A SHARED LIFE AND STUDIO WITH JOHN NEWDIGATE
A TESTIMONY TO TIME & DEVELOPING PRACTICES
Words by Olivia Barrell
How do you write separately about two artists who have been together for over twenty years and whose studios fall under the same roof? They cut the reeds themselves from the river by their home in Swellendam to make the large ceiling that covers both studios. Over time, the studios have been separated by a brick wall, or a hole in the wall, or a thin film over the hole in the wall. Varying degrees of access between the studios are testimonies to time, to each of their developing practices, and perhaps to the relationship itself, which has undoubtedly fed into the full blooming of both of their respective artistic expressions. Ian Garrett leaning into a more experimental practice, and John Newdigate extending towards a richer painterly one.
‘Varying degrees of access between the studios are testimonies to time, to each of their developing practices, and perhaps to the relationship itself’
Newdigate’s studio is a frenzy of colour: dozens of pots of tinted glazes, a wooden table mottled purple with paint, and a large sketchbook with loosely drawn designs. Garrett’s studio, on the other hand, is a neat display of clay in its innumerable forms: varying spectrums of coloured clays, each marked with precision in the artist’s own code.
Ian Garrett at work in his Swellendam studio, Photographed by Charl Dettmer, 2022
The shelves are stacked with jars and containers that hold hand-written labels. There is a science to Garrett’s practice as he collects, sieves, dries and categorises each of the many clay types archived in the studio. No glazes are used. Contrasts in colour and texture are created through the combination of different clays and their surface treatment. Earlier in his career, Garrett worked almost exclusively in black terracotta. Newdigate suggested more experimentations with colour. As if the colour itself had spilt out from the neighbouring studio, Garrett found a way to incorporate colour into his practice: various earthy pigments harmonising with each other.
‘As if the colour itself had spilt out from the neighbouring studio, Garrett found a way to incorporate colour into his practice: various earthy pigments harmonising with each other.’
‘..all the matte textures are a really sympathetic type of surface for a form, they absorb light and reveal the curves and shadows.’ – Ian Garrett
In turn, Garrett’s lifelong obsession with building forms crept towards Newdigate’s studio, resulting in a collaboration between the two. Although Newdigate had built his own beautiful ceramic forms in porcelain for many years, it was always the spontaneous surface painting that fascinated him.
‘Garrett adopted a supportive role for his partner’s painterly practice by hand coiling the porcelain — ceramic forms that stand reverent in their near perfection’
Since 2008, Garrett adopted a supportive role for his partner’s painterly practice by hand coiling the porcelain — ceramic forms that stand reverent in their near perfection, for Garrett is one of South Africa’s master ceramicists — allowing Newdigate to direct his spirited creativity towards the painting of each artwork. The abstracted images are splayed out over the rounded surface of each form, built up through several washes of colour separated by layers of wax — the latter burning off during firing to reveal scenes in their full depth.
John Newdigate’s images are built up through several washes of colour, Photograph by Charl Dettmer, 2022
Newdigate visualises his whimsical narratives by ordering planes of colour, layering images one on top of another — perhaps reminiscent of his early experience with screen printing. Newdigate is a painter of figments. He portrays what we might see when we stare out into space or look out at a garden, lost in a daze.
‘Each piece is a world in itself. Strange worlds containing bewitched animals, unkempt vegetation, and industrial futurism.’
‘The porcelain has become a glass fishbowl for Newdigate’s microcosms, which are held tenderly by the crystalline smoothness of Garrett’s forms.’
Newdigate’s work transcends surface painting — each piece is a world in itself. Strange worlds containing bewitched animals, unkempt vegetation, and industrial futurism. Newdigate’s canvas is clay — and the latter renders his paintings globe-like. We look down into them, or are they perhaps extending out towards us? The porcelain has become a glass fishbowl for Newdigate’s microcosms, which are held tenderly, and most definitely magnified, by the crystalline smoothness of Ian Garrett’s forms.
”Ian Garrett’s relationship with clay is almost reverent: in the way he works the earth and in his observation of ancient forms and South African ceramic traditions. Garrett takes from the ground and from the past, creating ceramic polyrhythmia.”
Creating a new body of work is a lengthy creative process for master ceramicist Ian Garrett, who hand-builds to near perfection. Born in 1971 in the Eastern Cape, Garrett has been building vessels in clay since his early childhood. His first studio was a self-built hut in the garden. His works can now be found in the South African National Gallery (Cape Town), the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Gallery (Port Elizabeth), the Pretoria Art Museum, the Private Collection of HRH Duke Franz of Bavaria, Die Neue Sammlung Design Museum (Munich) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (Washington DC) to name a few. Garrett’s deep reverence for ancient sculptural forms is apparent, as is his fascination with South African ceramic traditions – yet his work is undeniably contemporary and experimental. The forms explore polyrhythmic compositions of both classical and contemporary, mirroring one another and infusing the works with a certain timelessness.