“Victorian ornithologists and botanists would have heartily commended Susan Hipgrave’s remarkable series of hand-painted plates.
The meticulous execution (each extra-fine brushstroke adding an important detail), the resulting life-like renditions and the consistent format (monochromatic black on white; identical one-size ceramic plates) adhere to the ethos of scientific study.
Susan’s ability to focus is well matched by her possession of a steady hand. However, it soon becomes clear that all is not quite as it seems. Susan departs from a straightforward replication of flora and fauna by concocting strange hybrids or by exaggerating features, such as piercing eyes to convey the extreme visual acuity of an eagle.
…’For spectators, an interactive experience awaits: birds, caught in the moment, watch us, ready to strike or to fly away; clusters of twisted vines and treacherous spikes draw us inside. As my work with natural subjects becomes more detailed, so my subjects become more assertive, the artist states. When I’m contemplating a new piece, I start by going through my collection of natural history books until I find something that speaks to me.
I work with it in terms of size and placement, and then begins the slow and meditative practice of putting paint to porcelain. I obsess about how fine a line I can do; ultimately, I love seeing all the little black lines that I’ve painted come together to create an image’…
Despite the striking maturity of her work, Susan has been working in ceramic art for less than a decade. For many years she worked as an art director/designer in advertising…’Then, in 2005, sick with shingles, I walked into a shop that was running ceramic painting classes and it was immediately obvious that it was something I had to do’.
While she has worked with earthenware as well as porcelain, her medium has always been the plate. My art is contained, so I can pack it up and travel easily, Susan notes. We have a house on the south coast, so I spend much of my time there, painting in daylight.
Her creations work well both on a small scale (a single plate) and a large scale (her first exhibition a spectacular window display at the GRANTPIRRIE gallery in Sydney showcased several plates strikingly placed against a dark backdrop).
If there were an issue with Susan’s hand-painted works, it would be that once you have admired one, you compulsively want to collect them all.”
Olivier Dupon, author of ‘Encore! The New Artisans’ (Thames & Hudson, 2015).
“There’s something endearing about the flora and fauna that appear in Susan Hipgrave’s artworks. A recent fascination with birds of prey found her painting eagles, owls and hawks in poses reminiscent of second-rate male catalogue models head cocked, body tense, eyes focused intently on the viewer. I’m drawn to the ugly in nature, the quirky, bold and bizarre, she says. Past subjects include parasites and fungi with absurdly bulbous protrusions.
Hipgrave uses found imagery, typically illustrations from within the dusty pages of obscure antique natural history books. She revives the images, enlarging the originals before drawing them in pencil on circular, porcelain, ceramic plates that operate as her ‘canvases’.
The illustrations are then painstakingly painted, fine black lines on creamy matt porcelain. The work is resolutely monochromatic, a reference to her lifelong love for drawing. The painting process demands patience and a steady hand. The fun, she says, is in sourcing the material, most recently working from a series of 19th-century German books in which she discovered oddly anthropomorphized illustrations. Rendered by naturalists attempting to communicate foreign environments and animals to a curious public, the pictures suggest that the brevity of the encounters required a certain amount of creative licence. Animals are drawn in poses like human beings, so a monkey sitting like a man, cross-legged on a chair, says Hipgrave. Because they had never seen a monkey before, they couldn’t quite imagine them as animals.
She peruses the catalogues of Sydney’s State Library and Australian Museum for unusual images and rare books, a process she finds thrilling. You can’t believe you are holding this precious object, the original drawing, the only copy. It is quite extraordinary.
While she paints on ceramics, Hipgrave is not a ceramicist. With a degree in graphic design, she spent two decades as an art director and managing a locations company before she decided to explore her personal creativity. A visit to a pottery supplies store drew her in to painting on ceramic surfaces. I wasn’t interested in firing and making the plates because I thought, well, artists don’t weave their own canvases! As Hipgrave gains confidence, her work is becoming progressively more detailed, but conversely her subjects are becoming more assertive. It’s all part of the natural evolution of things.”
Madeleine Hinchy, Vogue Living 2013