Mai Lahn-Johannessen Art historian

A playful twist of linguistic analogies suggests that the snowball didn’t start rolling until recently for the ceramic artist Norvald Hemre (b. 1957). His project Boules de Neige (”Snowballs”), which was first shown at an exhibition in Uzes, France in 2004, focused on the formal and ambient expression of snowballs, but also confirmed the new direction in Hemre’s artistic work. With his 300 porcelain snowballs, tightly assembled, he more than implied how his days of applicable ceramics were over, replaced by immediate experience and contextual understanding of art.

Hemre’s education belongs with the Leach-generation at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts. During the 70’s and well into the 80’s the focus was on applicability, with international models like Bernard Leach (1887–1979) and Peter Voulkos (1924–2002), and guest lecturers from England and Japan, e.g. Takeshi Yasuda (b. 1943). He was also influenced by the groundbreaking ceramics classes at the college in Bergen towards the end of the 1970’s. Their action-based and coarse usage of clay became essential to Hemre’s artistic expression. He used ancient wood-burning techniques and sought the clay’s own traces and imprint in the ceramic body. Following his diploma in 1986, and for the next 10–15 years he produced applicable objects; teapots, cups and large plates. With their balance between applicability and Hemre’s wealth of technical knowledge, the objects expressed functionality, sensuousness and décor.

In the late 90’s Hemre had spent his need for applicability in ceramics and sought new technical challenges. He wanted to pursue more complex and narrative concepts, in line with contemporary expressions and the general tendencies within ceramics and applied arts in general. The liberation from functionality and production as a means of survival, a process which took years to evolve, became a general tendency among ceramic artists in the late 90’s. For Hemre this trend brought him back to the Academy to complete his Diploma in 2000. The turn of the millennium became a significant change for Hemre since it also involved a new artistic expression. This is where the snowball precariously starts rolling.

It began with technique and the shift from applying traces in clay in the shape of indentations and imprints with rough handling of the raw-material to investigating the qualities and natural expressions of the material itself. Instead of pressing the clay, he pulls at it, stretching and bending so that the consistency becomes thinner and more fluid, providing it with a lighter expression. Air becomes essential and the idea of the balloon as the core of a clay skin takes shape. Valves and hooks are attached to the balloon’s mouthpiece before they are dipped in liquid clay. A number of dipping processes and movements, or tools he uses to apply clay to the balloon’s skin, provide a variety of structures to the form’s surface.  After they’re hung up to dry, the balloons need to be emptied of air as the clay dries and shrinks. When all the air has been released he’s left with a skin of clay, a new form shaped from the inside as well as the outside. In doing so Hemre performs the opposite of ceramics’ traditional moulds since he uses clay for skin instead of as core. This carries a separate significance to the creative process since the object emerges stepwise as opposed to a readymade form which gives a sudden revelation of an unexpected result.



As the new technique integrates itself into the artistic practise and more variations of form appear, the narrative follows as a natural consequence. Small stories grow out from and between the works. This may be intended or not; the fact is that the snowballs – which began as formal and technical experiments – became elements with strong reference to Hemre’s own life. As a child he was fascinated with snowball lanterns which gave off a shimmering ambient light during winter nights. As a man he still carries the memory of the ambience it created. The memories of this child’s play, is part of his Nordic identity. On a larger scale the snowball project may be taken as a comment to the climate change, global warming and the melting of the polar ice-caps. Where did all the snow go? Will the next generation be able to build snowball lanterns and identify them as a natural part of their cultural heritage?

The reciprocity between childlike nostalgia and political statements is a leitmotif in many of Hemre’s works. In his series Love Hurts he has incorporated numerous charcoal coloured hearts with sharp spikes covering the surface. At the tip of the heart are openings, either in the shape of sweet pouting lips or cruel jaws. The hybrid formal expression implies cubs with their snouts in the air, bristling hedgehogs or, lined up, they may appear as an army of tanks preparing for attack – an intended effect from the American invasion of Iraq.

Whichever way we observe Hemre’s body of work, it is always organic. Every object is a miniature creation with its own identity. It communicates with the observer or with each other. His objects may seem to seduce or reject – be benevolent or aggressive. They come in formations as illuminated fields of snowballs, legions of warriors or herds of animals, but also as cantankerous mobs or choirs at practice. The objects express an effective paradox; the rift, which was used to blow life, vitality and power into them, is the same rift from which the life-giving air seeps out of them. 

In spite of the drastic changes Hemre’s artistic production has undergone in recent years, a clear break can not be seen. It has been important for him to investigate new techniques and to tear away from functionality in ceramics. He needs the narrative and often expresses conceptual, politically motivated ideas in his body of work. Yet, through the collective body of work in his career, a consistent feature can be observed – his professional solidity. Hemre distinguishes himself as a technical master with superior knowledge of the materials he works with. This quality is present throughout his production as a common denominator – his artistic signature – whether we see it in cups and saucers, conceptual issues in ceramics, far reaching political statements or for that matter; intimate narratives on snowballs.