Text by: Amy Gogarty
Sound, texture and form shape Fleur Schell's world. Unlike most of us, for whom the useful objects of the world present only their instrumental face, Schell possesses an uncanny ability to strip free those qualities and recombine them as abstract entities. A visit to the grocery store for her is as apt to produce an intriguing collection of shapely bottles as any desired comestible; trips to abandoned farm sites render treasure troves of steel milking machine udders or strangely twisted, rusting implements of uncertain origin. She commandeers children's toys to furnish components for bizarre noise-making devices and squirrels away objects without immediate purpose for future consideration like a magpie. Invented textures inspired by the exquisite drawings of radiolaria, diatoms and segmented worms depicted in the Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature supplement those she finds. The sounds, textures and forms of the world serve as her raw materials, which she combines with the sensibility of a true bricoleuse. Two things separate her assemblages from those of many others: most of her components are first slip cast in fine porcelain, and many of her strange objects produce sound.
Historically, porcelain is a mythical substance produced first in China during the T'ang Dynasty (618-906 CE). It was fought over, sought after and collected by rulers from Persia to Britain through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, until a similar substance was developed in Germany in the 18th century. Today, it is compounded in various mixtures to create products ranging from table and sanitary wares to turbine engine heat exchangers. Porcelain's strength belies its apparent fragility, but it demands much from those who would use it. Its tendency to shrink, crack, slump and peel frustrates novices, but those who understand it respond to its pure whiteness, translucency, skin-like sensitivity and bell-like sound it makes when struck. These qualities derive from its fully fused body, achieved through great heat, and these qualities draw Schell to it. She has mastered techniques of throwing, slip casting, hand building and decorating this temperamental material, and she puts her skills to work constructing imaginative worlds.
Schell grew up in a fifth-generation farm family in Western Australia. Her love of nature, respect for rural skills and native understanding of how things work combined with an education that opened both conceptual and technical doors for her. Living in Australia exposed her to Japanese aesthetics, respect for worn and rugged surfaces and objects of everyday use. In notes to an earlier exhibition, Preserved Sound, she writes movingly of her attraction to the beauty of old bottles, whose " moulded labels preserve an era in cultural history when the glass bottle was seen as a precious object and [its] decoration an art form." British potter Bernard Leach influenced the bridging of East and West in Australia as he did in Britain and elsewhere. Schell's early education enamoured her to the beauty of simple forms and raku, an attraction that took a completely different turn when she began graduate study in Tasmania. Here she encountered porcelain clay and industrial techniques, which her earlier training had encouraged her to disdain. It was a fortunate meeting, as the clean, minimalist forms she learned to make married well with previously developed skills in manipulating metal and mechanical devices. Working with high-fire industrial clay, she developed innovative ways of firing, smooth sanding and re-firing her wares to produce elegant pure white forms. Rubbing selected surfaces with cobalt or copper oxides highlighted contrasting textures, and she often set smooth forms against rough, recyled supports. Moving parts introduced sound components, which stimulated interaction with viewers. While Schell is an accomplished musician, what really attracted her was the experience of unique, individual sound, which could be amplified and captured by her porcelain containers.
In the autumn of 2001, Schell came to the Alberta College of Art & Design as an artist-in-residence. The clays of Alberta differ from those of Australia, which are among the oldest, most weathered and most pure forms of kaolin on earth. If the clays differed, the landscape was strangely familiar. Western Australia is dotted with thousands of abandoned mine shafts, which rise above the red sandy desert like ant hills on the horizon, reminding Schell of the multitude of oil rigs that sprout in fields from Alberta to Saskatchewan. Canada and Australia both suffer extremes of weather, and the wide-open spaces of both countries are embedded deep in the psyches of their inhabitants. Much of her research reflects the on-going experience of the uncanny, of similarity and difference, which she finds reflected in vivid dreams and dejà vu. Exploration drives her forward to examine and reflect upon these sensations.
Multi-sensory approaches to her work introduce not only sound elements, but also textures that beg to be touched. Textures convey the histories of objects in direct and tangible ways. Award-winning work done in Australia included sentences in Braille applied with slip, which opened her sculptures to appreciation by the visually impaired. Conceptually, sound and containment are linked through association with structure and molding. For the visually impaired, sound serves to convey a physical environment, much as sonic waves are used by seismologists to delineate structures under the earth. The containing function of a room structures sound in ways that can be apprehended by those attuned to subtle vibrations, making "visible" the surface articulations of a containing environment. Our bodies are containers that modulate the air in our lungs, shaping it to speak. The process of molding a found object reproduces that object as a reversed or negative double. The mold in turn transmits its impression of the original only when cast, in a sense, liberating what would remain dormant as a form of speech. Just as sound reveals the contours of a containing space to the blind, the blind mould bequeaths the form of its parent to its progeny, the cast object. In this, the mold functions as an intermediary, much as a negative in photography, reminding us that early photographers often selected casts of historical monuments and famous individuals for their subject matter. Notions of fidelity, replication and identity interact to produce unbroken chains linking physical experience to its re-presentation as art.
The work in this show brings together Schell's interest in sound, her response to the gallery as a container for sound and her desire to provoke radical interaction with gallery visitors. She has dismantled numerous harmonicas, removing their reeds and embedding them in a variety of hand-wrought porcelain funnels. She will construct, essentially, a harmonica the length of the gallery from individually cast and manipulated containers, a variety of hoses, sound-altering funnels and a complex array of mechanisms to drive air through the reeds. If all are played at once, the resulting cacophony should be astonishing, but playing will require cooperation and interaction between individuals. The gallery audience will be invited to extend that unbroken chain themselves, using their own bodies as conduits of a remarkable experience.
Amy Gogarty is a painter and writer. Her paintings consider issues of representation as manifested in museums, archives, language and memory. She taught ceramics and visual art history and theory at ACAD for sixteen years prior to relocating to Vancouver, BC in 2006. She has served on national and international panels, written over eighty reviews, catalogue and critical essays on visual arts and co-edited two anthologies addressing contemporary ceramics and craft.
Fleur Schell is currently a visiting ceramicist from Australia who is serving as the artist-in-residence at the Ceramics Department at the Alberta College of Art & Design. For her exhibition at Stride, Fleur is producing a series of wall mounted porcelain and mixed media sound chambers. Intrigued by the process of simplifying chords into single tones, Fleur plans to dissect and separate the chords of a harmonica, and then house each reed in its own unique sound chamber. Conceptually Fleur’s work emphasizes the beauty and potential of single sounds, while focusing metaphorically on the uniqueness of an individual and how it fits within the chorus of any given society or community.