Janet Fieldhouse: Charmed, I’m Sure

Janet Fieldhouse’s ceramic works seek to fulfil the functional and spiritual needs of the peoples of the Torres Straits.

Words: Tina Baum

In the Zenadth Kes/Torres Strait Islands, cultural charms had many traditional uses, most were very personal and made for ceremony or religious use. Sculptured garden charms were one type popularly carved out of wood in the shape of male human figures in profile. Painted with bright natural pigments, they were used to encourage good plant growth when lodged nearby. Other smaller individual charms were made to ward off and repel evil spirits or for love to draw in affections.

For Kalaw Lagaw Ya/Meriam Mir artist Janet Fieldhouse, her new ceramic full bodied, genderless charms are made only for good and positivity.

As a woman of clay, Fieldhouse’s cultural knowledge, connection and representation in her earthly works are deeply personal and strongly connected to her identity. Her masterful use and combination of buff raku and cool ice ceramics, blended with different firing techniques and adornment, position her works uniquely as her own. Since 2020 she has been exploring a different human charm form with some early versions shown in the long water: fibre stories exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane and the RITUAL: the past in the present exhibition at Cairns Art Gallery, Cairns in 2021.

The title of her exhibition Never The Same at Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne alluded to the individualism of the new charm works she created for it. In this showing she improved the form again and added feathers to her woven headdress or skirt adornments, thereby culturally rendering her contemporary forms. “My work is an expression of my Torres Strait Islander heritage: the material culture, rituals of social and religious life, and artefacts which are created to fulfil the functional and spiritual needs of the peoples of the Torres Straits,” says the artist.

Early in her practice, abstract form and balance focusing on baskets, bowls, scarification and pendants were key to her creations. Since then, she has continued to explore, experiment, and refine different representations of these works. In her latest ceramic charm explorations, she has been working with a paired back, more minimalist but fuller-bodied human body shape. For these she again physically and conceptually pushed and pulled the new figures, completing them with culturally inspired but newly imagined woven basket and chest pendant adornments. Accompanying them in the show are other dark baskets with white woven handles and additionally some paler coloured, felt embellished, engraved flat tile wall hangings that look at the environment, the landscape, mangroves, and trees. These new tile wall hangings are a return to her early lino carving days.

From the beginning, the body and head shapes of her figures along with bespoke adornment of feathers and weavings have provided Fieldhouse with innumerable possible charms configurations, each individualised and unique. These personable and endearing charms honour their cultural intent through exceptional contemporary representations. These new works elevate her cultural knowledge and connection, reinforce her identity and re-imagine traditional practice.

Collectively, these goodwill charms, traditional basketry forms and contemporary tile storyboards showcase the richness of Fieldhouse’s masterly ceramic practice.

Image: Janet Fieldhouse, Little sister charm, 2023. Buff raku tranchyte, Cool Ice, Raffia and wire, 48 x 51 x 30cm. Courtesy: the artist and Vivien Anderson Gallery, Melbourne.

This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 105, July-September 2023. 

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