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What does ‘Mother’ have to say?

Some of Bidwill’s past ceramics work. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
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When promoting Sophie Bidwill’s latest exhibition online, Featherston gallery owner Campbell Kneale describes her artworks as “staggering displays of ceramic improbabilities” which are “enough to curdle one’s head”.

Bidwill puts it more simply: ceramics is the perfect way to make “weird things” she likes.

The Martinborough-based artist will be showing her latest work at The Miracle Room – the final exhibition at the Fitzherbert Street gallery before it moves to a new space in June.

Bidwill’s exhibition “Mother’s Ruins”, opening Friday evening, promises more “ceramic improbabilities” – including a life-sized, arboreal figure, with multiple arms and black, claw-shaped candles for fingers, and surrounded by a debris field of “random objects”.

Bidwill is best known as co-owner of Thunderpants, renowned for its comfortable and hard-wearing underwear, which she and sister Josie co-founded in 1995.

When not supervising the Thunderpants production line, Bidwill can be found at her home studio – creating, among others, imposing totemic shapes inspired by everything from space exploration to mycorrhizal plant relationships.

Sophie Bidwill – creating “weird things” she likes at her studio in Martinborough. PHOTO/MIKE HEYDON/THIS NZ LIFE

The centrepiece of her upcoming exhibition, dubbed “Mother”, is 1.7m tall and consists of a head, six arms, and three “tree trunk-like pieces” making up the body.

“Mother” is surrounded by her “ruins” – various ceramic vessels, cocoons, crystals, ceremonial circles, and “other bits and bobs”.

The installation is partly inspired by the natural world – though Bidwill is hopeful the audience will come up with their own theories as to “what Mother has to say”.

“I don’t make things that fit into specific categories – ceramic pieces don’t have to be useful, decorative, or have any particular message.

“Ceramics, for me, is a way to quickly make weird and random things that I like. I love the ludicrousness of it.

“Hopefully, people will look at “Mother’s Ruin” and make their own meaning out of it – or at least be entertained!”

Bidwill studied painting at Nelson Polytechnic in the 90s, where she did some pottery classes – but found the more traditional teaching methodologies “didn’t gel”.

“It was pretty old school. I wasn’t interested in making anything that held water, or in the chemistry behind making special ash glazes.”

She has “dabbled” in ceramics since leaving art school – but developed her style further upon setting up her own studio, based at the old Plunket Rooms in Martinborough.

“I saw the place and thought, ‘I could fit a kiln in here.’

“At first, I had the kiln in one bedroom, and my daughter slept in the other. I slept in our truck out the front of the house.”

She has gone on to feature in various exhibitions, showcasing both paintings and ceramics works, and won the 2018 Wellington Potters’ Association Excellence Award for her piece “The Drip”.

She has had two exhibitions at The Miracle Room – the latest featuring installations inspired by marshes and swamp lands.

“There were a lot of references to primeval sludge, earthworms, and things coming out of the depths of the earth.

“At the opening, I ended up having a friend tattoo a small earthworm on my foot – in keeping with the theme.”

The exhibition before that had an intergalactic theme, based on the concept of space and the human consciousness.

“Mother’s Ruins is more forest-like – it’s inspired by trees and their relationship with fungi, and the interconnectedness of nature.

“‘Mother’ is calmer and more centred, but also a little spookier.

“She’s not a mother-nature figure necessarily – I don’t put those labels on my work. It’s up to interpretation.”

Not dissimilar to previous shows at the Miracle Room, “Mother’s Ruins” promises to be a feast for both the eyes and ears.

The Mother figure’s “claws”, made by Dip Candles, will be lit throughout the exhibition, and gallery owner and musician Campbell Kneale has composed a soundscape piece to heighten the atmosphere.

“It will look really cool once everything comes together,” Bidwill said.

  • “Mother’s Ruins” will open at The Miracle Room, 48 Fitzherbert Street, Featherston, on Friday, May 6, at 7pm.

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