"THE FORMS BECOME AN EXTENSION OF MYSELF"
ON THE LIFE AND WORK OF SOUTH AFRICAN CERAMICIST JULIET ARMSTRONG (1950-2012)
By David Mann
“Dress flamboyantly” was the instruction given to those attending the wake of South African academic and ceramic artist Juliet Armstrong. The event – a celebration of her life and work – took place in her beloved Pietermaritzburg garden shortly after her death in 2012.
It’s an apt caveat. Armstrong was an artist who aimed to continually puzzle out, provoke and play with the form and definition of clay. Her works range from cow hides, breasts and ceremonial protective aprons to the more traditionally utilitarian objects like vases, plates and bowls, but always with an interest in embracing the imperfections of the medium.
‘Armstrong was an artist who aimed to continually puzzle out, provoke and play with the form and definition of clay.’
She was deeply inspired by traditional pottery from KwaZulu-Natal, too, for reasons artistic and academic. Along with Professor Ian Calder from the Centre for Visual Art at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she was instrumental in the development of an engagement programme benefiting women ceramicists in the KwaMagwaza village, and liaised with galleries across the country to have the work both exhibited and sold. She also spent much of her time working with the women of the Magwaza family, known for their distinctive ukhamba vessels (Zulu beer pots), attempting to preserve and document as much of the shifting material culture of these pots as possible.
“Her knowledge of her subject was amazing. She shared it with anyone who would listen and was always encouraging students to explore their creativity,” says ceramic artist and one of Armstrong’s former students Fahmeeda Omar. “I remember one year we had a problem with getting clay… so Juliet took us to a brick factory outside Pietermaritzburg and after getting a tour of the factory and the brick making process, she convinced them to give us raw, unfired bricks so that her students could make sculptures.”
As for her own work, Armstrong was forever experimenting, drawing on her research and fieldwork to augment and enhance her own practice. Having studied industrial ceramics and glass blowing at the Leicester Polytechnic in England in the 1970s, she would later do her Masters thesis on the British ceramic artist, William de Morgan, and conduct considerable research into bone china. Ultimately, she’d gather up all of this knowledge, this masterful capacity for history and technique, and create new interpretations of traditional forms.
‘Armstrong simply, yet effectively ties her own history, identity and place in the world to the elegiac forms of her ceramics.’
Above all else, Armstrong had a unique ability to channel material and cultural histories through clay, resulting in forms both figurative and abstract, and always with a nod to the generative qualities of the natural world. A collection of abstract ceramic works for the group exhibition More Fired Up (2012), her last exhibition before her death, contains fragments taken from an historical shipwreck, the São João. In the statement accompanying the works, Armstrong simply, yet effectively ties her own history, identity and place in the world to the elegiac forms of her ceramics.
“The forms become an extension of myself, imperfect, translucent forms with attachments taken from a South African coastal shipwreck in 1552.” (1)
In the same statement, the artist provides a generous explanation of her approach to ceramic art, explaining that,
“As a ceramist, form is an integral aspect of my work as it occupies space three-dimensionally. The work I make cannot be separated from this property.”
Part of this attention to the spatiality of her works involved the interplay of form and light, with translucency playing a vital role in this relationship. This is where her penchant for bone china came into play. Armstrong, in addition to her prolific scholarly outputs in the realms of South African ceramics will most-often be remembered for working to produce a stronger, whiter bone china using a mixture of bone ash, feldspar and white clay. “I rely on the translucency and brilliance of the bone china I make up, and if I do use tonal variations it will be specifically to offset the vibrancy/light reflection/changes from different light sources,” said the artist. The resultant works are brilliantly crafted vessels, high fired, smooth and translucent, and often folded, puckered or rendered exquisitely thin as if to test the resilience, the strength and the possibility of her own pursuits and experiments with form.
While Armstrong received numerous accolades for her work and had the opportunity to exhibit with a handful of galleries across the country, she preferred to spend most of her time teaching and researching the technique and history of ceramics, and experimenting with its process rather than working towards a career as a commercial artist. As a result, her work can be hard to track down or view (2).
“Her work didn’t really get out, she was so focused on her teaching and her research that she wasn’t as active in the gallery circuit, in exhibiting,” says artist Katherine Glenday, also a former student of Armstrong’s. “There’s also no serious representation for ceramicists in this country, and Juliet’s work was serious. It was incredibly contemporary work, deeply involved with, and deeply in conversation with nature.”
“There’s also no serious representation for ceramicists in this country, and Juliet’s work was serious. It was incredibly contemporary work, deeply involved with, and deeply in conversation with nature.”
Still, the internet provides us with a way of seeing into her life and work, retrospectively. A Facebook page run by the artist’s family offers up a sense of how prolific an artist Armstrong was, as well as a record of her own collection of ceramics and artefacts. A brief scroll down the timeline reveals a fascinating library of ceramics: Ardmore mugs and Magwaza pots sit alongside rare self-portraits, vases by Calder, and Goldscheider of Vienna statuettes.
In one post from January 2021 there is an image of a broken artwork, one of Armstrong’s ceramic cowhide pieces. The caption explains that it was her first ever cowhide work, and that it once hung in the William Humphreys Gallery. It’s a remarkably detailed sculpture – a series of ceramic shards dedicatedly shaped, carved into, fired, glazed and woven together – that ultimately surrendered to its own weight, tearing it in half.
Armstrong went on to make more cowhide pieces, of course – working to balance the weight ratios and perfect the weaving technique – but there’s a quintessence to this ruptured one, a certain incidental quality that does so well to characterise Armstrong’s undeterred and exploratory way of working with clay. As she’s so succinctly said of her practice:
“My work does not rely on so called ‘traditional techniques’. I am trying to invent new ones.”
“…but there’s a quintessence to this ruptured one, a certain incidental quality that does so well to characterise Armstrong’s undeterred and exploratory way of working with clay.”
There is the publication For Juliet: Ceramic Sculptor 1950 – 2012, edited by Brendan Bell and Bryony Clark and produced for the 2014 retrospective exhibition of Armstrong’s work at the Tatham Art Gallery, although few copies remain in circulation.