Making the ordinary extraordinary

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Pictured above: Esturaina on Ha’penny Pier, Harwich

By Rhona Duffy

Anne Schwegmann-Fielding has been creating art using recycled materials since the early 1990s. Here, Rhona Duffy talks to Anne about how she depicts social history in her art and connects people with materials and places.

Anne Schwegmann-Fielding has always found herself drawn to gathering ordinary objects. The Colchester-based artist’s studio is full of cup handles, buttons, Indian bangles, glass and crockery, her favourite ceramics currently are Victorian transferware with “the more gold the better”. At first, Anne says she wasn’t consciously recycling in her art. “It just felt like a natural thing for me to do,” she explains.

The toilet of the Cistern Chapel in Colchester Arts Centre. Minstrel pictured in the mosaic mirror. Photo by David Clarke

Anne sees her art as being more akin to “assemblage” than mosaic. “I’m a messenger more than a storyteller. I assemble other people’s things,” she continues. “It excites me much more than using new materials because the recycled objects have a story already attached to them. It gives new meaning to things that otherwise would end up in landfills. For the viewer, it’s nice for them to be able to recognise their own objects, or objects of loved ones who’ve passed, in the artworks.”

“I’m a messenger more than a storyteller. I assemble other people’s things.”

While Anne mostly uses recycled materials in her art, she’ll use new materials if it’s necessary for the project. “For the life-size memorial sculpture of Southend’s Ecko factory founder Eric Cole, I fired images onto porcelain tiles,” says Anne. “They were photographs featuring factory workers, the products they made, and the factory’s sports and social club events. They conveyed great stories of industry in the 40s and 50s and played a key part in paying tribute to Cole, who had a strong reputation for treating his employees well and was a pioneer in paid holidays and workplace pensions. So even though I used new materials, the essence of gathering was still at their core.”

Our Eric, Southend. Photo by Robert Priseman

After working from a garden studio in her previous home for many years, Anne recently moved into a group studio space. “I was a bit apprehensive after working so long on my own,” continues Anne. “But it’s been brilliant. I’ve been here for over one year now. I’ve connected with lots of the other artists and I’ve already collaborated with one of the potters working here. We held an open studios event last year, which allowed me to talk to visitors about a piece I’d recently completed.”  

Anne has first-hand experience of the mutual benefits of collaboration. “I’ve collaborated with sculptor Tamsin Evans and metalworker Michael Condron many times. Since we’ve worked together, my work has become simplified and refined, while Michael’s work has become more detailed and textural.” While about 90% of Anne’s work now is offered to her, collaborating with other artists can strengthen project applications. “We can combine our different strengths to make our public art applications and installations even stronger,” she adds.   

Gift of Life, Colchester Hospital. Photo by Adam Scott

Goddesses feature regularly in Anne’s art. One was mosaicked onto the back of an old rowing boat as part of the Harwich Festival. “Esturiana is the goddess of creativity and protector of our waters. She was originally designed as a temporary piece. At first, we didn’t know where she was going to go, but she ended up on the pier – like some kind of figurehead. She’s made from donated crockery, sea glass, jewels and photographic transfers. The words she holds sum up my take on life: ‘You are just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is made of thousands of drops’. She now lives permanently on Harwich’s Ha’penny Pier.”

Her art has been recognised with an award in the recent Galeria Moderna’s Oxford Invitational Competition. Two of her goddess sculptures were on display at Castle Fine Art, Oxford.

So what’s next for Anne? “I’d love to create a sculpture garden and I’m actively searching for the right space to do that. I’ve been visiting sculpture gardens around the world doing research. I’m very inspired by outsider artists’ work like Nek Chand’s. I’d like to create a garden that evokes a sense of childlike wonder for anyone who visits it. I’m also in talks with the local council about work to transform parts of the town, like local public toilets and bus shelters. I may also be mosaicking a bus!”

Anne Schwegmann-Fielding pictured with Angel of the East

Anne’s advice to aspiring artists

“Be true to yourself. If youed’re trying to do what you think someone else wants, it won’t work. Be sure you completely believe in what you’re doing. If you’re going to do something, do it 100%. Take some risks. Put yourself out there and apply for appropriate opportunities. You might not get them at first, but it doesn’t mean that’s always going to be a ‘no’ – it just means ‘not yet’. If you’re applying for a commission, read the brief carefully and respond directly to it.”

Instagram: @anneschwegmannfielding