The seed for creating a new artwork can come unexpectedly. Ceramic artist Kirsty Gardiner works part-time at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art and History in Masterton as a gallery technician.
In 2011, a family bequeathed the skins of two huia birds to the museum. "I knew about them but I have never seen them before. I assumed they'd be a pair of dried-up birds - and they were just so beautiful," Gardiner says.
Her job was to house them in the museum's collection. "It was just the catalyst I suppose to do some research about them and find out more. Then I started making them. It was a bit of an obsession I suppose."
Visitors to Expressions in Upper Hutt can see the results of Gardiner's three-year obsession in her show Portmanteau: A Cabinet of Curiosities. The centrepiece is Barcode, comprised of 77 ceramic huia-like birds. Each is about 30 centimetres long, the same measurement as the huia, extinct since 1907 from hunting and deforestation.
Gardiner says many of the measurements are the same as the huia, even down to female and male beak length. But she describes her ceramic birds as "huia-like" as they aren't exact replicas and are more her expression of the huia. Her first huia were more realistic, which she entered in the Portage Ceramic Awards, winning a merit award in 2011. "Now it's become more of a statement of what actually happened to the birds and all birds that are extinct or about to become extinct than [when] seeing those two birds.
"It's saying to people ‘look, this is what we've actually done'."
Gardiner says Barcode grew of of being given a specific wall space at Aratoi. From a distance, the 77 birds resemble a giant barcode and each bird also has an individual barcode on its left side to signify its price. The idea of price acknowledges the rush in the early 1900s to buy huia skins.
Gardiner also put each of the 77 on sale individually for $100 each, the equivalent of what collectors paid for huia skins in the early 1900s. Eerily mirroring the frenzy for skins more than a century ago, all 77 ceramic huia were snapped up. "It wasn't about selling them but the statement. People came in and were buying them and it felt like a repeat of the same thing."
Gardiner is doing the same for Barcode at Expressions. She spent four months making 77 new ceramic birds for the work and each is for sale. "We are selling them again because I want to see if the same thing will happen."
The show's title, Portmanteau: A Cabinet of Curiosities, is also important for Gardiner, who also won the premiere prize in the 2010 Portage Ceramic Awards. Portmanteau can mean a travel bag or a new word made up of two other words. The show also features ceramic extinct native birds from Gardiner's imagination, including the matuchi and the pipiwhararua. The concept is linked to collections or "cabinets of curiosities" that were popular in the Victorian era where "if you needed to make a unicorn, you got some bits and bobs and made one", Gardiner says.
Gardiner, a ceramic artist for the past 30 years, had not crafted birds before huia but she says birds are likely to be part of further artworks.
Portmanteau: A Cabinet of Curiosities, Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt until April 21.
- The Dominion Post
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