agenda.

“More towards the end she enjoyed doing her own bone china work, but it was mainly when an exhibition was on the horizon that she got stuck into her own art,” Hart continues. “She was all about giving – of her time, her compassion and her experience. When she died there were over 400 people who came to tea after the service. Some were first year students who had only known her a few months, yet each one had stories to recount, of what she’d taught and how she’d impacted on them.”

Walters is eloquent on the subject of the legacy left by Armstrong. In her honour, he created the touring Legacy Exhibition, which opened at the Mandela Metropolitan Museum of art in Gauteng, and is currently being shown in tandem with Armstrong’s retrospective at the Tatham Art Gallery. It features work by colleagues, contemporaries and former students of the artist.

“When Juliet burst on the scene, all us South African potters were steeped – some might prefer the word stuck – in the Anglo/ Oriental tradition,” says Walters. “She brought a gust of fresh air from the UK, where she had studied industrial design for two years with the likes of Malcolm Macintyre Read. She began to steer a much more contemporary view and utilization of ceramics. Her work was also far more contemplative than we had been used to. Juliet was saying: ‘There’s nothing wrong with the way we have been doing things, but there are also these alternatives.’ She catapulted Fee Halstead Berning (of Ardmore fame) and others into brilliant careers. Juliet gave us, more than anything, permission to experiment. It is hard to express yourself when you are reproducing a pastiche. She taught us to look forward and around, instead of over our shoulders.”

The Juliet Armstrong retrospective and the legacy Exhibition will run at the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg from May 11 until August 17.

Walkabouts will be held on the following Sundays::
May 18 (11h00–12h00): Professor Ian Calder (Head of Ceramics, UKZN)
June 8 11h00–12h00): Chris Morewood (retired Head of UKZNPMB Scientific Workshop) and Michelle Rall (ceramics lecturer at UKZN).
June 22 (11h00–12h00): Gavin Whitelaw (archaeologist and TV presenter) who will present documentary material around the indigenous material culture that inspired Juliet
July 20 (11h00–12h00): David Walters from Franschhoek (master potter who put the Legacy Exhibition together).

For more information contact Kobie Venter at the gallery on 033 392 2819 or 033 392 2812.