Cheeky, colourful and towering ten metres above the moat waterline outside the National Gallery of Victoria, a celestial ceramic sculpture called Angel is now established as a major new landmark in Melbourne. Jenny Trustrum reports. For young Melbourne sculptor Deborah Halpern, the chance to create Angel was not only an artist's dream come true, but it also represents three years of dedicated work and commitment. She took on the commission in 1986 while she was overseas, following an approach from the Curator of Sculpture at the NGV, Geoffrey Edwards.
"The brief was fantastic because it was very open," she said. "They wanted a monumental ceramic sculpture for that space. It's the entrance to the Gallery, the entrance to the city and it needed something spectacular that would really do justice to that fabulous building.
"Somehow the sculpture needed a human face to it, something that would link the human beings outside to the art inside."
And so Angel was conceived while Deborah was revelling in the public art of Paris and other European cities.
"As soon as I got the letter from the Gallery I started thinking seriously about it. In Europe there is more of a consciousness of public art. It was perfect. Here I was having been offered this commission and suddenly seeing sculpture in Europe as a living thing and knowing in my heart that this was what I had to do with this project. I don't know quite how the idea for Angel came up to tell you the truth! But I knew the project was going to be big and ambitious."
Work on Angel began in October 1987 in a large shed down on the docks of the Port of Melbourne. The space was located for the artist by the Melbourne City Council. Deborah's team consisted of two core workers, Sally Ann Mill and Lisa Edwards, sometime swelling to as many as a dozen people when required.
"The whole project took on a life of its own," said Deborah. "I had done sculpture but I had never taken on anything of this scale. I had to deal with engineers and a steel work to help me with the structural work. It was totally a process of trust.
"It took so long to create Angel because a project on this scale hadn't been done before. There wasn't a book we could go to for information. We literally had to create the technology and for the project to be as beautiful as we knew it could be, we had to be absolutely meticulous.
"It was like building a body, with the skeleton and the skin on it," said Deborah.
The first step was to create the steel armature, or skeleton of the sculpture, she said.
"Angel took on a life of her own when the steel armature was made. The more images we put onto the body, the more alive she became. We would sit and look at her during our coffee breaks and it was like having another person in the room."
After the armature was complete, concrete sprayers formed the "flesh" of the sculpture, providing the base for the tiles, or skin.
Angel comprises 16 main images. Originally a Bicentennial project, the symbolism was that of representing different life forms including a crocodile, fish, angels, birds, plants, scrolls and fantasy creatures.
"It was done like a painting. To create the pattern, I stood back and painted the rough outline on the concrete. I had to work on a cherry picker to do it," said Deborah.
Ceramic pigment was painted on to tiles scaled to the size of Deborah's design and glaze was sprayed over them. The tiles were then put in the kiln and fired before being finally ready for assembly on the structure.
"It was a bit like dressmaking," she said. "We had to cut a bit out or put in a dart here and there and we ended up with a draped material effect - totally fluid."
Deborah Halpern comes from a creative family, although at a young age she was determined not to become an artist. "Both my parents were potters (Sylvia and Artur Halpern) and I grew up in Warrandyte where everyone I can remember was creative. I didn't want to be a potter or painter. I wanted to be a writer," she said.
After beginning a course in journalism, Deborah decided it wasn't a path she wanted to pursue. "My parents then somehow coerced me into doing ceramics. My father set me up in a corner of the workshop and it was fantastic place to learn. They said I could earn money by making functional pots. Having grown up with the background of ceramics as a functional thing, I wanted people to be able to use my stuff."
Deborah's ceramic work with her parents was followed by a short but memorable stint as a performing artist.
"I had two years of show business. I was part of a duo called The Flaming Stars and we were country and western singers. Our main aim was to have fun and when it stopped being fun we stopped doing it. It was a great experience.
"In the visual arts you put your work out there and you get feedback in a roundabout way, whereas with performing you go out there and they either like you or they don't - it's immediate, you get the process over and done with really quickly!"
One of Deborah Halpern's most exciting ceramic projects before Angel was an exhibition of life-size ceramic furniture at the Meat Market Craft Centre, staged with the support of the Crafts Board of the Australia Council. This exhibition featured a full-sized and functional ceramic chest of drawers.
"The idea even to me was wild. Every year I worked, things just go more sculptural and I was extending the idea of pieces being functional, making furniture with doors that open and shut. The nature of the medium of clay is that it has a freedom about it that allows that to develop. If people love something enough to buy it - it obviously means something to them. It adds to their life and that's functional."
So Halpern came to the project that was to become the biggest challenge of her career to date.
"I feel a richer person altogether because of working on Angel. Every now and again I walk past the sculpture outside the Gallery and I hear people talking about it. I even like it when people don't like it. The worst thing would be if people were bored by it because that's not a constructive emotion.
"For me, Angel has been three years of hard, concentrated work. She's been a bit like a child and now I feel she's fine on her own. I've got an exhibition coming up in Sydney and next year I think I'll give myself a year off to explore the ideas I had to put on hold while I was working on Angel."