The sky’s the limit

Neil Dawson talks to Lee Suckling about his return to public sculpture, and why he loves transforming civic spaces and skyscapes with his apparently weightless works.

Just a few minutes’ drive east of central Christchurch, amongst Victorian villas on tree-lined streets, is a 100-year-old Oddfellows Hall. The former venue of societal dances, it is now the workshop and design studio of Neil Dawson—the renowned Kiwi artist who sculpts the sky.

From Ferns in Wellington’s Civic Square and Chalice in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, to Raindrops in Manchester, United Kingdom, and Globe in Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Neil Dawson’s public artworks have become city icons. Celebrated around the world for his suspended sculptures, Dawson immerses himself in his ‘skyscapes;’ using the virtues of the sky as a blank canvas for creating each piece.

After 20 years working successfully in the realm of public art, Dawson took a break from public commissions five years ago. He decided to focus on small private pieces, satisfied with the profile he had built for himself.

old/new/borrowed/blue, 2008, which features metamorphic use of the famous Willow Pattern found on ceramic and porcelain kitchenware and houseware, is one of the smaller series of works Dawson has enjoyed working on during this period. “Something about working with iconic items in a way people won’t expect really does it for me – even when it’s something as simple as an old blue plate,” he says. “I’m interested in showing people things they know, not things they don’t know. But doing it with a new and different approach—like I’m breaking things and putting them back together in my own way.”

Earlier this year, Dawson’s series of small editions, DECK First Cut, saw the common playing card transformed into an art form. “It started out with a pair of scissors and a pack of cards one night in front of the TV,” he says. “After the recession hit (in September 2008), I wanted to play around with the idea of our world as a falling house of cards—but I wanted to make it a bit cheeky, something to levitate us from real life.”

DECK – First Cut evolved into an outdoor work, titled Whare, which adds a Maori theme to the playing cards, and was installed on the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail in October 2009. Dawson’s work has always involved a cultural mix, which can be seen in prominent sculptures such as Chalice—with its native leaf design contrasting with the quintessentially English backdrop of Cathedral Square – and in much of his other work. Whare is another illustration of this. “It’s a serendipitous combination of the classic European playing card pattern with Maori designs,” says Dawson. “It adds to DECK’s theme by adding more specific cultural references, making it relevant to New Zealand.”

Dawson’s career in sculpture began in the mid-1960s, when he moved from his home in Hastings to Christchurch. He went south to pursue a degree in Fine Arts at Canterbury University, but failed his first year. “If I had passed I think I would have gone straight into painting, but because I failed I had a year to question myself. I discovered that if I went into sculpture I could paint things, but in painting I couldn’t build things. The 1960s were an open and adventuresome time, and sculpture’s possibilities represented that.”

During his university years, Dawson found himself increasingly fond of discussing the work of the Russian constructivists. “They built things, rather than carving or modelling them, and I’ve always been interested in the additive process when you find bits and pieces and build them up,” he says, adding that his lecturer, Tom Taylor, insisted that the basis of an interest in sculpture should go beyond the pedestal. “I really took that to heart—I haven’t made anything on a plinth since then.”

Since his student days, Dawson has had a strong inclination towards public art. The nature of his forms, however, has meant they must be installed in places people can’t get to. “That’s where putting my art up in the air came from. If you want to deal with more delicate structures and communicate in a way that’s not ‘heavy,’ you need to find a way to build things in public places that have a physical resilience, but still retain a delicacy and a lightness of touch.”

There is, undoubtedly, a downside to public artwork. “There’s an expectation by the public that artists should create things that don’t need to be maintained, which is very hard for us to live up to,” says Dawson. “But I do my best. I use non-ferrous metals that don’t corrode, concentrating on aluminium and stainless steel. When you’ve got so much work going out there, you can’t have it coming home for repairs. It’s like living with the fear the kids will move back in with their parents and need to be taken care of in their 30s!”

Dawson taught 3D design and drawing at Christchurch Polytechnic for nine years, producing temporary installations for specific exhibitions sporadically throughout the 1970s. He didn’t sell anything until 1978, when the success of his first series of work, House Alterations, gave him the confidence he could make a full-time career out of sculpture. The big opportunity came in 1983, when Dawson was commissioned to do his first major work, The Rock, for the Bank of New Zealand Centre in Wellington. He took a year off teaching to see if he could make his burgeoning career work, and never returned.

For 20 years Dawson produced several public works each year, preferring these over gallery exhibitions. “There’s something sanctified about a gallery environment because the works are physically and visually static,” he comments. “With public sculpture there’s a real dynamism because it’s constantly changing with the light and the elements. The majority of my work has more holes in it than substance—it’s about looking through things, not just at things. There’s always an element of surprise,” he says, proudly declaring that every day his sculptures can appear differently, and every single moment can be a unique experience for the spectator. “When art is frozen in a gallery, it loses those possibilities.”

Dawson has never wanted to live more than a few doors away from his work, and has always needed a space all to himself. His 500-square-metre studio, which encompasses a metal workshop, wood workshop, computer lab and office, and adjacent living quarters, allows him to work on many large-scale pieces without the need for a separate warehouse facility. “There are times when I need the space and times when I don’t, but when you’re working on projects over a couple of years, you need that flexibility.”

He’s been there for 23 years, producing public work for installation in New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and Asia. To date he has completed, with the help of a small team, over 60 permanent and temporary public installations, as well as countless private and corporate artworks. Over his 30-year career, Dawson has built up a group of consultants – from computer designers, engineers and suppliers to lawyers and accountants. “They all know when I phone them, I’m after something wacky. I’m going to push the limits of their machines, their experience and their skills.” Dawson has also employed over 20 assistants during that time, several of whom have been with him for six or seven years at a time—notably artists Phil Price and Richard Reddaway.

The creative process for every sculptor varies, and for Dawson it always begins with a quick freehand drawing on an A4 sheet of paper. Many of his ideas are stowed away, waiting for the perfect site or the appropriate tools to make a work. His practice has evolved with technology and he first adopted laser-cutting after developing Occupational Overuse Syndrome in his arm. This allowed him to work on designs that had been confined to a drawer for 15 years. For instance his recent sculpture, Feather Vane, a private commission installed at the Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago, was actually designed in the early 1990s. “Things that have never been possible have become real – and with technology developing all the time, the possibilities of new materials and techniques can inspire you too.”

Dawson believes public art can have a big influence on a city’s branding, and at the end of 2009 he plans to return to sculpture for the people, making a large work in Christchurch’s newly refurbished Cashel Mall. “No one ever talks about the value of art to a city in terms of iconography, but art can be an ongoing earner for the local council and tourism boards. Every postcard sent and photo taken, with public art in the background, proudly promotes a city to the world,” he says, adding that considering the cost of civic upkeep, the cost of public art is minimal when you consider its large benefits.

“I have a silent wish that like musicians, who receive money when their music is played, artists should be paid royalties,” he adds jokingly. “But in all fairness, when art works, it’s a real part of a city.”

Header image: Neil Dawson, Ferns, Wellington’s Te Ngākau Civic Square

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Read more

Judy Millar on the furore at Documenta.
Editor Connie Brown reviews two new titles, Robin White: Something is Happening Here and The South Island of New Zealand: From the Road, a reissue of the famous book from photographer Robin Morrison.
Fiona Pardington describes photographs as ambiguous, powerful, dangerous and confusing—and that is what she loves about them. She tells Virginia Were about her recent still life series.
Art News speaks to the curator ahead of the 8th TarraWarra Biennal: ua usiusi faʻavaʻasavili.
Tony Lane's paintings are like contemplative objects where the secular meets the divine.
For 25 years Pauline Bern mentored many Unitec students who are now leading lights in New Zealand jewellery. Linda Tyler finds out how Bern opened her students’ eyes to the social context of jewellery and its exciting potential as an expressive medium.
Marti Friedlander's photographs reveal a compassionate and intuitive eye as well as a deeply enquiring mind
Linda Tyler reviews a new book on architect James Hackshaw’s collaborations with artists Colin McCahon and Paul Dibble for the Catholic Church.


Enjoy 15% Off

Your First Order