Kete, kumara and cast glass
Australia-based Wendy Fairclough makes elegant glass works modelled after an array of needful objects. Returning to her home town for a residency, she found inspiration in local memories and collaboration, says Grace Cochrane.
Glass artist Wendy Fairclough was born in Whanganui in 1958 and at the age of 18 set off to ‘wander round’ Australia, eventually settling in the Adelaide Hills. For many years she had been aware of the artist-in-residence programme at Tylee Cottage, run by the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui. She was consequently excited in 2016 to be successful in her application to work there: “It was six months of energizing, productive, stimulating, fun filled exchange of ideas and techniques, learning new things and forging connections with peers and colleagues in the local glass and sculpture community.” The gallery, through its Curator and Public Programmes Manager, Greg Donson, is working towards mounting an exhibition in November 2017 of her new work, alongside a range of earlier pieces made since 2003.
Most of us, at some stage in our lives, have made a move from a place of birth and adolescence to a different cultural or geographical environment. Such shifts offer opportunities to reflect on who we think we are, while at the same time our origins remain somehow ingrained in how we approach what we do. Fairclough says her “ongoing exploration of human experiences of home, work, sense of belonging, and the meeting of basic needs” was influenced by childhood visits to the Whanganui Regional Museum: “I now understand that I was recognising and appreciating the ingenuity and creativity of the human mind and hand.” She therefore valued the opportunity to draw on what she had learned elsewhere to express her feelings about the experience of returning.
What she had learned elsewhere was considerable. From the early 1970s, Adelaide had been a centre of the studio glass movement in Australia and Fairclough was fortunate to become associated with key people and institutions there. After gaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in printmaking and sculpture at the South Australian School of Art in the early 1990s, she followed up with training in adult education. While there, she was so inspired by a glassblowing workshop run by Nick Mount, that she returned to the School of Art to study under Clare Belfrage and Gabriella Bisetto, graduating with a glass major in a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in 2000. During the 2000s she was further encouraged through a scholarship to the Pilchuck Glass School in the United States, and a number of grants to work in different places. By 2016 she was a well-known glass artist who had also exhibited regularly in New Zealand, Asia, the United States and Canada, and was represented in a number of collections, including the national art museums of Australia and New Zealand.
Fairclough concentrated on glassblowing for some years, usually making vessels in variations of soft, pale colours, while sometimes – as with Point of Arrival after William Fox (2007) – drawing on her printmaking background to incorporate engraving. Eventually she came to focus on casting forms in lead crystal using the lost-wax process. Her procedure is to make silicone rubber moulds of each form, into which wax is poured; the wax form is then finely finished and hand-covered in a silica and plaster mould, before being steamed out and replaced with molten glass. After annealing – or cooling slowly – the glass is cold-worked with surface finishing processes such as cutting, grinding, laminating, sandblasting and hand lapping.
Most of Fairclough’s works are presented in groups which she identifies as compositions and installations, sometimes including found objects, and she has recently also started casting in concrete and aluminium. As Australian artist and educator Roy Ananda notes: “The basic building blocks of Fairclough’s work are common, domestic objects, transposed into glass by way of casting, blowing and cold-working. These objects form the basis of carefully arranged tableaux that blend a painter’s understanding of light, colour and composition with an acute sensitivity to the poetic possibilities of objects in space.”
Blown and cast forms in recent years have included groups of kitchen tableware, cleaning and workshop tools, balls of twine, fruit and vegetables. Fairclough says of her motivations, often inspired by the experience of migration, that: “In my most recent work I am drawn to objects and activities that are intimately familiar for most human beings in every culture or religion. The focus is on what we have in common regardless of external differences and extends to an interpretation of gestures and objects associated with… meeting basic human needs such as food, warmth and shelter.”
“I enjoy working within the still life genre,” she explains, “because of the particular way in which the artificial ‘staging’ of domestic objects allows for a transformation from a reality into a fiction, just as memory can transform real experiences into fictions.” In the catalogue for the 2013 exhibition Heartland: Contemporary Art from South Australia, artist and curator Una Rey elaborates: “There is a temptation to see this translation of the ‘ready-made’ (bucket, broom or jug) as straightforward, but the objects’ easy grace could not be more misleading… The modest figurative gestures residing within these perfectly pitched forms all relate to the act of cleaning, mopping up, restoring… corroborating an alarming material paradox: the rudimentary home appliances are evidence of labour, but are as fragile as breath, elegantly impossible.”
An installation in glass of domestic oil cans, Bringing it Home, 20 March 2003 (2004), was made, as she noted at the time: “as a reminder of our responsibilities as consumers during the recent invasion of Iraq.” And in 2011 the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra commissioned her to make a work associated with the 110th-anniversary celebrations of the federation of Australia in 1901. The Illuminations was made in a workshop space at Canberra Glassworks, as visitors walked by and discussed it with her. She chose domestic forms that had been popular around the turn of the century and, using the cameo carving process, decorated them with images from photographs and newspaper articles of the time.
The opportunity to work in Whanganui provided a way of bringing together Fairclough’s existing concerns and ideas with a return to a personally meaningful location. She decided to continue with themes of food and domestic items by considering traditional Maori and Pakeha natural food sources, including production and harvesting methods, and use of tools and traps. Her residency was also characterised by a strong involvement in collaboration and consultation: as well as being grateful for space in a local glass studio, she hoped to expand her experience to include bronze-casting.
Fairclough’s father and brother welcomed her home and she started to work closely with her sister-in-law Trina Taurua, a Maori traditional weaver and tutor at Whanganui Te Wananga o Aotearoa. When Fairclough proposed a work involving kete and kumara, Taurua advised her on traditional food sources and cultural protocols, and introduced her to two proverbs: He ua ki te po, he paewai ki te ao (Rain at night, the paewai eel in the morning), and Na to rourou, na taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi (With your food basket, and my food basket, we will sustain the people). Taurua wove three kete for her that were specifically identified with carrying kumara and the rarer small ‘Maori potatoes’. “I am sensitive about appropriation of other cultures,” Fairclough affirms, “and wouldn’t have made the kete project without doing it as a collaboration with Trina.”
Together they visited bronze-caster Ross Wilson, in the neighbouring town of Marton, who worked closely with them to devise ways to integrate wax and flax as a model around which they could make ceramic moulds. From these, the kete forms could eventually be cast in hot metal. Fairclough then cast a number of kumara in gold and purple dichroic glass, to be displayed in and spilling out of the three bronze kete. “We enjoyed a stimulating exchange of ideas and techniques and conducted experiments together,” Fairclough says of working with Wilson. “I was very pleased that Trina was able to take that first completed kete to show and share her experiences with students and colleagues.”
A group of 12 large and small eels, cast in pale and dark grey glass, made up the second project which was completed in Adelaide in 2017. As well as being fascinated by their beauty, Fairclough was aware of the importance of eels in Maori daily life and mythology and also remembered an experience of feeding them at Pukaha (Mt Bruce) in the Wairarapa district. She purchased three fresh ungutted eels, and a friend provided freezer space for storage between castings in different ‘poses’. At first Fairclough was undecided about whether to cast the eels in metal or glass. “I felt ethically challenged to be using them in this way and ended up committing to the eels that I would cast them in glass because it has a much more ethereal look and would be more of a tribute to their spirit.” In titling the kete and kumara as With my food basket… and the eels as Rain at night…, Fairclough acknowledged their links with the associated Maori proverbs about food sources and sustainability.
Residencies in stimulating environments such as Tylee Cottage, with its professional arts community, provide extraordinary opportunities for artists to meet new people, experience different contexts and expand their ideas. Wendy Fairclough’s response to this particular occasion is well represented in her engaging new works.
Wendy Fairclough’s post-Tylee Cottage Residency exhibition will be at the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, late November 2017 to early February 2018.