Wellington's sculptor to the stars

17:00, May 10 2013
max patte
Sculptor Max Patte outside his Island Bay home, where guests are welcomed by his Charles Sargent-inspired figures.

Phew, what a year! Sculptor Max Patte's face ought to be riven with worry lines as hard-chiselled as the five enormous iron horses he's just completed for Sir Michael Hill's Arrowtown golf course.

In between renovating his Island Bay villa, installing his Reflection at Sir Ian McKellen's home overlooking the Thames, and trying to iron out the final technical problems with the Chinese foundry casting the iron horses, Patte took a call from courier DHL. It had somehow managed to lose the two Elizabethan-styled busts he had carefully crated and sent off to an English client.

No biggie – just a Christmas present from probably the world's most influential art collector, Charles Saatchi, to his celebrity chef wife, Nigella Lawson.

"There was just so much stress," the apparently unflappable Patte reflects. "Last year was without question the biggest year of my life."

And that's saying something for a sculptor who has chalked up more successes in his 35 years than most artists achieve in a lifetime – all while holding down a day job as Weta Workshop's head of sculpture. Little wonder his girlfriend grumbles that she never sees him.

Not bad for the guy who, while sculpting the bat suit for Batman Begins, asked director Christopher Nolan what he did on the film.


Born and raised in Britain, Patte – -known here for his Solace in the Wind figure arching out over the Wellington waterfront – came to New Zealand in 2006 seeking relief from the London rat race, and perhaps solace after a marriage breakup.

He fell into a job at Weta, and Sir Richard Taylor has become his greatest patron, and "more of a really good mate than a boss", allowing him to use the workshop's studio facilities to create his own art, in return for the first edition of everything crafted under his roof. Taylor already has a container-full of Patte's work awaiting a home.

But The Frolic and The Fancy commission for Sir Michael – which will be unveiled on a pasture below the 7th tee tomorrow – was by far his biggest undertaking yet.

More than two years ago, Sir Michael, who also owns an edition of Solace, asked Patte to design a series of figures to complement the Central Otago landscape. An idea came to Patte almost immediately, encapsulating Arrowtown's goldmining roots and Sir Michael's own history in the jewellery trade. Pages and pages of his sketch book refined the "Fortitude" concept – 16 imposing men wielding pick-axes and other mining tools staking out the hill's brow, looking up to the mountains above Arrowtown, site of the old gold claims. Like the two -coated men standing sentry at the entrance to Patte's Island Bay home, the figures reflected the sculptor's chunky, chiselled style.

Conscious that his strength lies in sculpting rather than drawing, Patte even crafted scale models, or maquettes, in clay and sent them off to China to be cast, so he could present Sir Michael with the finished concept before revealing his idea.

"I sent all of this down for consideration. He came back and said he loved them but thought they were a bit 'Iron Curtain'. Which was slightly ironic seeing they were going to be cast in iron."

Six months' work down the drain. It wasn't until December 2011 that Sir Michael, fresh from a trip to Beijing's creative hub 798 Art District, where he bought the 110 cast-iron wolves and warrior that now dominate the golf course's 18th hole, suggested a group of horses.

After several clydesdale-sketching trips to Staglands, and to a friend's farm back home in England, Patte began to fashion horse heads, tails and bodies in armature wire, then in clay. The original plan was for 15 to 30 horses, so he planned to interchange heads and tails to create variation.

For Patte, the joy of sculpture lies in its physicality, and his own work is an antidote to the increasingly computer-dominated film sculpture process. While some film directors, including Sir Peter Jackson, still like to see physical models during the design process, it's now possible to fashion a prop from concept to final form entirely on the computer.

"I'm happiest doing big sculptures, big broad sweeps with the clay tool. Weta do the most beautiful, tiny, intricate stuff. I couldn't do that – I think I would tear my hair out."

Patte does use modern technology: he digitally scans his clay models and sends the data to the Chinese iron foundry, which mills a full-size polystyrene replica as a starting point for the casting process.

Patte spent a month in China sculpting finishing detail on to a plasticene skin covering the polystyrene surface, before the lengthy, millennia-old "black art" casting process began. The project was so enormous that the foundry had to co-opt a second foundry to help, and the casting had to be done through the night because it required so much electricity it would have brought the plant's other projects to a standstill.

"[Sir] Michael and I went there last December to see the first two horses welded together. It was basically like stepping back into Dickensian times. It was this old, broken-down, corrugated-roof warehouse with all these coal-fired furnaces. The noise is absolutely unbelievable. Everything is covered in black.

"It was the most stunning day and as you walked in there, amongst all of this chaos and noise, there's this giant iron horse with all this smoke going around it and the rays coming through the broken roof. It just looked like something out of a corny film, because it looked completely overdone. It was this really incredible thing, to actually see the finished product. The weight of the iron just gave them this gravitas. It was thrilling."

Despite not being involved in the actual casting process, Patte still retains the same sense of ownership of the work.

"Every time you cast something in iron or bronze, or any metal, there are always slight changes to the original. It almost takes on a life of its own. It's like having a child and sending that child out there into the world to make its own way. Like the pieces on the waterfront, all the other pieces in iron, you put them out there and

they take on their own patinas. They might get graffitied, which I've always likened to the human body getting a knock or two, injuries, scars. I really don't mind any of that. It's just like another layer to the story."

That ever-developing story is another reason Patte loves the tradition of physical sculpture. In London, he periodically worked with his neighbour, who happens to be one of the world's foremost art and antiquity restorers. He's so exclusive, Patte won't divulge his name, and he was also the reason Patte landed a commission from Charles Saatchi. (More about that later.)

"To work with an object that is thousands of years old, and to actually see somebody's thumbprint in that work, that's really something. You'd never get that from a milled piece of composite material that effectively no human hand has ever touched."

Brought up "in the middle of nowhere" in Gloucestershire, Patte was the son of a farm machinery importer and exporter. His mother was an artistic teacher who was always painting and making things.

"When I was a kid as young as you can be to hold a shovel, I was helping my dad mix cement."

Patte was always more creative than scientifically or mathematically minded and ended up studying fine art sculpture at Wimbledon in South London. But he tired of his fellow students spending the afternoons getting stoned, and watching all those fabulous stone carving and bronze foundry facilities lying idle, so he switched to technical arts.

"I was 19. I hadn't really got any massive ideas of my own, any pressing issues I wanted to get out through my art. I wanted to learn traditional techniques."

His tutors were well connected in the film world and he landed summer work experience jobs and later work with Animated Extras and acclaimed sculptor Julian Murray, who worked on the Batman and Harry Potter movies and became Patte's mentor.

Patte rates his work with Murray and a fellow art school graduate crafting multiple foam latex bat suits for Batman Begins, complete with tech-revealing undersuit, as his film industry highlight. And that's despite his embarrassing introduction to the film's director.

"That was brilliant. To work with Christopher Nolan so closely – our sculpture studio was directly beneath his office, he would come in to see us constantly throughout the day. He'd pick up clay, work with us to maquette it. It was basically life size over a model of Christian Bale's body. Chris is such a nice guy. That was a real pleasure."

Patte worked on everything from Harry Potter and The Last Samurai to the Scottish Royal Ballet's production of Cinderella, interspersed with stints in Sweden, where his wife was from.

But by 2006, the London grind had lost its lustre. With the film studios dotted around London's notorious M25 ringroad, Patte would rise at 5.30am to be at work for 7.45am, and wouldn't leave until 7pm. The journey crossed 105 speed bumps.

"It was ridiculous, absolutely crazy," he recalls from the serene South Coast villa he bought in 2011 and renovated with his father last year. "I'm never ever going back to doing that. So coming here was the complete antithesis of that. It's a 15-minute journey, if that, to work around the bays. No traffic lights, no speed bumps."

For the first time, he actually has time to do his own art. Wellington has been good to him, with the exception of a stoush over his sculpture Reflection, which Patte offered as a gift to the city. It was good enough for Sir Ian McKellen and film director Guillermo del Toro, who has an edition at his LA home, but was turned down by Wellington Waterfront, to Patte's enduring disbelief.

He probably won't be here forever and he still keeps up international contacts, including working a stint on Snow White and the Huntsman on a trip home last year, when he also picked up that Saatchi commission.

And yes, the busts – life-size replicas of actual Elizabethan busts Saatchi already owns, replaced with Saatchi's and Lawson's heads – did arrive on time, but only because Patte made a second edition in double-quick time.

The project had already proved a nightmare given the difficulty of finding a perfect profile photograph of renowned recluse Saatchi on which to model the face.

"The only photographs I could get were pretty much paparazzi shots, completely out of focus. But I actually found him much easier than Nigella. It's always so difficult to sculpt beautiful women, you have to compliment them as well.

"Doing that for anybody is always a bit nerve-racking, but when it's for somebody as influential ... Doing a commission for Charles Saatchi is pretty much a career highlight, you've got to get it right. To think I have got two pieces in his private collection, which now sit in his bedroom, is pretty cool."

So what's planned for the next 35 years?

Patte hopes to craft six of his own figures for an exhibition, exploring the idea of exposing the crafting and milling process. "Commissioned work is good but you're always working for a client, trying to meet their needs. I think every artist dreams of doing work of their own conception and for somebody to come along and love that for what it is and buy it.

The Dominion Post