WINTERTON, South Africa -- In the hands of Bonnie Ntshalintshali the clay takes on a strikingly African beauty, to be painted in vibrant African colors.
It might be a complicated ceramic collage of a traditional Zulu wedding, a sculpture of Daniel in the lion's den, a decorated teapot, or a brightly plumed bird, all done with childlike simplicity but with an artistic touch.
These are the trademarks of Ardmore Ceramic Studio, where Zulu potters and painters such as Ntshalintshali are attracting national and international attention with an eclectic collection of free-form art.
Their work can be inspired as easily by the Bible as the jungle, by ancient myth or modernity. It speaks to both the old and the new South Africa, to African traditions and Western influences.
It also testifies to the ability of the races to work together in a country where they were recently officially segregated.
The artists who work here are from the Champagne Valley, where, ironically, there is no tradition of using clay although Zulu women elsewhere are renowned potters.
Mostly single mothers and uneducated, they faced the prospect of being unemployed or doing menial jobs. Their lives changed when a white graduate in fine arts from Zimbabwe arrived here after being laid off from a college lecturing job in nearby Durban.
Fee Halsted came to this remote but beautiful corner of KwaZulu/Natal province to join her fiance, James Berning, now her husband, on his farm, known as Ardmore, in the shadow of the Drakensberg mountains.
Anxious to maintain her art work and missing teaching, Halsted-Berning began introducing her maid's daughter, Bonnie, a victim of polio at the age of 6, to the magic of clay in 1985.
Politically, it was the height of the apartheid era, but culturally the art world here was in ferment, testing the cross-fertilization of African and Western ideas and identities years ahead of political racial reconciliation.
The young Zulu woman's talent and creativity quickly emerged, and within six months her work was on display in an art gallery in Durban, and she and Halsted-Berning won their first major national award.
On her way home from one arts festival in 1990, Halsted-Berning's mother said to her: "You should actually turn this into something to help the people earn some money, to create jobs for them."
So the studio opened, deep in the heart of a right-wing Afrikans farming community, where the blacks worked in the fields or in the farmstead.
"For the first time they started working with someone who didn't look down on them," she said. "I am not about any of that. I am just about people and encouragement, and I said, 'That's wonderful.' It's creativity breeding creativity."
Now, 40 potters and painters work in the old stone-walled stables, coiling or throwing pots, sculpting figurines and animals, gluing and painting, creating pieces of fantasy and function.
Ntshalintshali, 33, is the lead artist. Her works grace every major public art collection in this country and many private collections. They have been shown overseas, including in the United States.
Ntshalintshali is paid, like all the artists, on commission. Her pieces are snapped up by collectors as soon as they are finished. They range in price from $25 to several thousand dollars. Like many of the other women, she is a single mother.
Born on Ardmore, the daughter of a farm worker, her earnings have enabled her to give her family all the comforts of modern life in an area where enduring hardship is the tradition. She does not want to get married, fearing that any man would be more interested in her money than her.
"I am feeling so very happy," she says shyly in halting English. "I started with nothing. There was no work. Sometimes we would pick mealies [corn]. That's all there was. But now it's getting better all the time."
Because the kiln at Ardmore was small, Halsted-Berning and Ntshalintshali worked on pieces that could be baked separately and then glued together, establishing one of the styles of Ardmore -- the ceramic collage.
Her works include a stage-like setting of the Last Supper with two bottles of the local Castle beer humorously laid on the dining table and a group assembly of the wedding showing a Zulu bride in Western-style white dress and the groom in black tie.
In a contrasting work, she produced Traditional Zulu Wedding, a colorful depiction of a bare-breasted bride and bare-chested groom surrounded by the wedding party in tribal dress.
In 1996, Halsted-Berning left the farm at Ardmore with her husband to take over his parents' dairy farm at Springvale, an hour's drive away. "I decided it was time that they learned to be more self-sufficient," she says.
She took three of the artists with her to start a sister studio. But she returns regularly to Ardmore, now managed by Mbuse Moses Nqubuka, a former gasoline station attendant. He oversees production, values the pieces, and keeps the books.
"It's an incredible thing," he says in perfect self-taught English. "Fee has given a lot to the people. They now have a chance of a better life.
"Most of the women are battling for child support from their men. The men go to Johannesburg and work there. They get married to someone else, and they don't care about their families here. It's a problem.
"This has been like a thing coming from God for them. I am sure they are very happy."
How does he value the pieces?
"I am looking at how the piece has been made, how it has been painted," he explains. "What is the good quality about it, and what is the bad quality. Then I would just imagine how much would you pay for such a lovely piece.
"Also you have to think whoever buys it, buys it for life."
When Halsted-Berning visits, she critiques the work and challenges the artists.
"Why are you doing a small bowl?" she chides one potter. "I want a big one." Her arms curve out in front of her to make the largest circle possible. "A big one," she repeats.
"This is boring," she says of a plate with two birds on the rim, suggesting it should have more embellishment. She praises a strange but hypnotic sculpture of a bust set in a plinth from which protrude what look like wheat sheaths. It is so beautiful, she says, it should not be painted but baked plain white. It resembles a headstone, and she strengthens the impression by suggesting putting a date on it.
She runs the studio like an art school. "Suddenly I will bring in a beetle book and have a month when we will work with beetles," she says. "Then I will change the [color] palette, and say, 'Let's do all blue.'
"You have got to keep on building confidence in their style. You don't want everybody doing the same work. It's about a love of beautiful things."
The studio's major work-in-progress is a representation of last century's Anglo-Zulu war, already two years in the making.
"You can't price this," says Halsted-Bering, suggesting it belongs in the Natal Museum.
She is also proud of the fact that a second generation of local potters is starting to work at Ardmore. Among local families the tradition is for the oldest children to go away to school and the youngest to stay home.
Some of these children now come into the studio on weekends to do simple tasks such as painting animal decorated egg cups, a popular commercial line.
"The artist with talent has to make art pieces. But your apprentices make the little commercial pieces," she says. "The studio runs totally on its own. That is an incredible achievement in Africa, where everything is subsidized.
"But I won't grow bigger. I want to keep pushing the art side of things."
Pub Date: 1/22/99