Question: What do horseshoes have to do with pears? Answer: Absolutely nothing unless you’re Al Phemister. Al is a sculptor who specialises in creating decorative forms from every day and industrial objects, like giant dandelions made from concrete and pears made from unwanted horseshoes. His specialty is combining soft, feminine forms with robust, masculine materials to form beautiful sculptural juxtapositions.
Although he ‘fell into sculpture by accident’, Al has proven it was a worthy career change. He was a finalist in the 2013 Sculpture at Scenic World major prize and the 2012 Toorak Sculpture Prize. He has won the 2012 Sculpture on the Edge, Bermagui Emerging Artist Prize ; The People’s Choice Award ; the 2011 Sculpture in the Vineyards, Hunter Valley; Wollombi Valley Acquisitive Prize; an ANU School of Art residency. His work is featured in collections throughout Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Come and meet Al …
Tell me about yourself and your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today?
I am a green keeper and horticulturist by trade and grew up in a building family: my father was a builder; my uncle and cousins, plumbers; my brothers, electricians. I first worked in small business and after retrenchment and circumstance, ended up starting my own business. At first I did anything that people would pay me for, then I started working with builders and a furniture restorer. Following that, I moved into furniture restoration and manufacturing. I fell into sculpture by accident.
Tell me how this happened
My wife and I were on holiday on the south coast of New South Wales, Australia. One of our favourite shops was a nursery-cum-gift shop. We saw a simple tripod for growing sweet peas. Sadly, it was not in the budget, so we didn’t buy it! While we were away we talked about it a lot and decided it would be fabulous if it had a sculpture on top it – like a bird.
When we came home, I went into the shed and, using some steel that was lying around, made a tripod. Bringing it out of the shed, I showed it to my wife with the words ‘You’re the artist, make a bird for this’! A few weeks later, I thought of the material that she should use to make the sculpture, so went to the hardware store to get some vermin netting. I came home and announced: ‘Here is the material I think you should use to make the sculpture.’ However, her heart wasn’t in it, so a month later I decided, bugger it, I’ll make it myself! Since then, I have gone on to try new shapes, new materials and new sculptures.
Why industrial building materials and discarded horseshoes and the like? What’s the attraction?
I feel we live in a society that too easily discards unwanted items and I think that’s a shame. I have always been keen on recycling and for many years have used discarded items for building and furniture restoration, and have always loved the challenge of using parts of something that can no longer be used for its original purpose and give it a new life. I love the details and quality of something made – often by hand – years ago by someone else; the patina and smoothness that comes from being used by many hands, over many years. I love the tactile quality of things.
You seem to be able to turn such hard, raw materials into things that, despite their size, look quite delicate (especially the dandelions). Was this always the intention?
Yes! I love the raw, unyielding qualities that are inherent in steel. They can be seen as very masculine. And I loved the curves and delicate qualities of some of my designs. The pear is often described as a feminine shape and I like melding a masculine material with it. Again with the dandelion, I use robust steel but make them appear ethereal and floating. By combining these two elements, there is a ying and yang quality to the sculpture.
What comes first the material or the design/idea? Or is it a bit of both? Tell me about the creative process.
It is a bit of both! Sometimes the idea comes first and the materials are tried and changed until the right one is found. This is especially true of the Dandelions and the Pears. With the Pears, the idea came first and then several different materials were tried, most of which were successful. Sometimes a wish for a larger size dictated the introduction of new materials.
With the Dandelions, I got the idea for them but the first prototypes are now in the sculpture graveyard! It took two years for the Dandelion to come into being.
With my newest sculpture, the ‘Kern’, it came about via a process. I was inspired by a visit to Cornwall, UK and was intrigued by the ancient stone circles we saw there – especially the Men-an-Tol monument. When we came home I tried making the circular shape using timber but couldn’t get the perfect circle. It wasn’t until I adapted it in steel that the Kern evolved.
And the Tree Sculpture came about from using leftover building waste circles of steel. I played with them for months working out how they could go together. I ended up using a mould from the Dandelion sculpture, welded them together and slowly the tree formed.
I’m asked that a lot and always say, doesn’t everyone like a nice pear?!
Just to clarify here: Al also loves a good pun and has made much of the play on words with ‘pear’ and ‘pair’. His horseshoe pear series are, in fact, called ‘Pair of Shoes’ which, he says, has caused much confusion over the years with those less into puns as he is.
I wasn’t convinced at the time [about using horseshoes]. It made me think of 80s copper art and wine racks but when I was given some I started playing with them and putting them together and realised I had something marketable. I went back to the farrier who gave them to me to see if I could get some more and approached other farriers, too, to see if they would keep old horseshoes for me.
You see you can’t use horseshoes used for racing – they are aluminium plates that are put on the horses just for a race then their steel shoes are put back on again. Their shoes are not thrown away. Nowadays farriers tending to non-racing horses throw away shoes every six to eight weeks. But I need a lot. One month alone, making Pears, I used 2000 horse shoes and the tall Pears use the best part of 200.
Have you any interesting stories about a discarded material/s you’ve found/used?
I’ve learnt so much about horse shoes – different shapes and types – what they are used for and how they can be used to heal and treat the horse that owns them. For instance, on the horseshoes for trotters the end is turned down because of the different way they walk; and other styles are used to lynch an injured foot to help it heal. I have found new materials and discovered the original use for some things that had previously been a mystery. I love to learn new things and appreciate the skills of those who make things from nothing.
Where do you go, or what do you do/read/see for inspiration?
I find inspiration in the everyday. My wife and I share the philosophy that ‘just because you use it every day, doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful’. I am inspired by the ingeniousness of others, and the things I see around me. We have travelled to Europe and the UK in the last three years, and my most recent sculpture is inspired by these travels.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
We live in an 1853 house that needed a lot of work when we bought it. We have two teenagers (13 and 16), and I like to help our community and am heavily involved with the local arts scene and YASSarts. We have promoted local artists and been instrumental in a change of opinion and policy with our local council. These things fill my spare time with challenges, direction and joy!
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently creating a tree. Sounds simple but it will be 3 metres tall and 2-2.5 metres in diameter. The trunk and branches are made from steel pipe and are textured. At the end of the branches are old tools – shovels, rakes, handsaws etc. From a distance, the tools will create the foliage of the tree. Up close, other tools will create the look of flowers and fruits. This has been one of the most challenging projects from the point of view of collecting materials but also the scale of the finished piece.
Where do you see yourself in ten year’s time?
I have an interest in travel and other cultures. This has been particularly enhanced by recent overseas trips. In the next 10 years, I would like to travel, which gives me the impetus for new ideas, but would like to immerse myself in other cultures. I am very interested in an overseas residency, where I can become a part of the community for a period to experience other cultures and develop new ideas. Sometimes outside of my comfort zone! I like to explore the opportunities gained from experiences outside regular life.
Wonderful talking with you Al! If you’d like to see more of Al’s work and find out about his latest exhibitions, you can find him here.