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Fée Halsted

Founder of Ardmore and Creative Director of Ardmore
Ceramics Studio

Fée Halsted an academic and award-winning artist, with manifest passion and tenacity. Amongst some of her awards, she and her protégé, Bonnie Ntshalintshali, jointly won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1990. Fée was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2016 from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2021, Fée was awarded the South African Presidential Award ‘The Order of Ikhamanga’ for her contribution to the visual arts and generous transferring of skills to others.

Fée describes Ardmore as being, “recognised by its colourful and quirky designs and is proudly South African”. She recounts, “Ardmore started with one-of-a-kind ceramics and ten years ago we developed our wonderful designs into fabrics and homeware products. We also collaborate with British wallpaper company Cole & Son, and we are just about to launch into the fashion accessories industry.”

Ardmore was established in 1985 and has since grown with Fée currently mentoring approximately 50 artists. Commenting on the growth of her company Fée says, “I believe my greatest achievement is giving people, without opportunity and little education, self-worth. I have grown rural people, people with disabilities and learning disorders into people who stand tall in their community and can feed their families.”

Modern day collectables

Today Ardmore is a successful international business. Ardmore’s ceramics have been acknowledged as a “modern day collectable” by prominent auction house Christies of London. Fée believes that the success of Ardmore is based on her brave pioneering spirit, her tenacity, self-belief and her determination to strive for excellence. She, however, couples these characteristics with having a ‘heart’ in the business by acting as a ‘mother’ to her artists with a nurturing forgiveness, and sometimes with tough love.

In commenting on what has challenged her along her journey, Fée says her biggest challenge was dealing with the impact of HIV/AIDS. “We lost many artists. Bonnie Ntshalintshali passed away in 1999 and Wonderboy Nxumalo passed away in 2008. It was a traumatic time in my life. We created a hospital at Ardmore and educated the artists about safe sex and antiretrovirals. As the subject was ‘taboo’ we taught the artists about HIV/AIDS through story telling sculptures that are now housed in our museum.

During this time my attention was not focused on my husband and family. In 2002 my husband and I divorced, and I had to create a new home for my three children and set up a new studio. My family, especially my mother and many special caring friends, helped me get through these incredibly challenging times.”

In 2008 South Africa went through a major recession and the country was hugely affected economically. Fée remained constant yet thrifty and adapted Ardmore accordingly. In 2010 South Africa hosted the Football World Cup and Fée developed the idea to create a series of ceramics called the “African Travelers”. They proved to be a huge success and saved Ardmore and the artists financially.

More recently the Covid-19 pandemic shook the world. The travel restrictions and lockdowns meant South African tourism and travel was hard hit. The artists suffered due to the lack of sales, but Ardmore kept producing artworks to keep the artists in work so they could support their families. Unfortunately, Ardmore was unable to hold any exhibitions, locally or internationally.

In response, Fée’s recounts how Ardmore adapted, “Thank goodness my children were there to assist me. We very quickly had to shift the business from an in-store sales model to an online sales model, as so many have had to do. We held online auctions and exhibitions to try and boost sales. I knew we could get through the hardships if we again remained steadfast, reduced expenditure and told the story of the pandemic through our artworks. During Covid we have created ceramic artworks that have delighted our collectors by using animals that have symbolism and meaning.

We used the pangolin as a major theme of the pandemic. The pangolin symbolizes hope. Its scaly exterior and defensive curled posture, when threated, are symbols of protection and safety. Our artists created masked monkeys teaching the rules of safety to prevent catching Covid, men pushing wheelbarrows filled with contraband and elephants sanitising monkeys’ hands. We created masks from our fabric designs and gave the proceeds to our local community food bank.”

Maintain one’s authenticity

The future for Ardmore lies in the hands of the next generation. Fée’s children Jonathan, Catherine and Megan are all passionate about the business and many of the artists adult children have now joined the Ardmore studios and are developing into talented artists themselves. Recently, Ardmore has created an Arts Trust, as art education is sadly lacking in local schools. Ardmore hopes to provide creative education for under-privileged children in the community and have partnered with Thebilithle School in Howick.

Fée’s advice to young women wanting to follow in her footsteps is to maintain one’s authenticity and be humble. “One cannot have an answer for everything, and one must do what you are best at doing. Do not be afraid to ask for help. People are so kind, and love being asked advice. Build a great team around you, as together everyone achieves more. Do not be afraid to give someone responsibility, more often than not, they rise to their position. If you want detail, ask a woman to do the job.

Always ask your team their opinion and value what they have to say on how to do something better. Communication is key to everything and if your staff feel part of the decision-making process, they feel like they are truly part of the business, and you will have their commitment.”

Fée concludes by saying: “Do not shy away from hard work; in tough times we all work harder. But do not compromise on striving for excellence, always remain constant and find positive in bad circumstances.”

Fée Halsted
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