Because of where I live

Daegan Wells has been tracing the story of a quintessentially New Zealand material: wool. Lucy Jackson spoke to him over his loom.

Daegan Wells has been described as a curator, archivist and caretaker. As a child growing up in Southland Wells remembers watching the news and being curious about the sheepskin covering the Speaker’s chair in Parliament. It was similar to the sheepskin lying over the chair his grandmother would sit in to spin wool, and the one covering her car seats. “It’s a little bit naff, a little bit daggy,” he says, “but it’s also so New Zealand to have the Speaker of the House sit in a chair upholstered with sheepskin.”

Years later, Wells was able to visit Parliament during his time as the 2020 recipient of the Enjoy Summer Residency. The residency enables an artist to stay and work for six weeks in the Rita Angus Cottage in Thorndon, Wellington, and develop an exhibition for Enjoy. For Wells, the residency was the perfect opportunity to develop some ideas he’d been pondering and undertake research on New Zealand wool production and its intersection with recent personal, political, cultural and social histories.

Thorndon is a long way from Wells’ home in Southland. The farm he, his partner Scott and their dog Gus live on (and from which they can see Stewart Island) is in the middle of nowhere. “You really do have to have a reason to go there,” Wells says. After completing the Olivia Spencer Bower residency in 2017, Wells had intended to move to Auckland. But during a research trip to Lake Manapouri he met Scott and was convinced to relocate to Scott’s family farm in rural Southland.

“It’s not until you get thrown back into situations like living in Southland that you remember certain things and feelings,” Wells says. “I remembered what it was like to be looked after by my grandmother and to be surrounded by her craft, wool.” Wells’ grandmother spun wool, wove it into cloth and created an abundance of objects from that fabric. “I’m interested in weaving,” he says, “because of where I live and the history of the land, but also because of my grandmother.”

Daegan Wells, Brintons Carpets (Parliament House Library), 2020, 35mm film

Initially, Wells explains, his proposal for the residency was to make a bush coat like the one his grandmother made for him when he was younger. But on getting to the cottage he rethought the idea. “Was it appropriate to make something my grandmother had already done?” Instead, Wells started thinking about wider relationships to wool. He immersed himself in spinning—developing his craft further—pivoted his approach and began a series of ‘rug forms’. They reflect the handcrafted clothes his grandmother made, and while they are not strictly rugs, some are in rug shapes. “I was calling them wool relics for a while.”

The smell of wool that Wells remembers from his grandmother’s house permeates our interview—the results of Wells’ recent spinning and weaving literally hang around us as we talk, the loom sitting off-centre between us. I recognise it too, having grown up surrounded by the same smell in my own grandmother’s house.

Wells also made visits to Parliament, which opened up new research strands. “Rather than being anchored to the studio I wanted to find research sites and spend time with them.” He started looking into the 1990s refurbishment of the New Zealand Parliament and its library, which included a replacement of the carpets with designs by British firm Brintons Carpets. Wells began spending much of his residency time at Parliament photographing the floors.

He discovered that, despite a drive to use local products, the new carpets weren’t manufactured in New Zealand but in Geelong, Australia. They were made with a blend of New Zealand and British wool, but our country simply didn’t have the manufacturing resources to make them here. New Zealand factories had closed or moved overseas, and companies were manufacturing offshore. The issue is a live one: in 2017 Winston Peters was still calling for all synthetic flooring in public buildings across New Zealand to be replaced with real wool New Zealand carpet.

Gus the dog in Wells’ studio, 2020

Wells has gained more insight into the complex histories of sheep farming in New Zealand—a deeply rewarding primary industry which has had varying levels of success—by being part of the community in rural Southland. The decline of the New Zealand wool industry can be linked to several national and international factors; but many in rural communities reflect on past success with a sense of sentimentality, nostalgia and mourning.

Wells remembers being told a story about the wool trade at its height in the 1950s: “Remember the good old days where you’d sell a pound of wool and you’d get a pound back in cash?” Since then things have changed, and the narrative has too. The farm where Wells lives made the switch from sheep to dairy farming in the early 2000s, and most farmers have needed to find alternative revenue streams. Intensive farming is problematic, Wells admits. His partner Scott is now interested in diversifying the way the farm works, for the betterment of both animals and farmers.

Wells has reinserted himself in other sections of the community since moving back to Southland. His grandmother has passed away, but the woman who taught her to weave, Isobel Bates, lives just down the road. Wells went to visit Isobel (the first thing she told him was that as a young boy he had once cut all the warp strings off her loom), and got hooked on wool. The fleeces Wells brought to Wellington for the residency—untreated and unwashed—were from his “little cuties,” his own pet sheep.

Well’s residency will culminate with an exhibition, Bush Coat, at Enjoy from July to September, comprising rug forms, video and drawings of the original carpet designs in Parliament. One room will host large-scale draping forms; and a slideshow-based video work will play a selection of images. As we speak, Wells is still firming up the details, noting that he wants to be playful in the space and that things might change slightly during installation.

Wells’ practice is also a type of storytelling. It seeks to open up conversations and histories, and let people make up their own minds. It might bother some people that the work doesn’t appear to take a strong stance on subjects or clearly show his opinion, but Wells says that he doesn’t want to tell someone how they should engage with, feel or think about his work. This point is really important to his practice.

I ask Wells about his relationship with materials other than wool. While he has used ceramics in the past, there are none in the upcoming exhibition. He explains that he tends to use materials until he exhausts them, selecting only the exact medium that can tell his story. “The materials in my practice are used because of where I live, because of what is around me, because of what I’m learning.”

The 2017 exhibition A Gathering Distrust, for instance, looked at the protest against raising the level of Lake Manapouri for a power station to be built there. (Spoiler: they didn’t end up raising the lake.) Having fallen into Lake Manapouri mud as a child, Wells knew that he could use clay from there to create ceramic forms. The clay for the work came from the exact point where the water meets the land, in that way representing both elements of the story. “I may use ceramic again,” Wells says. “It will just depend on the situation.”

Wells has been described as “curator, archivist and a kind of caretaker” by writer Simon Palenski. I ask him about it and Wells explains. While exploring in Christchurch in the mid-2010s, Wells stumbled upon the house and garden belonging to artist Bill Sutton (1917–2000). The house had been abandoned due to the Christchurch earthquakes, and many of the surrounding buildings had been demolished.

Wells took photographs in and of Sutton’s former garden and exhibited them in the 2016 exhibition Private Lodgings at Blue Oyster Art Project Space, alongside “personal and beautiful” photographs from Christchurch Art Gallery’s archives displayed on fences. In this way Wells explored the double function of a fence as a piece of architecture used to separate and contain, while also functioning to keep people out. Wells also made works from the garden, collecting cuttings and presenting them in the gallery. When the exhibition opened, some labelled Wells as “obsessed.” “I’m not obsessed!” he shoots back. “But I am incredibly interested.”

Daegan Wells, Private Lodgings (William Sutton’s Garden), 2016, silver gelatin print

Wells says that Sutton was an entry point into wider concerns—the effects of the earthquakes on Christchurch, the Red Zone and its demolished houses, what was happening in those spaces, and his own place in this labyrinth.
“In that sense, yes, I guess I am all of those three things—curator, archivist and caretaker.”

Relationships and histories fascinate Wells. While he was on the Olivia Spencer Bower residency he made a point of learning about Spencer Bower and her relationships, for example her friendship with pioneering potter Yvonne Rust. Now Rust is part of his own constellation. When Wells arrived at the Rita Angus Cottage, he came across Rust’s name in the visitor book and then ceramics by her in the lounge—she was one of the first residents of the cottage. The history of artists learning from artists intrigues Wells, and he wants to form histories like this of his own.

His reason is simple. “New Zealand is filled with these incredible makers.” Wells is increasingly interested in people like Isobel: someone who is not part of the art scene but who makes—for herself, her family and her community. By weaving himself into the rural Southland community through a shared knowledge of craft, Wells has found something invaluable. “Why would you learn through Google,” he asks, “if you could learn from someone who had mastered the craft for over 40 years?”

Spending time with Wells, I feel like I’ve learnt from his stories full of crossovers, winding paths and unlikely coincidences. His objects tell stories, too. So when he says, “I’m actually quite bad at telling stories, compared to other people”, I’m not convinced. It seems to me that storytelling and the art that follows are his very forte.

Daegan Wells’ Bush Coat is at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Wellington, until 6 September.

Published in Art News Spring 2020

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