The personalities of Marlaine Verhelst’s clay pieces are so delightfully eccentric, one imagines they must have tumbled out from a realm of the fantastic. Or else we have slipped in.
Is Verhelst fabricating for us some kind of grown-up fairy-tale?
Chatting with the artist, I learned my guess was not too far off.
INTERVIEW WITH MARLAINE VERHELST
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Marlaine, my first thought when viewing your pieces was that these are storybook characters, except from your own fairy-tales. Am I way off-base?
Marlaine Verhelst: You are very close to the truth. In art school I actually started out in the illustration department. I still see my pieces as two-dimensional illustrations, only I do not use existing literary tales. I like my pieces to be a story on their own, and I like people to receive the stories from their mind when they look at my pieces. I love to trigger the imaginations of people.
But it’s very interesting that you are saying that, because one of my main teachers in art school was an illustrator of children’s books, and she actually was the one who inspired me to start making these figures. She had a whole bunch of children, of all sizes and colors–I presumed they were from different fathers, but that’s besides the story. But one day, for a still life exercise, she brought in these dolls she made for her children. She did not make them in art school but just for her children, just for fun for them to play with. Her illustrations were simple but very strong characters and also her dolls, they looked simple, but they had very strong characters, and I was attracted to them. They inspired me. After I left art school, I started to make ‘dolls’ myself.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What elements do you incorporate into your pieces? I see wood, porcelain, brass…
Marlaine Verhelst: Yes, all of that. A lot of the brass and wood are found objects. I love to collect stuff. My favorite Sunday mornings are spent going to flea markets or garage sales and looking for stuff. Makes me very happy.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you polish them up? Or prefer to keep the integrity of their past lives?
Marlaine Verhelst: Mostly I leave them in the condition that I found them. I love to work with wood, because you can easily paint it, drill it, add things to it.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: I imagine you must have been terribly creative as a child? Did you come from an artistic family?
Marlaine Verhelst: As a child, I was always playing with clay and fabric. My mother was a seamstress, so I was always playing with her left-overs.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: So the faces and hands of the dolls, they are porcelain? How did you go from being an illustrator to working with all these different mediums?
Marlaine Verhalst: When I started making figures, at first I made them with air-dry clay. One day, one of the gallery owners where I was showing my work, who was also herself a ceramicist, offered to teach me how to work with porcelain.
Yes, all the heads, faces, feet and hands are made of porcelain. I carve them with tools that look a little like what you use to work your nails, then I fire them in batches in my electric kiln at 1220 degrees Celcius. It takes about seven hours. Each finished figure is about twenty inches tall.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Do you know beforehand what kind of character you want to create? Or do they evolve as you go along?
Marlaine Verhelst: Before I made this last batch of hands and feet, I made some sketches first to visualize what I wanted to create. If I don’t make these sketches beforehand, if I don’t write down my ideas, by time the batch is done, and I am taking it out of the kiln, I have no idea any longer what it was I had in mind for them. They’re just a pile of hands and heads and feet.
I can always change my mind as I work on them. When I start putting them together, I might discover that my original idea just doesn’t work, or I might come up with an even better idea. Sometimes I just start digging in my boxes of stuff to get inspiration.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What have been some of the reactions to your pieces?
Marlaine Verhelst: I receive a lot of lovely comments from people who, like you, get what my work is about. They see them as interesting characters that excite their imaginations.
But some people don’t get my work at all. I’m involved in a community that makes dolls, and within this community, there is a group of people who only like the sweet and girly dolly-dolls. And I don’t do girly dolly-dolls.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Please tell me about some of these characters you’ve created.
Marlaine Verhelst: Well, I have three pieces that are called, “Waiting for a Prince.” I’m now working on a fourth in that series, because I really like that theme. I want to pose the question: Does she still truly believe a prince will come? Does she actually even want a prince to come?
Marlaine Verhelst: One of my pieces is a bluebird in a cage with a key on top. The key is there, available. The cage can be opened. The woman who bought this piece from me totally understands what I meant about it, and said. “It’s very much about myself.”
Marlaine Verhalst: I have another one that’s a knight on a horse, and I call it, “Fighting the Clouds.” The woman who bought this was in a wheelchair.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: And the horse is an element you found?
Marlaine Verhelst: No, I made that horse. That’s papier-mâché.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: For your faces and the postures, do you work off photographs?
Marlaine Verhelst: I look at photos, sometimes, yes, and I also look a lot in the mirror. When I want to get down a certain expression or to see how the hands should be. But for many of the faces, I still have in my memory the face of that one art teacher of mine. She had such a strong impact on me and on my own work. Her characters both in her illustrations and in her dolls had very strong personalities, but she taught me also to always keep it simple. Maybe subtle is a better word.
Personally, I just don’t like art when it’s too polished, when too much is fixed, every detail is too complete. I prefer to leave my work open. I also like it when a piece tells a different story from one day to the next. Make-up your own story. That, for me, is much more valuable, if it gives you inspiration and fuels your own imagination.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: When you create, do you imagine an audience and how they will react when they encounter each new art piece? Or are you deep in your own imagination?
Marlaine Verhelst: I do it exclusively for myself. The important thing for any piece I make is that it should please me. If I wanted to please an audience, if I wanted to work like that, well then I better start making cute babydolls.
* * *
So learn more about Marlaine Verhelst and her artwork or to and inquire about taking classes, please visit her website at: http://marlaineverhelst.com/