Glass art has classical touch

Last updated 12:24 26/07/2013
POSTER ART: Brian Chrystall’s Greek Helmet with Red Plume bears a striking resemblance to the poster advertising Te Manawa’s Roman Machines exhibition.

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A lucky coincidence has seen a stunning display of cast glass helmets arrive in Palmerston North during Te Manawa's Roman Machines exhibition. Faye Lougher talks to Taylor-Jensen Fine Arts managing director Stuart Schwartz and discovers another connection.

When an email from Brian Chrystall arrived in Stuart Schwartz's inbox, asking if Taylor-Jensen Fine Arts would be interested in showing his cast-glass artworks, Schwartz's interest was piqued. The Auckland-based glass artist had been represented in Rotorua by Red Spot Gallery and in Hamilton by Gallery Artisans, but both galleries had recently closed, bringing the total number of closed galleries he had been represented in to five.

Schwartz says the photos that accompanied the email were of a series of small glass helmets. He replied to Chrystall and said he planned to display the helmets as a tie-in to the Roman Machines exhibition at Te Manawa.

"As the foundation director of the Science Centre and Manawatu Museum from 1992 to 1995, I always try to support the old organisation if possible. Te Manawa is a real regional institution and Palmy people should be proud of that fact and be glad it is here in our community," he says.

In 1992 Schwartz was working as a museum consultant in South Carolina when a job advertisement in the American Association of Museums' newsletter caught his eye. It was for a job in Palmerston North, New Zealand, as director of the Science Centre and Manawatu Museum [now known as Te Manawa Museum of Art, Science and History].

Schwartz applied for the position and was flown to New Zealand for interviews. He says the interview process was amazing, totalling about eight hours over five days. A presentation in front of 40 people was also part of the interview process, something Schwartz found "pretty nerve-racking".

"But I must have said the right thing because I went back to South Carolina and they called and said they would like me to come [and be the director]."

Schwartz originally trained as an archaeologist, taking anthropology at university before attending graduate school to study American historical archaeology.

"I worked in the field and was the historic site archaeologist for the state of North Carolina in the mid 1970s, dealing with colonial history in North Carolina. From there I was dealing with artefacts, then curating exhibitions."

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Schwartz ultimately became the curator of history for the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"I was tasked to look after the artefacts of minting and I was curator for the historic textiles and costumes that came into my department. Because of my dealings with ceramics I was asked to curate the collection of ceramics and develop the American collection - they had a lot of English and European ceramics."

Schwartz also developed a map collection to go with the collections of graphics and works on paper, and spent six years in that role before taking a break to work as a museum consultant.

He says that unfortunately it wasn't a great time to be a consultant, and so when he saw the job in Palmerston North advertised, he decided to apply.

"I was a big fan of Thor Heyerdahl [a Norwegian adventurer famous for sailing a raft 8000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean in 1947] so I knew where New Zealand was and was excited about heading somewhere around the South Pacific."

Schwartz says he was entranced with Maori culture and still is. He recalls some duty-free shopping on the plane back to America after his interview.

"I bought two bone carvings by Brian Flintoff, one of the North Island and one of the South Island. I thought if I never get back to New Zealand I've got a nice reminder. Then I had them framed and brought them back to New Zealand after I got the job. We fell in love with the country and the people and the variety of landscape and the environment."

Schwartz and his family were warmly welcomed by the people of Palmerston North, and he was soon busy getting the institute up and running on schedule.

"The governor-general had given a date she would be coming to open it. I was the foundation director [of the new centre] composed of two institutions; the Manawatu Museum, a 50-plus-year-old history museum which was at that time run by Mina McKenzie, and the 18-month-old Science Centre run by was Peter Millward. It was very difficult to develop a single philosophy - it was the three hardest years of my professional museum life."

Schwartz's initial three-year term as director was not renewed, which he says may have had something to do with his "American ideas".

"I had to find something new to do. We could have moved anywhere in the world or New Zealand, but Palmerston North is a very convenient place to live and we loved this city. Palmerston North is a wonderful place."

While deciding what to do for a job, Schwartz got talking with conservation picture framer Dennis Jensen.

"He had a little art gallery outside his studio, and one day he said that what this city truly needs to be cosmopolitan is a good art gallery, a dealer gallery."

A business plan was drawn up, and the building housing the gallery became available.

"It's an ideal location, next to the library and Bruce McKenzie Booksellers - people who read and buy books buy art.

"When we looked at this space early on, they were just fitting it out and we had many talks about the floor. We had the choice of carpet or sanding the boards after we pulled up the lino. To be a really chic gallery you needed highly polished floors and I still love the squeaky boards."

Taylor-Jensen Fine Arts opened to the public August 2 1997.

"We have been here for 16 years now, which we think is a record for the city. We are very fortunate to get the support we do.

"The philosophy was to take people from the photomechanical prints that were popular and the oil paintings from Asia and move people into original art.

"We wanted to support local artists so that they can make a living, and show as much regional art as possible."

Taylor-Jensen has shown works by artists who have gone on to become very popular.

"We have shown works by Michael Smither, John McLean, Brent Wong, Tom Mutch. Andrew Ross is an accountant who now shows in Queenstown. We like to promote local art, which is as good as any and a lot of it is world-class. Jack Register became not only a gallery artist but also a family friend. Two local artists we helped discover are Colin Hoare - he knew he had talent and we spread the word, and Dennis Greenwood - he certainly had talent and we showcased it. We hope we can find more like them, what we call back-benchers, to borrow a parliamentary term."

Schwartz says he and his wife are eclectic collectors. He loves watercolours, woodturning and ceramics, and both love crafts.

"We don't have enough room in our own house for everybody. We're big fans of just about all of it, and we've been collecting crafts all our lives. People like [potter] Kim Morgan, [ceramic artist] Trevor Wright, glass blowers Lynden Over, Katie Brown and Chris Jones."

Chrystall, the maker of the cast-glass helmets, is a retired scientist who now devotes much of his time to his art. He was introduced to cast glass in 2002 when he took an art class which taught him the lost-wax casting process, the key to bronze and glass casting.

"The inspiration that led to the development of the helmets came from reading Homer's The Iliad. Homer's description of Hector's helmet made me wonder if I could make one out of glass."

Chrystall made a crude mould of his head using clay and from that - via a number of different processes - he created a life-size helmet in lead crystal.

"Starting from the knowledge gained from making the full-sized helmet, I used similar processes to create a wax model of a Greek helmet. Then I thought, ‘why not make other ancient helmets?' So I set about creating helmets from other cultures and other styles."

Schwartz says the gallery hasn't had much cast glass on display before and was lucky to get Chrystall's work.

"The last year we've gotten some really interesting new works; we're bringing new people in all the time to keep the place fresh and intriguing. "

- © Fairfax NZ News

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