Melbourne's Mosaic Landscape: An Interview With Deborah Halpern

Angel at night – Birrurung Marr, Melbourne, Australia | Courtesy Patricia Bosa from Image Group International
Angel at night – Birrurung Marr, Melbourne, Australia | Courtesy Patricia Bosa from Image Group International
Photo of Monique La Terra
21 March 2018

Culture Trip Melbourne spoke with local sculptor and ceramics artist Deborah Halpern on the evolution of her career, her influences and the ways in which her artwork, particularly Angel and Ophelia, have become permanent fixtures in Melbourne’s mosaic landscape. Deborah also revealed to us her current projects.

What drew you to ceramics?

My parents, Sylvia and Arthur, were both potters; my uncle, Stanislav, was a painter and potter, and many of the people in our community were also potters. I loved the work of Arthur Boyd and John Perceval, as well as the amazing ceramic works of Picasso. I love the physicality of clay, and the drama of firing the work in the kiln, and the anticipation and excitement when you open the door of the kiln to see what you have created. I grew up in Warrandyte and had a very free and relaxed young life. Swimming in the Yarra River, building huts in the bush, roaming around the hills and valleys. Digging clay with my mother in a disused quarry and then using that clay from the earth to make things that would last forever – amazing!

Deborah in her workshop Courtesy Patricia Bosa from Image Group International

Can you tell us what influences your work?

I want my work to bring joy, surprise and delight to people and to express who I am. I want it to be whimsical and mischievous, drawing from all aspects of life – the natural world, the media, the built environment, poetry and music.

Are there any artists who you are particularly inspired by?

I am inspired by Picasso – for his mind-blowing creativity across the board. Wherever he put attention, he forged new thinking for the rest of us to follow.

Niki de Saint Phalle – for leaving the established life laid out in front of her and for following her creative heart. Her sculptures, drawings, performance pieces, and Tarot Garden environment are an inspiration, especially about how to live your life with integrity and passion.

Alexander Calder – His creations from wire are unique and full of wonder that takes one to extraordinary creative places. His mobiles are powerful and elegant. Masterpieces of design, engineering and art.

Arthur Boyd – He lived a life as a painter and a potter, full of love, dedication and making the most wonderful, whimsical and political paintings and sculptures. A gift to the world.

Reg Mombassa, aka Chris O’Doherty – I first encountered the work of Reg Mombassa via the Mambo brand. Bold and irreverent, and transforming the humble t-shirt. Then I fell in love with Chris’ paintings and pastel drawings, and the massive work he did for the Sydney Olympics. A first-class larrikin.

Take our readers through the process of creating one of your sculptures.

I can start in different ways. I may make a series of models, playing with form to see which one works best. I may make copious drawings to move through a whole lot of ideas relatively quickly to find the best solution. I may make largish shapes out of expanded mesh, fibreglass them, and see what works or doesn’t. If the work is large, my engineer/fabricator works with me to find the most elegant solution to enable us to make a work on a larger scale. The armature created by my engineer needs to be strong and also needs to be practical. Fixing points at the base are taken into consideration as well as lifting points at the head. I then clad the armature with expanded mesh, apply fibreglass, and then treat the surface with ceramic tiles or glass tiles. This is then grouted and sealed.

Portal to Another Time and Place at Werribee Mansion, Melbourne, Australia | Courtesy Patricia Bosa from Image Group International

Where do you source your colourful mosaic tiles from?

The ceramic tiles are found in any shop that sells tiles. I use whole tiles and then cut them into strips ready to be cut into whatever shape I need. The same process is carried out with the glass which I now use.

How do you think your work has evolved over the years?

As a teenager, I was a writer, which morphed into ceramics with poems written on them, which became funky sculptures, which became whimsical, monumental public sculptures. Interspersed with that, I have made bronze works; made prints – etchings and screenprints; made paintings; worked with glass and made welded steel sculptures. When I was at the beginning of this creative journey, I was more interested in what I could do as an individual. Now I am interested in creating to contribute something for people, for the community, for the planet. To create something that will uplift, enliven, inspire.

Angel and Ophelia are a part of the Melbourne landscape. How did those two sculptures come about?

In 1986, I was travelling in Europe on a Study Grant, looking for Outsider Artists and art. A letter found me from the National Gallery of Victoria, offering me the opportunity to make a sculpture for the moat of the Gallery. I was so surprised I nearly said no! However, after some reflection, I saw that I was prepared to give myself 100 percent to the project and create a work for all people – not just those who visited the Gallery or who had an interest in art. I set about to design and to create a work that would inspire, delight, surprise in many and varied ways. The work took three years to make. I learnt about engineering, fund-raising, team building, making requests, and being unstoppable. The making of Angel opened up my life. I saw that anything is possible. I just had to open my arms and my mind and welcome it in and take it on.

Ophelia came about when the Southgate development was commenced. A group of artists were asked to submit ideas for the new precinct. I submitted Ophelia for one position, but she was chosen for the position near the riverside entrance to the building. She was used as The Face of Melbourne for several years which made me very proud and happy. More recently, she has been moved onto the main promenade in front of the building where she is more with the people.

Both Angel and Ophelia are well-loved by the people of Melbourne and also enjoyed by visitors to Melbourne. I am very happy that they contribute to people’s experience of Melbourne.

Ophelia at Southbank, Melbourne, Australia | Courtesy Patricia Bosa from Image Group International

What are you currently working on, and what’s next for Deborah Halpern?

I am currently engaged in a life transformation! The world is changing dramatically, and together with my business partner, Jon Michail, we have embraced new technology and transforming how we do things.

– Designing and creating a sculptural apartment block.

– Creating an immersive installation – using stone, steel, found wood – large-scale paintings.

– Glass – large fused panels for architectural applications; and working with glassblowers to create hanging sculptures that incorporate the elements of light and air.

– Screen-printing on fabric to create wonderful unique bolts of fabric, like artworks for living.

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