NZ Life & Leisure - - On The Cover -

Steam­punk style is in artist Lizette Brit­ton’s blood – and her boots

IT’S HARD TO TELL where the art ends and the artist be­gins on a visit to Lizzette Brit­ton’s stu­dio. While a green leather boot with satin rib­bon lace-ups and high cop­per heels would not be out of place on dis­play in a gallery, here it is crossed neatly over the artist’s knee; be­neath her flo­ral skirt, a row of papier-mâché fish is wo­ven into her pet­ti­coats.

‘Oh, dar­ling, let’s be ad­ven­tur­ers,’ reads a black­board at the en­trance to Glue Pots and Lemon Drops, a con­verted rail­way cot­tage on the out­skirts of Whanganui, hid­den be­hind a high gate and a cur­tain of ferns. An­other reads, ‘En­trée des artistes’.

“So, you found me al­right,” Lizzette calls from the bal­cony, where she sits framed by flower pots and bright-coloured bunt­ing. “Some peo­ple have trou­ble.” A smil­ing court jester points the way up the stairs. Apart from the eye-bog­gling boots and two vin­tage car­a­vans be­side the gate, there is noth­ing to sug­gest she is any­thing other than a per­son with a pas­sion for camp­ing and fancy footwear. But, like the fish hid­ing in her un­der­skirts, there is more to this woman than im­me­di­ately meets the eye.

Lizzette is a ce­ramic artist, best known for her ex­quis­ite tiny clay repli­cas of his­toric build­ings and vin­tage car­a­vans, fin­ished in candy colours. Parts of her stu­dio re­sem­ble minia­ture camp­ing grounds with made-to-scale pic­nic ta­bles, bar­be­cues, deckchairs, um­brel­las and even cheeky seag­ulls steal­ing crumbs. But her love of car­a­vans ex­tends be­yond her stu­dio. She has two vin­tage models which she takes on camp­ing hol­i­days: a 1963 Star­liner Star­lette that fea­tured in the Hellers sausage ad, bought five years ago for $5000 and named ‘Pene­lope Pit­stop’; and ‘Clara the Clock­work Car­a­van’, a 1957 Auck­land Car­a­van Com­pany model, pur­chased from a friend in 2015 for $500. To tow them, she has a 1961 Holden Stan­dard named ‘Ellen’, painted white to match Pene­lope. “Ellen’s my favourite,” she con­fesses. She of­ten takes her on hol­i­day to Kai Iwi beach, just down the road.

Her car­a­van sculp­tures have a nos­tal­gic charm, but their com­pan­ion pieces are equally ar­rest­ing. Be­side her per­sonal col­lec­tion of retro items (in­clud­ing a juke­box, vin­tage scales, old binoc­u­lars and an an­tique cash regis­ter), are two life-size bronze rats strung up by their tails, smaller ro­dents rid­ing Vespa mo­tor­cy­cles, a skull vase, rings with oc­to­pus ten­ta­cles and a teapot rock­ing on a stormy sea. Two cos­tumes are dis­played on models: one a green satin gown with a leather corset adorned with bul­lets and coiled wire; the other a prim white blouse, pink feather boa and a fu­tur­is­tic weapon looped around the model’s belt. “Meet Aria, the As­sas­sin, and Lady Pene­lope, the Spy,” says Lizzette in ex­pla­na­tion. This is where the worlds of fan­tasy and real life come to­gether.

‘John keeps men­tion­ing the word “hoard­ing”, but, if it’s in­ter­est­ing stuff, it’s not hoard­ing is it?’

The tra­jec­tory of an artist’s life is rarely con­ven­tional, and so it was with Lizzette. She left her home in Tau­ranga at 17, re­turned some years later with three chil­dren, went to pot­tery night classes with her mum, liked the feel of the clay be­tween her fin­gers and thought about buy­ing a home. It could have ended there. But then she saw a house bus.

The eight-tonne bus needed TLC, plus Lizzette couldn’t drive. But imag­i­na­tion and wan­der­lust are po­tent drugs. “I just thought, ‘No prob­lem, my brother can shift it if I need to move.’”

As part-pay­ment for the bus, she traded in her over­locker and a tele­vi­sion. She named it ‘Zenith’ after the high­est point in the ce­les­tial sphere. For five years, she and the chil­dren lived the life of gyp­sies, trekking be­tween fairs, the chil­dren study­ing by cor­re­spon­dence.

Lizzette re­fur­bished the bus in­te­rior, adding win­dows in ir­reg­u­lar shapes, stylish soft fur­nish­ings and a kitchen bench built from a large slab of macro­carpa. On the side, she made myth­i­cal cas­tles and dragons from clay to sell at fairs. “I’ve al­ways liked mak­ing things out of noth­ing,” she says.

Friends urged her to set­tle down and get a state house and she did sell the house bus – but only so she could re­place it with a dou­ble-decker that had a rusted top floor. “It was just like the one in Sum­mer Hol­i­day [a 1960s mu­si­cal fea­tur­ing Cliff Richard],” she says by way of ex­pla­na­tion. Later she moved to Man­gaweka, a North Is­land town with a charm­ing main street, a replica of a DC3 air­craft and fewer than 200 res­i­dents, many of them artists. She bought and lived in the build­ings of an old movie set, and spent the win­ters keep­ing warm by work­ing at her kiln.

Again, the story could have ended there, but she met John – her sec­ond hus­band who lives in Whanganui and owns a house-re­moval com­pany. In his yard, she un­earthed the rail­way cot­tage that be­came her work­place and stu­dio, and where she stores items found in op shops on her trav­els. “John keeps men­tion­ing the word ‘hoard­ing’,” she says, “but if it’s in­ter­est­ing stuff, it’s not hoard­ing, is it?”

Part of that “in­ter­est­ing stuff” re­lates to Aria (the As­sas­sin) and Lady Pene­lope (the Spy) – Lizzette’s al­ter­na­tive per­sonae, who ap­pear at steam­punk events coun­try­wide. For the unini­ti­ated, steam­punk is a world in which Vic­to­rian fash­ion and fu­tur­is­tic in­ven­tions merge through or­nate cos­tumes.

Lizzette sees steam­punk as an ex­ten­sion of her art and love of free­wheel­ing. “It’s a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion from the gypsy fair. It’s also about hav­ing fun.” Some of her re­cent projects in­clude turn­ing a child’s Nerf gun, salt and pep­per shak­ers, an old watch, and del­i­cate dia­mantes into a lethal fu­tur­is­tic com­bat weapon. A top hat has been trimmed with brass bul­lets, a bowler with cop­per coils and loops. Steam­punk cos­tumes are based on char­ac­ters that ap­peal to the in­di­vid­u­als who cre­ate them. “As Ari­ana the As­sas­sin, I can take care of all the peo­ple I don’t like,” Lizzette says, then adds, “which, of course, is very few.”

Her choice of re­galia de­pends on the event, which may in­clude mu­sic, vaude­ville, danc­ing or even teapot rac­ing, and she’s al­ways on the look­out for items that could be­come part of a cos­tume. For one pa­rade, she built a mag­nif­i­cent Vic­to­rian pram us­ing parts gath­ered from op shops teth­ered to a di­ri­gi­ble (the Vic­to­ri­ans in­vented air­ships), with a built-in chiller “be­cause it gets re­ally hot walk­ing in cos­tume”.

Her daugh­ter, son-in-law and grand­chil­dren have be­come in­volved in her pas­sion, but not John. “He un­der­stands how much I love it, but he isn’t into it. He doesn’t even have a hat.” This year, she bought the Welling­ton Clock­work Steam­punk Em­po­rium – a shop that sells cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories – which she will take on the road in a car­a­van, of course.

So, what about those boots? “Fluevogs,” she says, lift­ing her foot to show off the artistry more closely. John Fluevog is a Cana­dian de­signer, who has shod some fa­mous feet, in­clud­ing the queen of flam­boy­ance, Madonna. The singer wore hot pink Fluevog plat­forms in the movie Truth or Dare. Lizzette wears them most days, as ev­i­dence that peo­ple’s lives have many dif­fer­ent lay­ers. “Unique soles for unique souls is his motto,” she says. In this case, that seems wholly ap­pro­pri­ate.

A spe­cial oc­ca­sion re­quires a spe­cial hat – and a tui must have a crown. For the Oa­maru Steam­punk Gala Ball, Lizzette chose a tall top hat glammed up with os­trich feath­ers, but­tons, baubles and a royal bird with sil­ver- tipped wings.

In her stu­dio, steam­punk heads and car­riages rub shoul­ders with Lil­liputian car­a­vans that sym­bol­ize Lizzette’s lust for gypsy liv­ing. Friend and fel­low steam punker Bron­wyn Hughes, helps lace a leather corset to get the show on the road.

ABOVE: These boots aren’t made for walk­ing. They’re Fluevogs, dear. TOP: Ellen and Pene­lope (aka the car and car­a­van) and Lizzette, of­ten head out for a hol­i­day at the beach just 12 min­utes’ drive away. Pene­lope is her es­cape hatch where she goes to...

If time ma­chines ex­isted, Lizzette would head to the 19th cen­tury, when bus­tles and corsets were the fash­ion. On the way, she’d stop off in the 1950s and 60s to check out the mu­sic she plays on her replica juke­box, bought with Chrisco Christ­mas...

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