Ceramicist Mandy Gargiulo makes delicate art pieces

A late convert to ceramics is making waves (and spikes) in the art world.

Some mothers teach their children how to cook or keep a plant alive. Mandy Gargiulo’s mother taught her a much more valuable lesson – to appreciate the art of ceramics.

“Growing up in the 1970s, we’d go for long drives and Mum would stop at every pottery studio,” recalls Mandy, a Nelson artist. “She was a great collector, and that’s where my love of ceramics came from.”

Mandy works from a light-filled room of her Nelson home. IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

It’s a love that was put on the backburner for many years while Mandy worked as a nurse and raised five children with her husband Francis, a wealth management adviser. But when her youngest child left home in 2016, Mandy decided to dedicate herself to art. “I loved art all through school but then life got in the way,” she says. “I’d never done pottery so thought I’d give that a go.”

IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

After a few lessons with Nelson potter Stephen Robertson, Mandy was hooked. She bought a wheel and began to experiment. “I didn’t want to make domestic ware such as plates and cups. The process of being able to craft and transform raw clay into fine, crisp and delicate pieces of art is what I love most.”

Mandy’s work ranges from vases and bowls to chess sets. IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

She says the thought of her unique, nature-inspired pieces being enjoyed by others gives her as much satisfaction as the creative process itself.

Porcelain is Mandy’s preferred clay, because it “looks super delicate but it’s actually quite robust”, she says.

Much of Mandy’s work is inspired by the natural landscapes of Nelson and the items she finds on her daily walks. IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

Texture was another consideration, with Mandy inspired by the ocean she lives close to and walks her dog Mia near most days. “I wanted to recreate the feeling of waves.”

Those waves, along with the spikes and flowers that adorn many of her vessels are painstakingly cut out and attached by hand.

The work of crafting leaves and flowers from porcelain clay is fine and detailed and takes a lot of concentration. IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

From a room in her house that she’s converted into a studio, Mandy designs her one-off pieces, sometimes sketching an outline and other times freestyling. Adding decorations is a time-consuming process, with pieces taking anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the level of detail. All pieces are fired in a kiln in her garage, while those with glazed interiors undergo a second firing.

IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

One of Mandy’s most popular current styles is a Covid-19 model she first made at the request of a doctor friend. “It’s been incredibly popular, especially with the medical community. I had one doctor who ordered several small models, then asked me to make three larger versions. They’ve also been a hit with all sorts of people who’ve been affected by the pandemic, including a woman who bought one for her granddaughter who was born during lockdown.”

The Covid model she created last year has proved a hit, especially with customers in the medical industry. IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

Ceramics became Mandy’s full-time career in 2018 after two Nelson galleries agreed to stock her work. That’s since extended to galleries from Matakana to Dunedin. The recognition hasn’t been slow to roll in, with exhibitions and awards a regular feature of her life. That includes winning the Supreme Award at Ceramics New Zealand’s National Exhibition the year she started and having her work in the permanent collections of galleries in Nelson and Whanganui.

IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

It’s taken some time for Mandy to feel confident about calling herself an artist, though. “When I won my first award, I thought they were going to tell me it was a mistake! I didn’t go to art school and there’s so much more I need to learn about ceramics. Aside from a few lessons, I’m self-taught and am really making it up as I go along. But I love what I do and as long as other people like it, I’ll keep doing it.”

IMAGE: DANIEL ALLEN

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