Petal power

WORDS & PHOTOS Lisa Johnston

A project by KwaZulu-Natal based ceramic artist Astrid Dahl has seen her intricate botanical pieces super-sized into large-scale water features that, despite their scale, manage to retain the delicacy of a spring blossom.

Astrid Dahl’s curvaceous, botanical designs have the ethereal presence of plant skeletons picked clean by insects and bleached white by the sun. As I heft one of her ceramics from its place among a row of works to position it for a photograph, it strikes me how the dead weight of the object is in complete opposition to its delicate appearance.

The artist’s “ever evolving journey with clay” was sparked in the late 1990s when she was first shown the black-and-white photographs of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932). Since then Atrid has drawn inspiration from her garden and the forms she observes in plants, flowers and seedpods. Her choice of material creates a “canvas for light and dark to ‘shape’ the piece, capturing the presence of the flora that inspired it”. When placed in the natural light of her Nottingham Road studio window it immediately becomes clear how Astrid’s use of white clay enhances the interplay between positive and negative space. The dynamism of this is enriched as the light changes, highlighting certain areas and casting others into shadow.

The approach of her work is as organic as its outcome – as perfect or unpredictable as nature itself. What starts as a drawing evolves into blockish structures far removed from what is shaped and melded into the final product. Not even Dahl knows how things are going to turn out as the process decides the direction the work will take.

“You see this here,” she says, pointing to the segment of a piece she is working on, “I’m hoping this will become the petal, but I have no idea where it’s going. It’s fun but it’s also nerve wracking because it’s not just my input. What the clay is doing has an important part to play.” 

As such her work is constantly developing and growing as it seeks to transcend the nebulous line from reproduced design into one-off sculptures that are more offbeat and exclusive. A recent development sees Astrid moving into the arena of exterior design.  As part of a relationship with the Southern Guild, Astrid this year collaborated with Bruce Knight of SCS (Sculpture Casting Services) to create two out of an edition of five large-scale water features.

“The intention is to incorporate water in large-scale versions of my design. The idea is that the water is held by and released by the petals,” she says. Her hope is to see more feminine work and softer lines feature in the predominantly masculine oriented world of architecture

The first of these pieces was installed for the launch of the Woodstock Foundry in Cape Town and sold three days later. It now takes pride of place in a holiday home on the Thames in England. The second is positioned at the entrance to the Everard Read in Rosebank, Johannesburg. The fountain, as well as a number of Astrid’s smaller works, formed part of the Southern Guild exhibition.

It’s exciting to make big pieces,” she says, “There’s not all that much abstract sculpture that is softer and more feminine visible in our architectural environment.”