A platypus, a wombat and an echidna poke their heads out of cardboard boxes that are marked with symbols used by homeless people to communicate with others sleeping rough. With their big eyes and endearing expressions, Fleur Schell’s fragile porcelain sculptures tell the story of the vulnerability of Australia’s native animals whose survival is threatened by habitat loss.
As a professional ceramicist for 25 years, Fleur is known for her playful and highly technical porcelain characters and objects. Her work has been recognised internationally, but the things that inspire her are much closer to home. Themes of innocence, adventure and wonder have come from her engagement in the lives of her two children, and as they have grown older, their concerns have also shifted the focus in Fleur’s work.
‘I have to confess that a lot of the motivation comes from the feedback I get from my children,’ she says. ‘Heidi and Harry are both like, “Mum, do you ever feel like you’re just making landfill – or do you really want your work to say something that changes people’s habits about the way they see the impact that they have on the earth and the relationship they have with the natural world?”‘
‘I think our generation really needs to listen really closely to those younger generations because they are so in touch with what’s going on and they are more concerned than we are, because they have a future they have to live out in an environment that they’ve inherited from us.’
Growing up on a farm in the Wheatbelt, Fleur has always had a close connection and appreciation for the natural world. She is keenly aware of the significance nature has on all aspects of humanity, from its importance in childhood development to our very survival as a species. She hopes that her Homeless Endangered Wildlife Series provokes a deeper consideration of our relationship with nature, but it is equally important to her that her work is still ‘loaded with sentiment’.
‘I don’t necessarily want to be provocative, I don’t want to start a debate or make people feel really uncomfortable in my work because I also want my work to be something that you would want to live with in your home,’ she says. She hopes ‘that you appreciate its mastery, that you get a sense of the process, that you appreciate the amount of time that’s been put into it, and the love and exploration.’
Fleur’s mastery is evident in the details and expressions of these wonderful little animals. Closer inspection reveals textures that come from years of working on her craft and hours of research. She is generous in sharing how she creates the tiniest details and passionate about encouraging children to explore and create with their own hands. Demonstrating how to create a feather by pushing clay into the grain of a cuttlefish that has been cut and wiped back, she demystifies her work.
‘When a child sees this for the first time, it’s almost overwhelming. They look at it as being something so finished, very final, very static, super precious, almost untouchable,’ she says. ‘And then, if you just spend ten minutes with them saying, “it started as this really humble soft piece of clay and then I pushed the black clay into the cuttlefish and I peeled it back…”, all of a sudden it becomes really accessible and then it becomes a friend. It’s not scary anymore.’
Having developed her skill with clay over decades, Fleur now finds she spends more time researching and being acutely aware of her surroundings so that she can bring those observations into her work. At this stage of her career, she is confident in her understanding of the process and materials she uses, and enjoys turning her research into something less literal and more magical, with her artistic voice encapsulated in it.
‘I’m less worried now about how do I make this thing. I already know that, that’s the easy part now. For me it’s about, ok, if you can make anything now, how do you make something that resonates with somebody? That’s what I want to do now.’
Features such as the lifelike feathers of the Carnaby cockatoo and the texture of the platypus’ bill come from Fleur’s continued investigations. She pushes the boundaries of detail, simultaneously showing her incredible skill and making the pieces more interesting. She says this is a ‘win-win’ for everyone.
‘I have discovered that the longer people look at my work, the more chance they’re going to fall in love with it, and then if they fall in love with it, they might even take it home.’
See Fleur Schell’s porcelain Australian homeless endangered wildlife creations at Fine Art@Hale’s 30th Anniversary exhibition from 22-24 July 2022.