A Safari for the Soul Ardmore Ceramic Art

By Louise Irvine

Join us on A Safari for the Soul to experience the wild and wonderful world of Ardmore Ceramic Art. Imagine yourself as an intrepid explorer traveling through the magnificent mountains and grassy savannas of South Africa to visit the Ardmore community of ceramic artists. Our destination is KwaZulu-Natal, which means “children of heaven” in the Zulu language. Be inspired by the Ardmore works of art and the words of wisdom from Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, who famously said “I am the captain of my soul.”

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

-Nelson Mandela

The Ardmore studio was founded in 1985 by Fée Halsted, a young graduate ceramicist who started teaching local people how to sculpt and paint on pottery. Awards and accolades in the early years led to the expansion of her enterprise and an international market for the studio’s ceramic art, which pulsates with vitality and originality. There are now more than 80 artists earning a living through their work at Ardmore. They are known by their Zulu neighbors as the Isigweli, the fortunate ones.

“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

-Nelson Mandela

Each Ardmore piece is unique, a one-of-a-kind work of art which typically involves a thrower, a sculptor, and a painter. The studio is full of talented men and women who create dynamic and diverse imagery, ranging from lyrical foliate forms inspired by Africa’s flora and fauna to intricate patterns reminiscent of Zulu beadwork and basket weaving. Over the years, sons and daughters have joined their mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles at Ardmore to create new family traditions in this remote region of South Africa. They collaborate in the spirit of Ubuntu, meaning we are because of others.

“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do."

-Nelson Mandela

Not only has the Ardmore community been uplifted socially and economically by their ceramic art, the natural exuberance of the artists lifts the spirits of everyone who encounters their fanciful animal creations. Their whimsical sense of humor is contagious and invariably inspires joy and happiness in audiences around the world. The scope and imagination of Fée and the artists know no bounds now that their ceramic designs are being interpreted for silk wearable art by Hermès, wallpapers by Cole & Son, and fabulous fabrics for table linens and scatter cushions.

“It always seems impossible, until it is done.”

-Nelson Mandela

The Ardmore Studio helps create awareness of the plight of endangered animals in Africa and the need to protect the environment. Their initiatives to address issues such as ivory poaching, illegal hunting and trafficking are represented in sensitive studies of rhinos, elephants, leopards, and pangolins. One of Ardmore’s most magnificent sculptures symbolizes sustainability and portrays Nelson Mandela on the summit. Abundance was produced for the 2011 Climate Change Conference in Durban and now has pride of place at WMODA thanks to Arthur Wiener. Arthur has been collecting Ardmore avidly for over ten years and he is glad that his purchases help support vulnerable communities in South Africa.

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

-Nelson Mandela

The Ardmore artists have experienced many setbacks during their journey, including the devastation of their community by HIV-Aids. Many of the founding artists died, including Bonnie Ntshalintshali who “used clay as a gateway to her soul.” Thankfully, Fée was able to help others return to health by providing medication and better nutrition to battle the virus. Now the Ardmore artists face a new pandemic with the onset of COVID-19 but during lockdown, they have persevered with their art. Despite challenging quarantine conditions, they continue to make impressive masterworks as well as fun pieces that make us smile in adversity.

"A winner is a dreamer who never gives up."

-Nelson Mandela

One of the most impressive masterworks is Somandla Ntshalintshali’s symbolic vessel, created with Fée's creative guidance, which is currently on exhibition in South Africa. The crocodile at the base represents ancient spirits and evolves into a pangolin, symbolizing sanctuary. The secretary bird emerges victorious over perilous times holding in its talons snakes and a bat which represent the COVID-19 virus.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

-Nelson Mandela