Best known for her monumental sculptures that seem to defy gravity despite being made of bronze or marble, Stella Shawzin created a fascinating body of work that shines a light on the secrets of the human form with great detail and tenderness. Shawzin passed away in 2020, at the age of one-hundred, leaving an incredible sculptural legacy as a key practitioner of South African modern art.
Shawzin was born in 1920 in Transvaal, South Africa, where she witnessed the racial discrimination and social division fuelled by Apartheid. She was fascinated by performing arts from an early age and she went on to train as an actor, singer and dancer, subsequently acting in plays and films in England in her twenties.
Whilst working as an actress and dancer in London, Shawzin began attending painting lessons with the renowned colourist Martin Bloch, a German-Jewish artist who had settled in London as a refugee in 1934. Bloch encouraged Shawzin to pursue painting, and in the 1950s the budding artist moved to New York to attend the 57th Street Art Students League, where she studied anatomy under George Bridgeman and painting under Frank Vincent DuMond and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. She then enrolled at the Pratt Institute Workshop for Artists to further her knowledge of graphic techniques.
Shawzin’s formative years spent in several reputed New York arts schools provided her with a solid art education, making her highly skilled in a wide range of media, from painting to sculpture. Shawzin’s time on the stage continued to inform her artistic practice, her sculptures are highly theatrical and dynamic. Shawzin’s sculptures always tend to appear light and as if in movement, like actors gliding on stage, despite being composed of heavy materials.
Throughout her career, Shawzin worked with a variety of media – bronze, marble, metal, wood and was intimately involved in every stage of their creative process. From her visits to the marble quarries at Carrara, to the building of her own foundry at her Cape Town studio, Stella Shawzin oversaw the execution of each artwork from conception to completion.
Shawzin’s marble sculptures were carved at Carlo Nicoli's studio in Carrara, an Italian city in Tuscany renowned for its marble quarries, used by some of the greatest artists in art history including Michelangelo.
Shawzin excelled in both figurative and animal sculptures, with her monumental bronze horses amongst her most sought after. Shawzin’s figurative sculptures are exquisite studies of the human form that focus on all sorts of individuals in different situations, from agile and strong athletes to tender interactions between mothers and their children.
In its themes and subjects her work has always been shot with an African thread. “South Africa's complex society has been my inspiration... The broad spectrum of humanity is my concern... All the emotional impact of a lifetime has gone into my interpretation of the human condition,” the artist explained. In an attempt to “capture and crystallize life’s joys and sorrows” her work focusses on the ways to express the emotional impact of a lifetime in as pure and simple a way as possible.
Shawzin’s sculptures are often monumental in scale, but feature a great amount of intimate detail. This interesting contrast is made even more poignant by the fact that most of her figures lack facial features. “A face that is featureless can be, through the tilt of the head, as expressive as a face with features and have more impact because the simplification avoids distraction...,” Shawzin said of this signature element of her work. But featurelessness is not just an aesthetic gesture, it is also a conceptual choice she made in order to address and challenge Apartheid’s racial strife. For Shawzin, the faceless figure is a powerful symbol of the universality of the human condition, a celebration of equality and oneness.
Shawzin sculptured on both a monumental and an intimate scale. Her over life size bronze balancing acrobats soar metres high into the air, their muscles straining to defy gravity. At the other end of the spectrum, some of her tender depictions of the female form – women crouching, mothers nursing their infants – can be held in the palm of one’s hand. Regardless of their size, all are sensual expressions of the human form, a celebration of its full range of movement.
Shawzin enjoyed international success in her lifetime, exhibiting widely in solo and group show in cities across the world, including London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Paris, New York and Bologna. Stella’s work is held in private and public collections throughout the world, including the Rupert Art Foundation in Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Those who were fortunate to know Shawzin recognize that she not only had a broad perspective on the nature of human existence, but also that she was a remarkably warm and outgoing person. This is a strength that is reflected in her work. Although her figures have universal characteristics, she portays them with affection. Her sculpture and her personality were very much on the same wavelength. Both were warm and loving and seek to celebrate thr experiences that are most importrant in our lives.
Shawzin began to exhibit with W. H. Patterson in 2005, with her first solo exhibition held in the gallery in June and July the following year. Shawzin’s monumental bronzes of horses and African wildlife, bronze acrobats and leaping figures and her serene marble reclining nudes and tender mother and child sculptures were featured at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show from 2008 with W.H.Patterson. Her work can now be viewed with Gladwell & Patterson at Molecey Mill Estates within the idyllic Lincolnshire countryside.