Failure and alchemy

Updated: Oct 15

Andrea du Chatenier is a ceramicist, a sculptor and a teacher. She was the Tylee Cottage Artist in Residence in 2004, was recognised in the Portage Ceramic Awards in both 2017 and 2018, and won the Wallace Arts Trust Vermont Award in 2018. Andrea is currently exhibiting at the Sarjeant Gallery in her home town of Whanganui.

Here she talks about inspirations, her love affair with clay, and art as a tool for helping us live a meaningful life.



Describe your creative process.

Clay requires a certain amount of knowledge to make it work for you. I feel like a clay imposter. Although my father made ceramics, and I had some basic understanding of the material, all my technical know-how comes from books, YouTube videos, and tireless experimentation. It’s the what-if factor that keeps me engaged and constantly testing. Artists such as Grayson Perry like to have total control of the medium; I embrace the kiln Gods: failure and alchemy. It’s the unexpected that really gets me excited. As I’ve worked, I’ve gradually built up a personalised vocabulary of techniques and approaches that I return to.


What materials are integral in your work?

Responding to materials was always an important part of my work as a sculptor, but it was only when I started working in clay about six years ago that I really understood the concept of materiality. Clay, like paint, offers an almost infinite range of possibilities. Each clay type requires a different response and has its own peculiarities which you discover as you work. Each clay type has its own histories which can be explored or ignored. It’s a material that can be found in the back yard or can be refined with additives to create uniquely specialised clay bodies. I use both – sometimes a raw, local clay, and sometimes a refined porcelain. I have a love affair with clay.



How do you measure success?

I measure the success of a work on its surprise factor when it comes out of the kiln. I look at my process as being an alchemic collaboration with clay and minerals – a type of magic geology. Sometimes I like to take control and am tickled pink when the work comes out exactly as planned, but that’s a rarity. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev made the comment that all good art should have a degree of synesthesia or a perceptual “mucking with the senses.” The ultimate level of success is when the viewer isn’t happy just to look at the work, but reaches out and licks it.


What role does the artist have in society?

I thank God we live in the age of pluralism where art is as diverse as its function – it can inspire us to think, to feel, to produce, to be calm, to be agitated, to be wondrous, or to be satisfied. At best, art is a tool for helping us live a meaningful life. The role of the artist on the other hand, is to make work which provides them with the greatest satisfaction.



Who are your biggest influences?

The art critic James Elkins described the influences of an artist as a galaxy: there may be an infinite amount, but at any one time some stars shine brighter than others. As an art lecturer, I am constantly looking at and appreciating new work. There are some constants; For a short time, I was an assistant to Lynda Benglis and I loved the immediacy with which she worked and manipulated materials. I also appreciated her painterly approach to sculptural materials. I still marvel that she has been working for the last 60 years and her work still feels fresh. There’s also the writer, Donna Haraway. Since I was at art school, I have enjoyed how her writing advocates for radically new and subversive ways of reconsidering the world. I love the work of innovative fashion designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margiela. There is a vast range of ceramicists I love, but the color and texture of Ron Nagle’s work makes my heart sing.


Teach us something we might not already know.

The Pacific Octopus has nine brains: A central brain controls the nervous system, plus a small brain in each of their eight arms — a cluster of nerve cells that biologists say controls movement. If this gene were to be spliced onto our human DNA, imagine what life would be like with a brain in each of our hands and feet. This is a tid-bit from Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene via Tessa Laird. Thank you, Tessa.


You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?

If I was to be a crayon colour, I would be yellow. I might be mustard or lemon or chrome or buttercup – but I would be yellow. It is a polarizing colour – loud in its vibrancy and often avoided; it’s the colour of fatty foods and garish signage. I have no idea why I hold it dear.



Andrea’s exhibition Eigenleben is at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui until 8 November.



Images courtesy of the artist

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation shot Moonage Daydream Ceramic works Pah Homestead 2019 Photo: Sam Hartnett

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation shot Moonage Daydream Ceramic works Pah Homestead 2019 Photo: Sam Hartnett

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation shot Moonage Daydream Pah Ceramic works Homestead 2019 Photo: Sam Hartnett

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation image Eigenben. Ceramic Works. Sarjeant Gallery 2020 Photo: Michael McKeagg

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation image Eigenben. Ceramic Works. Sarjeant Gallery 2020 Photo: Michael McKeagg

Andrea du Chatenier. Installation image Eigenben. Ceramic Works. Sarjeant Gallery 2020 Photo: Michael McKeagg

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