The following essay was written by Amy Gogarty who is a painter, writer and Craft Historian, living in Canada.
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 bricoleur. 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 9o6 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 i8th 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 sixth generation farming 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. Her early education exposed her to an eclectic mix of Scottish and Hungarian traditions, 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. “In her own bottle forms, Schell expresses her admiration for the integrity, hardships and love of the land experienced by generations of family members who came before her. Graduate studies in Tasmania introduced her to new influences and technologies. 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, recycled 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 and 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 dejavu. 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.