Conjuring space and freedom

18:37, Jun 09 2013
Sculptor Neil Dawson works on Spires in his Christchurch workshop.
Sculptor Neil Dawson works on Spires in his Christchurch workshop.

Neil Dawson's first public art work was writ large on the roof of Hastings Boys' High School's assembly hall.

It was called April Fool and its large hand-painted white letters, clandestinely painted in the middle of the night, hit all the correct artistic buttons - theatrical drama, visual impact, human interest . . . and guaranteed to attract media attention.

The fourth former's creation reached the front page of The Hawke's Bay Herald-Tribune with an aerial view of the work.

Sculptor Neil Dawson works on Spires in his Christchurch workshop.
Sculptor Neil Dawson works on Spires in his Christchurch workshop.

"I suspect that this was the beginning of my career in public art," Neil Dawson remembers.

Compared with Chalice and the five-storey-high, 20-metre-diameter Fanfare, April Fool was modest stuff. But it established Dawson's reputation as an artist unafraid to take chances and directly engage the viewer in a dialogue.

Move forward several decades to view Spires, a work in progress, destined to be hung in Christchurch's Latimer Square. The 10-metre-long sculpture will sit at the central point of the square, above the east-west pathway, where it will provide a visual link between Christ Church Cathedral in Cathedral Square and the new cardboard cathedral. Its elegant twin spires also reflect Dawson's memories of a canonical Christchurch landmark destroyed on February 22, 2011. But designing the sculpture was also challenging.


"I realised that I couldn't actually remember the architectural details of the former spire. It is only 2 1/2 years since it fell but somehow they weren't there in my mind. I had to look at photographs to remember them. It was frightening and it showed how once the old tower had gone, it left a major hole in the city."

Spires is now taking form in Dawson's Christchurch studio. He shares the 104-year-old Linwood Oddfellows Hall with gallery director Jonathan Smart, an amicably pragmatic arrangement reached after Smart was forced to abandon his inner-city gallery. It's one which will soon come to an end when Smart's gallery moves to another building.

Dawson bought the building 25 years ago, restoring and renovating its rimu timbers and original floors. It's the perfect creative space for an artist who requires space and height to blossom. His first public art work (aside from the aforementioned schoolboy prank) was the 1981 Echo in the Christchurch Arts Centre, a work which hung above the central quadrangle. Other works followed and his career as a sculptor "rolled on from this point".

"Art is about expanding horizons. I'm not so much interested in making precious objects which will end up in galleries. I like the challenge of sculpture and I never work in a vacuum. My work has never been rooted to the Earth. I believe in floating ideas, literally and figuratively," the 64-year-old artist says.

Writing in New Zealand Sculpture. A History, art historian Michael Dunn describes Dawson's sculpture as "individual, unique and easy to recognise . . . his sculptures flout convention in their lightness of feel, their transparency and their escape from the conventions of earthbound pedestal-based display.

"His art is invariably clever, specific to its site and distinctive in its elusive position between the tangible and the perceptual."

Today Dawson's sculptures can be found from Wellington to Paris and Brisbane. He recently installed Feather From Afar in Shanghai's Pudong business district; creating a moment of elegant tranquility gently resting among the frenetic hurly-burly. The 1998 Ferns remains a focal point 14 metres above Wellington's Civic Square. He created Globe in 1989 for the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It now hangs in Manchester, Britain.

Born in Christchurch, this son of a Methodist minister grew up in Masterton, Petone and Hastings. There weren't many artists in the Dawson family and he suspects that he found himself in the high school's artroom "by default".

Dawson remembers himself as an active, mischievous child - friends suggest that he hasn't changed much - a boy interested in the "doing" rather than studying.

"My art teacher was Russ Williams who was a re-incarnation of Gauguin. He'd go off to the Pacific with female companions to show them how Gauguin painted. At the time I thought that this was very cool. But he was also an extraordinary teacher who connected at a level I have rarely encountered since."

He was also fortunate in his next teacher and mentor at The Canterbury School of Art, Tom Taylor, who taught him sculpture and continues to have a profound effect on Dawson's art.

"Taylor was a very complex individual, a fiercely intelligent man who introduced us to a world beyond art and sculpture and brought a new scope to our practice. He was tough but he made you confront yourself. He set challenges which would last for the rest of your life - and you can't ask for more than that from your teacher."

Taylor also failed him in first year history and sculpture. But Dawson returned to repeat the course.

"Sculpture is a different art form because of its complexity and technical demands. It's certainly not a portable package but I became absolutely fascinated by it."

After graduating, Dawson spent a year at teachers training college before taking up an arts council grant in 1972 for two years of post- graduate study at Melbourne's Victorian College of Arts. Returning to New Zealand, he drove a truck for four years before becoming a full-time tutor at The Christchurch Polytechnic from 1975 to 1983. Meanwhile, he continued to create and exhibit temporary new works.

The installation of Echo as part of the arts centre's temporary arts programme marked the beginning of Dawson's career as a full-time artist. He was paid $300 for the simplified outline drawing of the arts centre in metal tubing which has seen its share of ups and downs - dismantled after being damaged by a crane, in storage for a decade before being re-installed in 1991, then dismantled following the February 2011 earthquake.

"I was also working on ideas which I had no site or clients for. I still do. Spires, for example, demonstrates that you shouldn't wait to be asked to do these things. From 1981 to 2000 I didn't do any public works in Christchurch. I designed quite a few - it's just that they haven't been seen. I submitted a design for the Stewart Fountain but came second."

The dawn of the new century saw the installation of Chalice in Cathedral Square. As Dawson notes wryly, it immediately became the focus for criticism and approval, with architect Peter Beaven famously comparing it to "the vent to an underground toilet".

While the city worked itself into a minor frenzy of attack and counter attack, Dawson maintained his distance and silence.

"I had a very firm attitude towards the attacks - I never responded. During that two-year debate, you won't find a single quote from me. But the criticism did surprise me. Much of it was a misreading of what Chalice was and how it would look. Some critics even assumed that it would be taller than the cathedral.

"With any public sculpture there must be one, preferably two, people who want it as much as you, otherwise it's not worth doing. Fortunately I had the support of three individuals - Sir Miles Warren, Anna Creighton and the late Don Peebles."

It took two years to get approval and install Chalice.

"I think that we did very well. All this impacts on your professional and personal life but I guess that it's all part of the cut and thrust. Within two days of its installation, Chalice became the focus for the city's remembrance of the victims of 9/11."

A public sculpture project represents a collaboration between the artist and a team of people "who believe in the work and know that I will be challenged by whatever I come up with".

"Spires involves about 25 individuals who are providing finance or their services in kind. You can't work in isolation, especially when you enter a public space."

Collaboration also laid the foundation for the installation of Fanfare in Christchurch.

In 2005 the giant sphere hung above the Sydney Harbour Bridge as part of the city's New Year celebrations.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, and the former Mayor of Christchurch, Gary Moore, later worked together to move the work to New Zealand.

Dawson is working with SCAPE Public Art to create a spectacular welcome to Christchurch at Chaney's Corner on the northern approaches to the city. "I've watched this project expand to the stage where I hope that it will become a reality. Each time that I'm invited to look at a setting for a work I'm challenged not only by the physical space but the sculpture's potential to change it in a way which will last," Dawson says.

"The challenge is to keep things completely open until I've reached the stage of making the proposal. I also like to surprise myself with something that I've never done before."

The Press