The highlight of my travels to South Africa is always a visit to Ardmore Ceramic Art in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Although I have been there many times, I never cease to be enthralled by the wit and ingenuity of Fée and the Ardmore artists in this magical place. Visiting the studio has been described as tumbling into a Henri Rousseau painting alive with African birds, beasts, and patterns. I also feel a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into a Wonderland filled with weird creatures and circumstances. Majestic elephants dance daintily on their hind legs and mischievous monkeys ride hippos through crocodile infested swamps – Ardmore makes you smile at every turn.
The Ardmore studio is located at the confluence of two rivers in a lush pastoral landscape. Even in mid-winter, the African sun beats down and bakes the clay models straight from the sculptors’ studio before they are fired in the kiln. Fée delights in showing off all the new work created by the Ardmore sculptors and painters. During my visit, some of the painters were putting the finishing touches to an exhibition inspired by the Okavango Delta, one of the natural wonders of Africa. Others were working on some “Big Five” animal pieces for exhibition in America. The Big Five animals in Africa are the lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. Big-game hunters coined the name to describe the five most difficult and dangerous animals in Africa to hunt on foot. Subsequently, the term was adopted by African tour operators to highlight the animals to be seen on wildlife safaris. Over the years, the Ardmore artists have incorporated the Big Five into many of their designs. Here is Jabu Nene pictured with her latest Big Five masterpiece in honor of National Women’s Day in South Africa which is celebrated on August 9th.
Women’s Day is an annual public holiday which commemorates the 1956 march of 20,000 South African women against the country’s pass laws during the apartheid era. The women left bundles of petitions at the office doors of the Prime Minister in Pretoria and sang a protest song composed in honor of the occasion. In the years since the march, the catch phrase of the protest song “you strike a woman, you strike a rock” has come to represent women’s courage and strength in South Africa. Women play a major role at Ardmore. As well as the founder Fee Halsted, and her daughters Catherine and Megan, there are around 50 talented female artists working in the studio today.
Catherine showed me how the designs for the Zambesi fabric collection are derived from Ardmore ceramics by adapting vivacious patterns created by leading artists, such as Punch Shabalala. The Monkey Bean and Lovebird Leopard motifs have been transformed into elegant scatter cushions and there’s also a spectacular sofa with a cheeky monkey teasing a haughty leopard. I saw also how the fabulous new Ardmore wall paper designs for Cole & Son of England are now inspiring new ceramic masterpieces, such as Safari Dance and Leopard Walk. Lee Jofa, the distributors of Ardmore wallpapers in the United States, have donated a sample book of their wall coverings to WMODA, which you can browse while enjoying our exhibition of Ardmore ceramic art.
Catherine also told me all about her latest ventures with Hermès of Paris, who are launching a new silk scarf design this year called Flowers of Africa. Ardmore is now in the swim of things at Hermès with their new collection of beachwear featuring the Savana Dance pattern. Look out for all the Ardmore swimwear and beach towels at Hermès boutiques and get ready for our Cultural Cruise to Cuba on board the Azamara Quest next March when Fée Halsted will be our special guest lecturer. Fée will also be one of our star artists at the 2018 International Ceramics and Glass Fair, which will be held at the Gallery of Amazing Things in conjunction with WMODA from March 2-8, 2018.
My visit also coincided with the Ardmore Winter School, which is now in its third year and draws young men and women from around Africa who are interested in pursuing a career in ceramic art. Over a period of three months, twenty students are taught clay sculpting and painting by Fée and the experienced Ardmore artist Wiseman Ndlovu. It is so rewarding to see the excitement and enthusiasm of these aspiring artists as they explore the medium of clay. For most it is the first time they have tried working with the material and their aptitude and potential are assessed as they develop the skills necessary to work at Ardmore. At the end of the course, the best students are invited to work at the studio under the mentorship of the senior artists. Fée has great ambitions for the Winter School and is raising money to build bigger and better facilities to accommodate more students. Let us know if you would like to help Fée create the next generation of Ardmore artists. Ardmore is an investment in art and happiness.