Rat race refugee forsakes cakes for clay

She’s known as one of New Zealand’s ‘rat race refugees’, but Rebecca Shawyer’s decision to throw in a high profile international food career for a lifestyle change is putting her back on the world stage – this time for a different kind of handiwork.

She’s one of New Zealand’s ‘rat race refugees’, but Rebecca Shawyer’s decision to throw in a high profile international career for a lifestyle change is putting her back on the world stage - this time for a different kind of handiwork.

For 13 intense years, Rebecca Shawyer expressed her creativity through patisserie, mostly in Europe where she was crowned British ''Dessert Chef of the Year'' in 1995.

Shawyer’s career included working as pastry chef on tour for Neil Diamond and Tina Turner, as ‘prima pasticcera’ at Italy’s first three-star Michelin restaurant, and as the first woman to be employed by Iginio Massari - then world champion pastry chef.

But in 2002, Shawyer decided to pack up her marzipan tools and pastry cutters, and head home to New Zealand to escape the pressure of her fast-paced, international lifestyle.

Original clay sculpture
Home in New Zealand, Shawyer began to play with clay and the rest is history.

The talented artist is now a respected sculptor creating highly original, exquisitely detailed clay figures that are snapped up by international tourists and shipped all over the world.

Shawyer works from her studio at Cable Bay near Doubtless Bay - in New Zealand’s remote Northland region - spending hours developing new characters for her unique collection of carnival figures, masks and busts.

Each is unique because creating two the same would be an impossibility, she says. "They seem to create themselves."

Uninhibited by convention, Rebecca creates directly from her imagination but says there are powerful influences like the Venetian carnival, fairy tales, opera and patisserie.

Ceramic ‘WOW’
Long-legged clowns and eccentric, flamboyant, whimsical characters with arresting expressions wear ruched and ruffled costumes with lace and brocades, quirky accessories and "extreme" hair.

One visitor likened the originality of the work to New Zealand’s now internationally renowned World of WearableArt (WOW), an annual show that combines theatre, dance, colour, movement and art.

The sense of theatre and carnival imagery comes from Rebecca’s time living in Italy and her passion for pastiage - the art of making flowers and decorations with sugar paste - is evident in the detail of her clay work.

Textured and eccentric
"It’s highly textured and eccentric, my cakes used to be like that," Shawyer says.

"In fact I use my old marzipan tools and pastry cutters quite a lot. I did a lot of chocolate work before and working with clay and glazes is similar. You know not to leave fingerprints and to respect surfaces."

Shawyer’s work has evolved through trial and error, and as a perfectionist she admits there have been many casualties along the way.

Figures have changed from more stocky, gargoyle-styled shapes in the early days to leaner, longer, more delicate bodies with more expressive faces. But latterly there’s been a move back to slightly shorter, fatter creations.

Change of process
The methodology and creative process has continued to evolve, and Shawyer’s latest work has also seen a change in glazing with more natural clay exposed.

"I’ve decided it makes the figures seem more alive," she says.

Some of the pieces have been sold through Whangarei’s Burning Issues gallery, and others direct from the artist’s Cable Bay studio. The work has been shipped throughout the world, including Germany, England, Mexico and Australia.

The issue of transportation of such delicate pieces forced Rebecca to re-think the structure of her figures, and each is now built with detachable limbs so it can be dismantled for safer shipment, then easily re-assembled by the owners.

Perfectionist and dreamer
Rebecca admits to being a perfectionist, dreamer, realist, magician, alchemist and rebel.

"I am driven by the need to create. It gives me balance and purpose. My work is an expression of my own consciousness which is a theatre of archetypal images, moulding my identity and the characters I create.

"My method is to start directly in clay allowing each piece to evolve, like children they are formed but take on a life of their own. I am often surprised and amused by the result.

"Both patisserie and clay sculpture are almost alchemic in the vast difference between base ingredient and end product. Transformations of all kinds continue to compel and excite me," she says.

Working as a solo artist in her far north studio amongst an array of carnival-like clay figures might be a far cry from the bustling patisseries of Europe, but Rebecca Shawyer is living a life that for many would be pure fantasy.