Article by Penny Smith
Article reprinted with kind permission of Ceramics, Art & Perception.
My first encounter with the work of Roseline Delisle was at the Frank Lloyd Gallery in the Bergamot Station complex in Santa Monica, LA, where she was one of the artists in a show entitled Contemporary Ceramics: Nine Artists, held in June, 2000.
Delisle’s work immediately impressed me with its sense of stylised colour and dizzy movement; its balance and precision; the obvious skills with which she executes her work; her sense of proportion and scale; her meticulous attention to detail and her neat problem-solving solutions concerning minimising the real risk of the next ‘big’ earthquake shaker to her pots.
Born in Rimouski, Québec, in Canada, Delisle came from a creative and art nurturing family environment, with a mother who worked in clay as a hobby, and a father who sculpted wood part-time. One of Delisle’s earliest memories was of the sound of her father’s rhythmic chipping and watching the fine shavings curling from his chisels. This she often recalls at her wheel in her own work rhythms as she concentrates on the fine clay curls that she turns from her finely-honed pieces.
Influenced by an older brother with an interest in science, Delisle originally thought her future lay in the fields of physics and chemistry, but a visit to the nearby art school saw her enrolling at the Institute of the Applied Arts, Montréal, in 1969. In this old style art school with a strict curriculum of technical learning, her 40 hours of study a week included a wide range of classes that encouraged the broad use of materials and techniques. However, it was towards the ceramics studio that she ultimately gravitated.
Once established at her wheel, she started to explore the precise thrown forms that have become her trademark, at that time in a coarse stoneware, the colour and consistency of which thwarted her desire for the finesse that even then she was seeking to achieve. For Delisle to attempt to throw finely with a coarse stoneware on a kick wheel says something for the tenacity and wilfulness of this artist in her pursuit of perfection, and it wasn’t until a friend introduced her to the seductive stuff of porcelain that she started to make progress.
After graduating from college in 1973, Delisle travelled to the Gaspé Peninsula for an apprenticeship with ceramist, Enid LeGros. In Cree Indian, Gaspé means ‘edge of the world’ which is exactly where Delisle felt she was. In her early 20s, she was living and working in a cabin in relative isolation, making finely-thrown and striped porcelain bowls which she was selling for meagre profit in Montréal.
She eventually found the isolation and the Québecois winters too hard to take, and was persuaded by friends to go south and join them in their studio. Making delicately banded and scratched work and selling them at small local fairs, she says that these were still her ‘granola days’. Not profiting enough from her labours, living frugally, with no electricity and no running water, she left the studio in 1977, in debt. She joined a group of men friends who were on their way to Alberta to work as lumberjacks, not knowing what to expect but desperate enough to try anything to regain solvency.
Delisle learnt how to use a chainsaw, lumber jacking with her male fellows. As French Canadians – Delisle spoke no English at this time – the group was given one of the toughest assignments with the most basic of camps. However, Delisle’s childhood experience of family summer house building with her father, saw her shouldering her chainsaw with the best of them and, despite her slight frame, she endured sub-zero temperatures to make enough, in a matter of months, to repay her debts and enable her to move on.
Yearning for warmer climes, Delisle then decided to travel south, arriving in California in 1978. At this time, she set up her first studio in Venice, where she established her reputation by having a number of small studio sales, and catching the eye of such gallery directors as Garth Clark. She now lives and works in her current studio in Santa Monica, with husband, the painter, Bruce Cohen, and their seven year old daughter, Lili.
Both technical and formal concerns have informed and continue to inform Delisle’s work. Her signature forms have evolved slowly over many years as a natural process of working in components on the wheel. Gaining in confidence and skill, she gradually developed her techniques; inverting and stacking together pieces as a natural way to achieve larger scale, and increasing their precariousness by introducing impossible bases. As in her earlier work, decoration still comprises banding coloured slips (with a little added gum to harden the colours during handling in kiln packing) on to the burnished leather-hard pots while they revolve quickly on the wheel. This she does by eye with pinpoint accuracy and a steady hand, to achieve the calculated negative spaces between the coloured stripes. The fired pots are then polished to a fine sheen then coated with a light mixture of turpentine and melted bees wax. The turpentine, when it evaporates, leaves behind a fine film of wax that protects the finished piece.
For many years, since her college days, her vocabulary of form and colour has been coaxed patiently from her chosen medium of porcelain. The nature of the medium itself was such that Delisle was so seduced by its sensuality during the making process that she lived with the frustrations of the deformities that resulted from the ensuing high temperature firings. For 25 years she continued the struggle trying to make her forms defy high temperature kiln gravity, claiming her stubbornness was due to her endurance of past Canadian winters. When scale started to become a major philosophical issue, Delisle reluctantly decided to give up the battle with the material that she loved and moved to earthenware in order that her work could move forwards.
In the exhibition Colour and Fire: Defining Moments in Studio Ceramics, 1950–2000 at the Los Angeles County Museum and Art, Peter Voulkos states a similar love affair with clay that Delisle feels; that of having to “feel it in my fingers. Then it gets into my body, and the invisible becomes visible – sound, movement, colour, pattern. All these things are coming from my fingertips like a dancer, I’ve got to be moving, everything comes out of movement.” However, it is Delisle’s latest forms, her larger scale works (also included in the same show) that really start to become ‘like a dancer’.
An illustration of Delisle’s transition into movement can be seen in the works that represent her in the Colour and Fire show; two earlier pieces, Quadruple 3 (1990), made in porcelain, and 8=1 (1997), made in earthenware, illustrate her development in recent times. Looking closely at Quadruple 3, one can’t help noticing the tiny spiral at the top of its blue, black and white striped lid section, a reminder of the ‘memory’ that the porcelain had of its throwing; a tiny, defiant ‘unravelling’ of the form during firing. Minute as this is, the larger frustrations that this represents in her efforts to manage her materials and firing procedures in her pursuit for ever more daring dancing forms, one can understand the switch to earthenware. Just such an example stands nearby; 8=1 is more than a metre high on its plinth, the solid black of its body shimmering dully and in stark contrast to the immaculate lines of white strips on its plate-like top. As one moves around the piece, the stripes appear to revolve slightly in the opposite direction in one’s peripheral vision – a disturbing and intriguing sensation; as unnerving as a Bridget Riley painting, but a sensation that Delisle would delight in causing.
Having also just seen in the same day an exhibition of the work of Charles and Ray Eames where, among the universal classics of pre-formed plywood furniture, was a gem of a film called Tops. One of the many films made by the pair, Tops featured children (and grown ups) spinning an enormous variety of different coloured and shaped tops that they had collected from around the world, to demonstrate to students the physics of rotational movement. Seeing these whirling striped forms, and experiencing the disturbance to my equilibrium with Delisle’s 8=1, it is hardly surprising that Kristine McKenna should describe Delisle’s work as “evocative of stylised harlequin figures that threaten to morph into spinning tops”. 1
A particularly appropriate description, given the pivotal moment Delisle’s future directions took after seeing Oskar Schlemmer’s reproduction of the 1922 Triadic Ballet in 1979 at the University of California at Los Angeles, (UCLA Royce Hall). Schlemmer, one of the many young artists that Walter Gropius employed in the early days of the Bauhaus, taught drawing and became director of the Bauhaus stage in Dessau in 1925. The Triadic Ballet was a major choreographic work that Schlemmer developed, describing it as a “triadic (from triad – three) because of the three dancers and the three parts of its symphonic architectonic composition: the fusion of the dance, the costumes and the music. The special characteristics of the ballet are the costumes which are of a coloured, three- dimensional design, the human figure which is an environment of basic mathematical shapes, and the corresponding movements of that figure in space.” 2 Schlemmer’s fellow colleague at the Bauhaus, Wassily Kandinsky, also worked on commissions for the theatre. In Kandinsky’s set designs for Mussorgsky’s music, Pictures at an Exhibition, the inspiration for the figurines in his drawings came from a similarly mathematical abstraction of the figure, so obvious these days in Delisle’s work.
The simple boldness of the Kandinsky’s drawings have a similar dynamic energy to the drawings pinned up in Delisle’s studio. Her designs, too, are initially mapped out mathematically, cut and dissected geometric shapes that are reassembled into strong graphic profiles. These initial drawings she uses as guides to work out the actual size and shape of the pieces she is to throw, to calculate how the piece will finally go together. Later, as a relief to the strictness required of her making techniques, and as a prelude to the exacting task of decorating, she will return to the drawings, re-rendering them in energetic expressions of rapid marks that make them start to shimmer and move.
As illustrated by the small sketches of Kandinksky’s figures, the sense of monumentality has little to do with scale. As examples, witness the jewellery of Wendy Ramshaw, with her fine turned finger rings in metal and perspex, striped, stacked, spiked and coned on their personal stands; or the polyester pleated, hooped Tokyo Vogu frock of Issey Miyake, or a Brancusi sculpture or Skytower, the central focus to Sydney’s cityscape. Monumentality has more to do with understanding the relationships between form and space.
Conscious of these as influences on her work, Delisle has achieved the extremities of form she has demanded of some of her later works with their increase in scale, by cunning methods of construction, matched only with her skills to carry them out. For example, the narrow waists with flaring skirts; the bulbous ‘hips’ and ‘shoulders’ and the tiny bases of her pots are all thrown in sections. All are scrupulously manufactured to superfine tolerances, often decorated inside and underneath as well as on their outer surfaces. Delisle now assembles her forms both at leather-hard and at post firing stage, as opposed to letting the porcelain parts fuse together at high temperature. Her damp cupboard is a morgue to the spare body parts she has left over from previous work sessions, these she ‘brings out to play’ with the new parts, using them as an extension of her drawing process.
So precise are her skills at assembling these new totemic works, that it is difficult to see where each join occurs. She makes no secret of the fact that they are in sections, each piece is often named after the number of parts from which they are made. Octet 2, for example, or Septet 1. Each individual part of the piece is then threaded on metal rods that feed right through the centre of each section, finally being secured at the base into their own personalised wooden pedestals that are weighted with sand. This acts as her earthquake security system.
Since the arrival of Lili to the family, Delisle has come to recognise that her explorations of scale have become even more connected to the figure, but within a family group. She has taken to choreographing her work together in a conscious array of form, size, shape and colour.
She is starting to explore more fully the inter-relationship of these forms to each other within space; to the dynamic gaps that now occur between each form as the stridency of their decoration and the crispness of their shapes creates an even greater sense of discourse. She cites Frank Gehry’s Dancing House or (‘Fred and Ginger’) in Prague as a good example of how humanistic architectural structures can actually ‘talk to each other’; how in this building, Gehry has successfully combined the old with the radically new in an attempt to launch old social structures into a brave new millennium.
On her studio walls, there are two drawings of significance. One is by Lili, a faithful rendering of one of her mother’s works, but Lili’s has a softer, more fluid profile; the other is by Delisle herself, of a top heavy, asymmetrical, full-bodied ellipse, topping an elegant tapering base. Delisle’s possible future directions then, could best be described through Lili’s recent observations of passing a pregnant woman in the street. As the young woman’s well rounded belly in her body-hugging dress came into profile, Lili announced that here was another of her mother’s pots. A startling revelation into the asymmetry of the human figure that Delisle says she is not quite ready to explore. In the meantime, Delisle’s repertoire is full with her current concerns and her immediate future looks busy.