Taking up the clay
Two clay masks of the face of DeAnne’s youngest daughter Jade.
Almost nine years ago, Taupo artist DeAnne Lawford-Smith made a radical shift in her creative focus from canvas to clay. It was something of a leap of faith, but full vindication came in late 2007 when the shy sculptor was named premier award winner in New Zealand’s prestigious Portage Ceramic Awards.
Until that creative shift, DeAnne had immersed herself in painting. It was only in the last year of a three-year Visual Arts diploma at Rotorua’s Waiariki Institute that she “took up the clay”, motivated by practicality rather than passion.
“I saw it as an opportunity to do what I thought I’d be unlikely to do again. After all, you needed a kiln to work in clay and I didn’t see myself getting one!”
To her surprise, DeAnne thoroughly enjoyed her classes in clay and it soon became an obsession. She was further inspired after selling enough work at the graduands’ exhibition to buy a second-hand gas kiln. As she beavered away in her home studio, DeAnne found herself toying with the kiln – reluctantly at first – trying out glazing techniques.
DeAnne’s skills have now grown to the point where her work is exhibited and sold throughout the North Island. Recent exhibitions include E:Scape at the Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park in Hamilton – a disused quarry enjoying a renaissance – and the annual New Zealand Potters Exhibition.
DeAnne describes her glazing techniques as “random”. First, she prepares a sloppy clay into which she places seeds, rice, grains, iron filings and anything else that takes her fancy or comes to hand.
She then plasters it on to leather-hard clay, scratches the surface with a nail or needle and adds tiny pieces of fossilised shells, fish or koru designs – all reflections of the New Zealand land-scape. Even old coins have been pressed into the clay. >
“I’ve also been experimenting with seaweed, shells and driftwood. I put it into the firings to get the surfaces on clay to appear as though they were something spewed out of a volcano. It’s very bubbly, crusty and lava-like.”
Once dry, the sculpture is brushed with a weak oxide solution and glazed. One firing in the old kiln at a temperature of 1220°C is usual. The resulting textures are extraordinary, born out of what bleeds through the original sloppy surface.
DeAnne’s entry in the 2007 Portage Awards – her third attempt – was a pair of sculpted figures; a voluptuous mix of dark and light clays called Heart of Glass and Keeping Quiet.
The decision to judge the pair as a single entry was a significant break with tradition, demonstrating just how much the work had captivated the international judge Jeff Shapiro. He said the two figures merged so perfectly, they had to be judged as one.
DeAnne’s home is filled with torsos, mostly female and all crafted in clays sourced primarily from Australia. Some figures are lithe and athletic-looking, but a hearty number are wholesomely ample, with full breasts and pregnant bellies swollen with life.
The hands in one series are disproportionately large – a nod to the concept of holding and nurturing. It’s the same notion addressed in the figures of Heart of Glass and Keeping Quiet, with their exaggerated hips flaring
wing-like at the base of the sculpture.
Roots are important to DeAnne. While at Waiariki, she researched her ancestry and found out she had a great-grandfather born in the West Indies. The discovery led her to a culture that shared her own love of voluptuous shapes and big, curvy bodies and she’s hoping to visit soon.
In the meantime, DeAnne has the happy problem of spending her $12,000 Portage Award prize money. A portion has gone on kiln maintenance and clay, with the rest earmarked for a special trip to Europe next year.
“My daughter will be living in Berlin, so my husband and I plan to go and see her and perhaps look around Italy and France,” she says. “I’ll try to go on a couple of organised art tours. I’ve wanted to do that for years, and now I have the money and the time – and no children at home – I can finally do it.”
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Story: Viv Posselt
Photographs: Brian Culy