Art on a grand scale

VISUAL TREAT: One of Mike Hewson's artworks is installed on the Cranmer Court building at the weekend.
VISUAL TREAT: One of Mike Hewson's artworks is installed on the Cranmer Court building at the weekend.

Mike Hewson has had a very personal experience of the Christchurch earthquakes. He talks with Christopher Moore about the role art can play in boosting the public spirits at a time of loss and sadness.

Mike Hewson's latest project is art on a grand scale. The message it carries is equally far-reaching - providing a beacon of hope to Christchurch at a time of tribulation.

Homage To Lost Spaces (Government Life Building Studios) is also a tribute to a group of fellow artists who were working in the Government Life Building overlooking Cathedral Square on February 22, 2011.

CREATIVE RESILIENCE: Mike Hewson's images have transformed a heritage building into something that is full of life and vibrancy.
CREATIVE RESILIENCE: Mike Hewson's images have transformed a heritage building into something that is full of life and vibrancy.

Hewson was sharing a studio with his brother, Andrew, when the magnitude- 6.3 earthquake demolished the tower of the neighbouring Christ Church Cathedral and forced them to flee.

He was not alone. The building housed other Christchurch artists who lost studio space and work. The figures of many, including Tony de Lautour, Sam Harrison and David Marshall now inhabit the boarded window and roof spaces on the earthquake-battered Gothic Revival facade of Cranmer Courts.

When he originally took photos of the friends and artists working around him, Hewson never envisaged that his images would assume such significance.

The former Christchurch Normal School, opened in 1876, has become a huge canvas for the series of portraits. The project is both a lament for a city's lost heart and a celebration of the resilience of the creative spirit.

Homage To Lost Spaces also draws the eye to the scarred beauty of one of Christchurch's architectural treasures currently facing demolition.

"I want to draw attention to the vibrancy and creative spirit people bring to a place, while paying respect to one of Christchurch's landmark buildings and the beauty it contains," Hewson says.

Covering a total area of between 120 and 130 square metres, the mixed media images on plywood transform the abandoned building into something that is full of life and vibrancy.

"I intended this work to project the same spirit of life back into Cranmer Courts, to help people remember, before it is gone, that this building, too, was once full of community, fun and family.

"It is important we acknowledge these places in the same way we do other losses. It's almost like we are preparing it for burial - dressing it up, grooming it and saying a final goodbye," Hewson says.

Viewed from certain perspectives, the images take on a life of their own. During the installation, Hewson, a qualified civil engineer, has become a familiar figure as, hard hat securely in place, he has carefully negotiated the walls of the damaged building on a large mechanical hoist.

"I've pushed the whole thing through myself, but Cera [the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] has been very supportive. I've been governed by the current state of the building, but luckily there hasn't been a tremor while I've been installing them.

"The project has re-established my links with Christchurch. It's a summation of everything I've gone through since September 4, 2010.

"After that event, I helped the recovery programme, but after February 22, 2011, things got more personal."

Hewson eventually found himself working in Port Hedland, Western Australia, but soon began to feel disconnected from the city he knew so intimately.

The Cranmer Courts project has re- established and strengthened that bond between artist and city.

"It adds vibrancy to the background of demolitions, road cones, fences and safety warnings. These signs indicate danger, but these images point to the fact that this building has a history.

"The ongoing state of disrepair, looming deconstruction followed by a gradual rebuild is an exciting environment to work in - if it can be viewed as a medium.

"I hope that somehow the lack of space will cause artists to innovate and find new ways to exhibit work in the public place, and be integral with the aesthetic and premise of the rebuild."

Hewson graduated from the University of Canterbury in 2007 with a Bachelor of Engineering degree. He became a finalist in 2010 for the Anthony Harper Art Award and recently had a solo exhibition at 45 Downstairs, Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

The Press