“Suddenly she was here. And I was no longer pregnant; I was a mother. I never believed in miracles before.”
~ Ellen Greene
F ew emotions come anywhere close to the experience of becoming a parent. Yes, there are other powerful milestones in life, many of them so profoundly meaningful we are moved to write songs about them, compose poetry, choreograph entire ballets, operas… And then there is that moment when you hold your newborn in your arms and it hits you: Wow. This is the real thing. This is…life with a capital “L.” Why we search so hard to find one other. Why we love. For…this. This moment. And all the moments that will proceed after, from this day on. You get it.
Such a universal experience, this business of becoming a parent, of accepting all the responsibilities that come with taking on this role. The weight of it. And yet…ultimately, each mother, each father, is also traveling this journey alone.
And so to try to capture the complexity of this journey in a work of art, say, in a sculpture, is at once an impossible undertaking ~ because, truthfully, each of us is figuring this out anew as we go, as if no one had ever parented before we came along ~ and yet at the same time, what could be more primal? Because when it comes right down to it, being a parent is, as writer Elizabeth Stone expressed it so well, “to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
INTERVIEW WITH AMANDA SHELSHER, SCULPTURAL CERAMIC ARTIST
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Amanda, your figures enchant. The soulful connection between parent and child, that universal desire to create a safe and nurturing home, in whatever form is most meaningful for them…
This piece, for instance, Mother and Children, resonates with me deeply. Can you tell me about it?
Amanda Shelsher: Yes I have a soft spot for this one too. I’ve always loved surreal art and this was also the first work where I featured two children, which I made when my own kids were very young: four and two years old. While working on that solo show, I was torn between working those excessive hours six months solid and yet also wanting to be with my kids.
Ever since I became a mother, my children have just naturally become central to my work. That instinctive and nurturing relationship between mother and child.
The large figure in this piece is, of course, myself, and I have placed my children on the safety of their mother’s back. As art critic Judith McGrath said to me once, this piece sums up the burden of motherhood with her bent back but also the love we have for our children.
Continuing to produce my art throughout this period kept me sane and became a powerful way of expressing what I was going through.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I love the elaborate sketching on your piece, Number Seven, which differs from the rest of your work in its specificity of detail. How did this piece come about? How do you make these engravings on the side of the ceramic body?
Amanda Shelsher: I love mixing things up. These pieces came about in the development of my solo show, “Garden of Curiosities” at FORM Gallery in Perth Australia.
They were documenting houses around my street in Inglewood. We were living close to Perth ~ four kilometers out from the inner city, living in a lovely 1930’s art deco Californian bungalow style house. I love architecture and dreaming of house design. But I was also yearning for country life and wanting to be able to allow my kids to run around freely, surrounded by nature. I felt my kids were disconnected from nature.
As a child, I grew up in the hills of Perth, and my husband grew up on a wheat and sheep farm out in Corrigin, in rural West Australia.
I couldn’t help comparing the childhood I’d had to what my own kids knew. So I started to document houses and draw on the figure as a way of battling this issue in my consciousness.
I really enjoy drawing on the works as it allows quiet contemplative time for me, especially at nighttime when the kids are in bed. These pieces are porcelain and they have slip painted on them, and then I engrave onto their bodies using a scalpel. This process is called sgraffito: the white clay is revealed underneath and creates the image. I was very proud when this piece was acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and know it has a good home.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is it about birds and their nests that symbolize for us such a strong feeling of home? Perhaps that tension again between safety and freedom?
Amanda Shelsher: Yes. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had a love of birds and winged creatures. I collect nests, and birds always appear in my works. For me, they originally were about the freedom I’d experienced when I spent three years traveling around the world, which inspired a hunger for travel. So I compromised and created birds with human faces talking to me.
For this one: Settling down in Perth and knowing the time was nearing to have kids, made my birds take on new meaning. In this piece, the nest sits precariously on her head as she’s trying her best to be a good mum and provide a good home. But of course, the reality is that in our house it’s usually pretty manic.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In Calling Home, you capture the wonder of childhood, where all of nature is a source of endless fascination. What do your children say about what you do?
Amanda Shelsher: My kids love watching what I am doing. My daughter loves touching the pieces. My ten-year-old son sometimes is brutally honest and tells me some pieces freak him out, which is funny. They are very good at saying what they like and don’t like, and so is my husband, who thinks I play with mud all day long. I think quietly they are proud of what I do and like having a weird mum who does freaky things, as I work in their classrooms, educating kids in the world of clay.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Is your studio off to the side of your house or right smack in the middle of all the action?
Amanda Shelsher: Since we moved here two years ago, my studio is now in my garden, which is an old garage surrounded by huge trees and kids’ swings, the chooks [chickens], dogs and guinea pigs. We found, finally, after ten years of looking, an old rundown house on a large block with mature plantings that is still near the city but close to the beach. It overlooks a pretty, tree-filled private park, so it provides a perfect balance of nature and freedom for our kids, yet close to work for my husband. Still, it took a while to adjust to this new studio because in the old house, I worked in the lounge, so I was always near the kids when they were little, in fact, in the center of the action. We had actually renovated and incorporated tiles onto the lounge floor just for my working area so the clay and dust wouldn’t become an issue. People used to be amazed at how I worked at just a table and a shed with my kiln. I don’t have any fancy studio. Just a modest amount of space.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Did you receive formal education as a ceramic artist? Can you describe the process for us that you typically go through to create your pieces? Do you have a kiln in your studio?
Amanda Shelsher: Yes, I completed a Bachelor of Visual arts degree, then went on to to become an art teacher, so I earned a graduate diploma of Education. My mother took up ceramics when I was eight, so I learned an enormous amount from her and had the freedom to work with clay since that young age.
I have created clay animals and people since I was a little girl. Creating each of these individual works can take ages or be quite fast, depending on one’s mindset. I hand-build everything using slab or coil and build up the bodies. Then, while drying, I typically will start another piece as well. The first part is very physically demanding, but once I get onto the details I can sit and work in a very meditative state. Each piece typically takes about six weeks to complete. Yes, I have my own huge kiln in my studio.
Amanda Shelsher: I would say my mum has been a huge influence on me, allowing me to create and nurture my talent by enrolling me in courses and allowing me to study art and recognizing how important the arts are in society. My dad too is a painter and both parents were very encouraging and to this day are my biggest fans.
I was also particularly inspired as a child traveling to Europe to visit relatives, and seeing the amazing artworks in the churches and museums. These first memories as a five-year-old are still as strong today. I loved learning about art at school and had a fantastic art teacher, Mrs. Tooke, and we lived and breathed all the different artists and learning about all the different art movements.
I collected art books nonstop and loved reading about art and soaking everything up with my special group of friends, who to this day are involved in the arts. We had a great group of kids who loved and respected art. To this day, I love looking at the American figurative ceramic artists and UK ceramic artists. Too many to mention but I would love to be closer so I could travel and do workshops with some of these artists.
Amanda Shelsher: My works are now changing to reflect the older ages of my kids and the sense of fun cheekiness and outdoor play that they are constantly engaged in. I will always have my family as the basis of my works and reflect on what’s going on in my life. So as they grow, my works will also change.
My works are getting larger and exploring new scales.
|View more of Amanda Shelsher’s ceramic sculptures on her website. www.amandashelsher.com|