Artist Interview: Deborah Halpern - Art Collector

7 November 2011

Sculptor Deborah Halpern talks to Australian Art Collector about the inspiration behind her new works and why she doesn't like to be referred to as a mosaic artist.

Deborah Halpern

What attracted you to mosaics and ceramics

Well I’m not really attracted to mosaics. I know that sounds completely bizarre but I’ll give you the short version of trajectory. In my upbringing, both of my parents were ceramicists and I grew up surrounded by potters so I was always making colourful, whimsical and funky pieces of pottery.

But as a potter I was always restricted to a certain size. Even when I was making things in a modular manner, I was still working with specific sizes. When the National Gallery of Victoria asked me to make a sculpture for the gallery I had to look at how to make a really big piece. I thought I had to make a form and paint it, and then I thought paint doesn’t have the same quality a ceramic glaze has.

From that point on, I started to think, maybe rather than have a painted ceramic tile, I could just make up the picture from coloured tiles. Then it went from coloured tiles making up the form to what we would now call mosaic even though I’ve been resisting this word for a long time.

Why have you been resisting mosaic?

I think the mosaics I have seen in Australia have been mainly done by amateurs and I don’t mean amateurs are bad, but they are people who are thinking of it as more of a hobby.

In my studio, I have my team. We are so precise, you wouldn’t imagine the level of skill required to get these works done. I suppose there’s a whole part of me which says please don’t call me a mosaic artist.

The mosaic is really a means to an end. However, having said that, I am now surrendering to this being a really interesting area of study.

How do you start a new work?

I often start with the shape. Sometimes when I’m working on a larger work, I’ll work with clay and make lots of different forms with the clay. More and more I work with a three-dimensional form. Doing a drawing is ok, but you’re still left with a two-dimensional image.

How have you seen your works change?
I notice now that I’m working with glass that there are so many different colours and textures to play with that it’s almost like being a pointillist. But instead of putting a dab of paint on a painting, I’m actually placing a dab of colour onto a sculpture.

Can you describe what your studio looks like?

My studio is a big glass box. Once upon a time I had a studio where all the windows faced south because it belonged to a painter and painters don’t want direct light in their studio.

But for me, I just couldn’t handle a studio, which never had any direct light coming into it, so I built this studio which is 50 foot long by 50 foot wide. It’s all glass so it doesn’t have any walls at all. We call it the glasshouse.

The studio looks out onto the bush and I’m currently looking at the garden … there’s a real kind of sense of abundance and abandon which I’m surrounded by here … which I would say kind of influences the works that I create.

Where do you normally look for inspiration?

The people whom I’m really responding to at the moment are people who haven’t been at the forefront of my mind before. People like Joan Miro and Gustav Klimt.

The works of Klimt I used to think were too much and over the top … but funnily enough it’s really having an impact on me right now.

For example, the way he puts his peaceful figures in the middle of this fantastic over-the-top design with colour … the contrast really represents life as it really is for me.

As an artist, I’ve been working for a long time now and I see artists who are doing works that are a commentary on something, or coming from an academic point of view, and I look at those works and sometimes I may not understand them or I may not respond to them.

I think there must be something going on that I don’t know anything about. And so I look at those works and I have respect for it, and then I look at my work and I think, well the work I make is something which is truly spontaneous.

Do you think this influences the type of person who collects your sculptures?

Sometimes you might have a work that is commenting on what’s happening on this planet and it’s really powerful and confronting.

I think that’s really valid and all credit goes to that work, but I think people can buy those works and think that by having something like that in their space equals making a difference when it doesn’t necessarily.

I guess we just need to be mindful that making a difference in reality and making a difference superficially are really two very different things.

Deborah Halpern’s works are showing at Arthouse Gallery, Rushcutter’s Bay from Wednesday 9 November until 10 December 2011.

Amy Yang

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