When horse lover Sue Fraser had a fall from one of her beloved horses and broke her ankle – it opened a whole new doorway into her creativity. These days, writes Louise Fulton for Verandah Magazine, not only is Fraser riding again, but her love for horses has transformed into a career as a creator of unique equine sculptures.
Sitting placidly on its haunches, a horse with cobalt blue flowers on its flanks is quietly surveying the scene in the artist’s studio. Another horse is emerging from the hands of artist Sue Fraser as she sculpts the clay into a uniquely spirited creature.
Fraser lives and works on a 14 acre property on the Alstonville Plateau in the Northern Rivers. As she works quickly and spontaneously, each horse develops its own character. “Each time I make one, the horse’s character just seems to come out by itself,” she says. “Sometimes it reminds me of one of my old horses or one of the thoroughbreds I have trained and ridden. When I’m decorating or glazing, I’m thinking of the work that horses have been put to – like the Chinese Tang dynasty Tribute horses.”
Fraser grew up as the daughter of an entrepreneurial agriculturalist and horses and farm animals have been present in her life since childhood. Fraser’s father Pat Masters was the first person to import Landrace pigs into Australia and was one of the first farmers to grow lucerne on the North Coast as a pasture crop for hay and grazing. He also introduced Santa Gertrudis cattle to the sub-tropical climate of northern New South Wales – much to the consternation of the locals at the time. The family moving house often as Fraser’s father chased his next agricultural dream, and horses became Fraser’s stability and passion as she gained skills in camp-drafting, show jumping and dressage.
Well into her fifties, Fraser was competing and judging in dressage until a freak fall from her horse left her with a shattered ankle. “I lost a whole year,” she says. “I spent time in rehab followed by months of hobbling carefully around our place until the surgeon finally persuaded me to have my ankle fused.” It was during Fraser’s time out from riding that she realised she would have to set herself some new goals and coincidentally fell into working with clay. “I’m the sort of person that has to be busy and use my hands,” Fraser says. “I love being out in the garden and digging. In fact, I’ve even dug up clay from our property to use in some of my ceramic work.” Within six years, she had completed both a Diploma at Lismore TAFE and a Fine Arts degree at Southern Cross University.
In 2005, Sue went to Jingdezhen in China as an artist-in-residence at Sanbao Ceramic Institute. The home of porcelain, the countryside around the city has been mined for centuries for its pure white clay and her time there piqued her interest in traditional Chinese ceramic forms and the association between women and horses in both Australian and Chinese society. She learned, for instance, that in the past, girls were bred for the Chinese concubine market and were called ‘thin horses’. Back in the studio, she uses a wide variety of surface textures including Song dynasty style woodblock impressions and embossed lino cuts with Australian and Chinese patterning and some of her horses have tiny feet like the ‘lotus feet’ of Chinese concubines. She applies several glazes using broad gestural brush work. Balancing the more heavily glazed areas, Fraser incorporates cobalt blue clouds, water designs, flowers and textile patterns under clear glaze.
Her sculptures have won a number of awards including the Winton Outback Art Prize, a Thursday Plantation Sculpture Prize and Byron Bay Classic Acquisition prize. “It’s been a surprise to me winning prizes,” Fraser says. “I’m just doing what I love doing and people seem to connect with what I make.”
Outside the studio, a gas kiln sits amongst the trees which have grown massively over the past forty years since Sue and her husband Graeme bought the property. “There is also a bourry-box woodfire kiln up near the horse stables that we built a couple of years ago. I fire up it up each winter when the weather is cooler. We get enough fallen timber here for me not to need to buy any. The chimney puts out a big dragon’s tongue of fire when it gets to 1300 degrees – it’s pretty exciting when you’ve been stoking it for over 24 hours and it finally gets to the right temperature.”
Every day has its own rhythm. Early mornings are spent collecting manure from the stable and paddock which is spread onto the veggie patch and under the fruit trees. Sue then lets her Smoky Leghorn chooks out to scratch amongst the undergrowth. Her horse William, a quiet and unfussed Warmblood, gets a brushing followed by a workout on the arena or round yard. Fruit and vegetables are then collected to cook up later – often into a delicious Bangladeshi curry, a nod to time spent working overseas during her twenties.
Later in the day Fraser goes down to the studio to make her horse sculptures for exhibitions or commissions. For Fraser, working with clay involves the same sort of technical skills, creativity and respect for tradition she uses when training a horse. “It’s really given me a purpose since the accident,” she say. Each sculpture reflects her bond with all things equestrian. “My art expresses my passion for horses. I can’t ever imagine not having a horse, even if I’m in my nineties. I’ll just have to get my granddaughter to ride him for me!”
Photos of Ceramics by Sue Fraser. Other photos by Louise Fulton.
Sue Fraser’s most recent exhibition was at Haydon Hall Gallery at Murrurundi in the Upper Hunter during the ‘King of the Ranges’ Stockmans Challenge. For more information visit earthlyvisions or haydonhall
You can read more by Louise Fulton on her blog: loufulton
Or catch her instagram feed on @louise.fulton.studio