Australian Sculptor Suzie O’Shea – Frocking Religious Stuff

‘Making satisfies my need to be productive and artistic. For me making is an occupation of contentment and achievement. I begin my day with a plan of optimism’*

Suzie O’Shea patiently models ‘frocks out of clay’, ‘hand-building, firing and glazing’ using mud as material to produce an ever-changing eclectic collection of eccentric wonderful ceramic creations, which en masse is an awesome sight to behold. Her Frocking Religious Stuff Exhibition 2012 will be held most appropriately at the Convent Gallery at Daylesford in Victoria opening on November 4 and running until the beginning of January 2013.

Meeting Suzie was a delightful encounter of the ‘unique works of art’ kind, a highlight of a visit to Bendigo. After viewing all Grace Kelly’s amazing frocks on show at the Bendigo Art Gallery The Culture Concept Circle’s Fashion Editor Jo Bayley and I were passing a particularly handsome, sadly neglected building with the heading Penfold Fine Art Gallery on the entablature, when imagine our surprise that in one of its not too clean windows we encountered this remarkable artisan working away ‘on view’. She was moulding a fabulous frock out of clay. We could only just catch a glimpse of some of her truly sensational completed pieces, which were all shapes and sizes and arranged on makeshift shelves behind her. There was also one much larger, virtually life size piece standing on the floor that was quite incredible.

We were both animated and very excited as we attempted to access the premises. Was it a shop? We couldn’t quite work out if it was or how to enter. Then a voice boomed out at us, would you like to visit with me and the old door to the left magically sprang open and through it we both rushed eagerly.

Inside Suzie’s temporary and stylishly arranged Maison we were completely bowled over by the wonderful detail of the pieces she had so lovingly completed. The diversity of styles, the incredible colours of some of the glazes, the vision, insight, innovation and perception that was attached to their conception and creation was indeed remarkable. We did not know which way to look first.

According to Suzie a frock encloses the body much like a building enfolds and articulates space. Her mother had been a dressmaker we discover and clearly Suzie, during her childhood, had developed a special affinity with the fragrance, the tactile quality and various textures of marvellous material stuffs.

Suzie manipulates her mud marvellously to produce her wondrous frocks, throwing them with just the right touch of humour and with a delightful dash of fancy so that they express her joy of life. Suzie we also discover enjoys pushing boundaries and so her next show, like all the others before it, will be sure to create a great deal of comment and conversation.

High on Suzie’s list in regard to inspiration are the fabulous buildings that abound in Bendigo. There are many heritage buildings that have not yet gone down a destructive path of the progress kind. Let’s hope they don’t and that the residents, retailers, council, commerce and government save this amazing town from over development, because it is quite literally a fabulous sleeping beauty.

Founded in 1887 the Bendigo Art Gallery was certainly like something straight off a movie set with its giant dynamic Corinthian columned portico, dentilled pediment, Italianate balustrading, giant pilasters and Roman arched window heads and ‘Mannerist’ characteristics. It is a landmark among the many other amazing buildings along ‘View Street’, built during the boom of the heady Victorian gold rush days.

The other motivational aspect for her work is her experience of being ‘raised in religion’. There was one not too large piece that particularly took my eye in Suzie’s temporary Maison on View Street.

Could it be a ‘Gothic’ style frock with ‘gargoyles’ attached?

Having lived in the precinct of a Gothic Revival Cathedral I am particularly sensitive to the Gothic, and the many manifestations of its style sensibilities.

Suzie carried it over for me to see how cleverly she had used motifs and elements of the historical architectural style to fashion this quirky Gothic arched frock a la mode. Such fun!

Suzie relates some of the frock names she has devised for her pieces for her upcoming Frocking Religious Stuff Exhibition that in times gone by may made many people raise their eyebrows, while some would have seen them as entirely blasphemous, and certainly controversial.

Saint Teresa, Charlie Chalice, Tiffany Tabernacle, Candice Candlelight, De-frocking Shame, Mary Go Round and Cathedree will all have their own particular style.

Wearing her Sunday Best when she was growing up in a ‘catholic’ household might have also had a lot to do with Suzie choosing frocks to fashion, frivolously or otherwise, as would a particularly poignant memory of her mother from when she was a little girl.

She transformed herself it seems with the beautiful gowns she fashioned on her sewing machine so that she could enjoy taking part in competition ballroom dancing. She would have appeared like a fairy princess to her admiring daughter

“My family were all makers” Suzie says “Working with our hands was important”.

Knitting, sewing, arts and crafts were certainly all pastimes women worked on in the 40’s and 50’s and Suzie recalled many happy incidents as she talked to us about her special memories and her own take on life.

This happened when she shut up shop and we ended up enjoying a happy hour in a local bar together, which was in another amazing architectural space of the Victorian Baroque revival kind across the road. Packed with people in the inner sanctum, delightfully an open fire was crackling away on what was a very cold June afternoon.

That surprised me because in NSW where I came from originally and was very active in my interior design career, ‘open fires’ in commercial premises were not allowed. The crackling of wood burning and the radiant heat on our hands brought back fond memories for us all.

Suzie had so many stories to tell and did so delightfully. We both feared we would run out of time to catch our train back to Melbourne, because we were enjoying ourselves enormously…Suzie’s face lights up wonderfully as she relates some of the incidents in her life that led to where she is now…

… ‘we had already come a long way in our thongs. It was hot and I was tired. She piggybacked me. I hardly knew her. I had never been that physically close to someone else other than my Mum. She was going to Art School in Sydney. I didn’t know ‘art school’ was. I didn’t really know where Sydney was either. I showed her my drawings. She said they were good. She gave me the clay. I didn’t need to master it the clay formed itself. As I moved my hands I it transformed into a beautiful female form of a woman, standing with attitude, arms arched back, head turned to the side, poised, beautiful and faceless. Small pieces of clay became her hair, which curled into classical twists. From her handsome chest, to the puffed sleeves and the full-length gown, she was a beautiful creation. I felt like I didn’t make her and that something else was working through my hands’*

She remembers vividly one ‘crepe paper’ frock worn to a fancy dress ball when she was in primary school. A tiny black and white snapshot re-discovered is a reminder of those ‘dress up days’. It’s very much like an Alice dress of the Alice in Wonderland kind, one that reminded me of one of her delicious red and white sculptures on display. When we ask when she began producing sculptures she reminisces

What I do remember is playing alone in the dirt when we lived at Brunswick” Suzie said “I think it was my first memory. I must have been very young and I look back on it as feeling alone, but happy. The liking of isolation is a significant recurrence in the lives of the artists I know”*

Like many other children of her generation Suzie’s parents were young in the ‘depression’ which taught them to value and hoard things that today the rest of us throw away far too easily.

‘Making’ was something that went on in ever home, and children learned that working with their hands was rewarding, fruitful, satisfying, economical and productive.

I came to live in Bendigo primarily to be ‘a Granny’. And to be a ‘Cool Granny’ I decided to enroll in Art School. I wanted to become a successful painter, but painting lessons were on the designated ‘kid-minding day’. And so, I turned to ceramics. When I began working with clay I wanted to make an almost life-sized ‘ballerina costume’ because I had learned ballet as a young girl. I still have my first Ballet Book and I get those same old feelings when I look at it.*

The ‘shopkeepers’ of the city of Bendigo all support Suzie in her efforts as they realize that in her they have someone quite unique and special, their very own ‘artist in residence’.

She offered an outstanding array of white ceramic wedding frocks for sale in 2011 when the extraordinary acclaimed White Wedding Dress Exhibition was being held at the Bendigo Art Gallery in conjunction with the V & A at London.

The retailers of the town got behind Suzie and offered her a multitude of spaces to show off what she called her Baker’s Dozen of Ceramic Bridal Frocks and they were displayed in windows right throughout the Bendigo CBD and at the Bendigo Pottery.

Georgina, was a white strapless bridal number covered all over in flowers that she told me took her ‘three days to make’ and quite wore ‘the skin off her pinkies’.

Suzie is currently exploring colour and other wonderful luminous effects, which is indicative of the whole fashion and design world exploding with colour at the moment, as a reaction to the dark colours that for years have reflected the doom and gloom of a global recession.

If we want to all tread the road to recovery it is all about having, and enjoying an optimistic view of life, which Suzie espouses in abundance.

Suzie said it was hard for her to understand why “my early works were not well received by the University establishment’. The orthodox potters thought my use of ‘flat white’ was unadventurous’ although interestingly ‘the curator of the La Trobe University Museum of Art observed that he preferred my work completely unglazed”. It came down to a matter of personal taste.

Jo and I enjoyed the fact that each frock Suzie modelled had its own special characteristics and particular appeal, which also related to their design and stylish intent. The best thing to do is if you admire Suzie’s creative vision would be to commission her to complete something wonderful.

Clever Suzie O’Shea, she reminded us both of Cinderella because yes, she does need to find her own particular Fairy Godmother or perhaps a Prince Charming, a ‘Fashion’ sponsor who will fund her perfect venue and studio on ‘View Street’ at Bendigo so that she can continue to coerce her metres of mud material into the perfect frock. Then she can perhaps wear it to have a ball or go to one held in her honour.

We certainly left Bendigo that day feeling all the richer for meeting this amazing artist, a lady of the extraordinary kind.

Suzie has achieved her aim of wanting to be a ‘cool’ Granny and we will continue to enjoy following her fashionable and fun exploits of the fabulous frock kind.

Cheers, from Carolyn in Melbourne and Jo in Sydney Suzie. Thank you for creating our lasting impressions and for giving us such a happy memory. We both sincerely hope that your Christmas treat exhibition will be a huge success.

We know that it will be a celebratory frockfest of the ab fab kind, presented with great panache and style, and one that will be sure to generate many more controversial conversations about fashionable frocks made from clay.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

Suzie O’Shea, Sculptor

Exhibition 2012
Frocking Religious Stuff

Convent Gallery,
Corner of Hill and Daly Streets
Daylesford Victoria

Opening November 4 2012

Telephone +61 3 5348 3211
General enquiries [email protected]
Art enquiries
 [email protected]

Nestled on the crest of Wombat Hill Botanical Gardens, over-looking Daylesford, the multi-award winning gallery The Convent boasts expansive views of the countryside and township below.

Open 7 Days 10am – 4pm Admission fee $5.00

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012

All images reproduced with the kind permission of Suzie O’Shea

*Meeting June 2012 and October 2012 Notes: Suzie O’Shea

Email Suzie: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.