To view one of Susannah Montague’s intricate ceramic sculptures is a little like losing yourself down a rabbit hole. The more you consider it, the more you see—and the more you’re startled.
A crowned, cherubic baby doll sits festively adorned, head to toe, in gold-tinged daisies, but peer closer and you’ll see she’s sitting on a skull, and clutching a baby duck’s neck a little too tightly with one chubby hand. Severed limbs and barnacles often peek out from the Bowen Island artist’s cheery arrays of perfectly sculpted roses and butterflies. In Montague’s wildly wrought, white ceramic fantasies, innocence starts to melt into corruption, and blossoming life gives way to decay. Her works are exquisite and fragile, yet darkly humorous.
“I’m asking the viewer to look in a slow-art way,” she tells the Straight over the phone, before visitors to the South Granville ArtWalk get a chance to see her show, Of Things I Can’t Unthink, at the Elissa Cristall Gallery. “I believe the viewer can go into a certain state, and I’ve given them a little narrative that they can travel through.
“It’s not even that Instagram-able, because you can’t even show all the details,” adds Montague, who draws some of her symbolism from the old Dutch vanitas still lifes. “Sometimes you’ll see a little face peeking out or a spider crawling up the back of something.”
Montague, who studied at Emily Carr University of Art + Design and OCAD University, has long been interested in the ceramic techniques of the past—from the Dresden dolls, with their real lace dipped in liquid porcelain, to the blue-and-white designs of delftware (both of which she references in her work). She attributes that interest, in part, to her roots, having grown up in a British family that once owned an antique shop and appreciated the fine craftsmanship that went into each treasure.
“I’m also fascinated with the old methods because they’re shutting down,” she says. “I study the methods online. I’m kind of obsessed.”
She’s also, simply and irreversibly, hooked on her delicate medium. “I’m always pushing the boundaries of clay. There’s so much testing and failure. I’m sort of addicted to the risk and adrenaline of putting it in the kiln and hoping it will work out.”
She says of the material that goes into that kiln greyish and comes out pure white: “My colour is the shadows; I create layers with shadows, carving away and building up. I define by light.”
Working at her rural studio, Montague keeps a surreal collection of toys nearby, ready to use for casting or inspiration. “I’m obsessed with a doll I’m working with now—an old Knickerbocker doll from New York—the body proportions, the sort of kewpie dark-and-twisted feel,” she says. “I have cabinets full of old dolls and old children’s mannequins, old china figurines. Or I’ll use my children’s favourite toys—butterfly toys or bunny rabbits.”
Montague also draws inspiration from deep within herself and the world around her. The preponderance of baby figurines and fertile-feeling flowers stems in part, she says, from the fact she was told she could never have children—then had twins, now eight, against impossible odds. “All that rebirth and growth—that’s part of being a mother and a woman as well,” she adds.
These days, she’s also drawing huge inspiration from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. “I’m doing more decorative work now; with what’s happening with women this year and the Trump election, I felt like embracing what is feminine work,” she explains.
Look no further than one of the newest pieces in the show: a three-foot-high skull wall sculpture, tinged with a rosy hue. “I tried to get the right millennial pink,” she says. “I was examining the power of the skull, and it has always been male—rock music, pirates… I tried to feminize it. And I covered it in roses.”
The skull, which sports two hot-pink pigtails (fashioned from fishing line), also wears an ornate, gold-beaded crown, but look close: “There are three Knickerbocker dolls with their hands up, kind of saying ‘Time’s up!’ ” she points out.
As suggested by this pink-emblazoned sculpture and more, Montague is more intrigued than ever by her painstaking, fragile work. “It’s kind of obsessive work—I work crazy-long hours,” she admits with a laugh. “With age, I think it allows me to be more brave.
“In this day and age, anything can be reproduced with 3-D images,” she adds. “I’ve been asked by companies to mass-produce work and I’ve refused. Right now I want them to be unique and one-off.” And appreciated with as much unrushed care as she puts into making them.
The Elissa Cristall Gallery presents Susan Montague: Of Things I Can’t Unthink until June 30. The South Granville ArtWalk takes place on Saturday (June 16); Montague gives an artist talk at 1 p.m.