The Hills Sculpture Park… and Golf Course, NZ

I have the privilege of playing a round of golf where the New Zealand Open is played; at the exclusive Hills Golf Course near Queenstown in New Zealand’s South Island. It is not going to be an ordinary day. This stupendous course doubles as a sculpture park of dizzying imagination. The whole is inspired by Sir Michael Hill: jeweller, golfer and believer that the seeing-touching physicality of big metallic art can change society.

The Hills Sculpture Park 1

Wolves are Coming, Liu Ruowang, 2011, Warrior figure 3m high, 110 wolves 2m long, Cast iron

The dominant work, next to the 18th fairway and visible from the discrete clubhouse, is a sculpture like no other. A massive oriental warrior wielding a two-handed sword fends off 110 howling-hungry wolves. This is Liu Ruowangs “Wolves are Coming.” (We get up close and personal with the wolves coming down the 18th fairway.)

On every hole, there is a heart-stopping distraction. Golf takes second place.

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The Calici Scythe, Paul Dibble, 2001, 2.3m high, Cast bronze

Near the second fairway, a prominent and intriguing but rather absurd rabbitoid figure stands atop a pair of smiling lips atop a sphere atop a cube. I wander around it amused and confused. Only later do I understand that this is a reference to the smiling farmers of the area who, by introducing the calici virus to the rabbit population, believed their vermin woes were over. The rabbits – thanks to their resilient immune systems – have since come back with a vengeance… and have the last smile!

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Dragonflies, Mark Hill, 2006, Welded stainless steel and industrial ceramic (electrical pylon insulators)

The course-cum-sculpture park is a dream. I love it. The challenging sixth hole has a water hazard in front of the green. Giant shiny dragonflies scoot over the surface. Their bodies are made of those big ceramic insulator things from electricity pylons. Large trout swim by.

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Solace in the Wind, Max Patte, 2012, 1.9m high, Cast iron

On the tenth hole, I walk over a stone bridge. On the parapet a naked iron man leans into a strong wind. He lifts his face up welcoming the powerful fresh gusts. He exudes peace of mind in solitude. I look closely at his hands and the strained muscles of his legs and abdomen. The anatomist in me sings.

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Untitled, Grant Williams, 2009, 7m high, Fibreglass and steel moving wind sculpture

Set against the rugged South Island lanscape, this smooth seedling-like giant tree-flower oversees the 15th fairway. It is totally mesmerizing. The “trunk” and the three individual “branches” all rotate silently around their axes. Everything is perfectly balanced. The mechanics of this classy kinetic work are invisible. It generates a calm mindset for a shot to the large green.

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Detail of “Wolves are Coming”

My drive on the eighteenth heads right. I encounter the wolves. They really want to sink their teeth into that warrior! They leave me a little breathless. It is impossible not to feel a primal fear. What would it be like to be set upon by a pack of these predators? At a more cerebral level, I try – but fail – to imagine the work involved in Liu’s masterpiece.

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Artist and year as yet unknown, Rhino head in riveted iron

After scrambling a rather undignified bogey on the eighteenth hole (I blame the wolves,) the  club house beckons. At the steps, I am captivated by a false rhinoceros head trophy made, surprisingly and expertly, from bits of galvanised iron riveted together. But it is just so rhino! I adore it. I suspect its presence is a little kiwi dig at the colonial nature of the traditional old British golf clubs? There is no information about who made it or when.

A day at The Hills is quite simply a wonderful experience. I mentally doff my hat to the man behind it all.

The knives of Blackbird Valley

Blackbird Valley 1

The knife is perfectly balanced in my hand. It reminds of a scalpel: the healing steel. The honed blade glows dully. The handle is the fine antler of a one-year old stag. I want to use this knife but for a delicate task. It is made by Ross Johnston, master knife-maker, at his Blackbird Valley forge near Nelson, New Zealand.

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Nelson – at the top of the South Island – was originally a small town serving an agricultural community. The climate is fabulous. The area is now a beach destination and the surrounding sheep farms are largely replaced by vineyards, olive groves and orchards. Many creative spirits have made this area their home; there are numerous galleries and studios all brimming with beautiful stuff. It is probably most famous as the birth place of the World of WearableArt.

But today, I am looking for something more earthy; some uncut gemstone of kiwi beautiful stuff. A friend tells me I should meet Ross at his forge. This former steeple-jack and deep sea diver has been making knives from recycled steel for forty years. His knives are his life and his passion. He is a big man with a big smile and big hands and a big handshake. He is one big good old kiwi bloke! He gives me a big welcome. His knife shop is faced with sections of massive bandsaw-blades from local timber mills. Next to the door is the rib of a whale and a ceramic party-dress made by a friend. (So Nelson!) But before I see the display of finished knives, I want to see the forge: the first lines in the narrative of the knives of Blackbird Valley.

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The forge is everything I expect from a one-man outfit working steel: functional, untidy and honest. I am immediately drawn to what is simply scattered on the ground in front. I walk over fragments of old circular saw-blades, cut-up bandsaw-blades and vehicle springs. It is difficult to believe these can be transformed into beautiful glistening knives. Also strewn around are deer antlers from trophy stags for the knife handles. This is the uncut raw material of Ross’s beautiful stuff.

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Ross displays his knives on a deer-skin. He recites the provenance of each blade whether Honda leaf-spring, circular saw-blade or part of a 19th century carriage spring found when digging in his garden. Ross is familiar with the properties and apperance – raw and worked – of each.

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He shows me a huge Bowie-style knife. Not really my thing. But I pick it up. It also has a pleasing weight and feel. It begs to be used. I wonder if I might just be ready for a discussion with Croc Dundee. What I love about it is that the blade is made from a huge wood rasp; this gives it a unique, scaley and rather sinister look.

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I then spy a knife that Ross has put aside assuming that I would not be interested. It is a simple flat file fashioned into an exquisite kitchen knife. The handle part has been made by cleverly twisting the file around itself so as to produce a perfect fit for my hand. It speaks to me. I fall for it and buy it. I feel its edge and see it slicing through the skin of a ripe tomato.

The knives of Blackbird Valley raise the whole question of aesthetics and function and the aesthetics of function. These are beautifully crafted objects without doubt; but the perception of beauty comes from picking them up, turning them in one’s hand and imagining their use. They become beautiful objects when looked at in terms of their potential function.

The Blackbird Valley forge is worth a visit. It’s real-deal kiwi. And… you’ll find a knife that speaks to you!

Wow! It’s the World of WearableArt™!

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American Dream. Designed by Sarah Thomas of Timaru, NZ. Winner 2009 American Express Open Section. Winner 2009 Weta Award. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

If I’m honest, I was very surprised. I had always thought of Nelson, New Zealand as a pleasant, agricultural town boasting also a port, a nice beach and a bit of a boutique feel. For most tourists visiting the South Island, it serves as a gateway to the spectacular wilds of the Nelson Lakes, Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Parks. I did not expect Nelson to be the home of one of the more astonishing testaments to the human impulse to create beautiful stuff.

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Firebird. Designed by Susan Holmes, Auckland. 2009 Winner Untouched World WOW Factor Award. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

The World of WearableArt™ – or WOW – began as the brainchild of Suzie Moncrieff who, in 1987, organised an event to promote a rural art gallery in Nelson. Her unique idea has grown into a major annual show held in Wellington. It draws entries from all over the globe. The garments entered for the shows are stunning in their design and manufacture; their exhibition is carefully choreographed. The Nelson-based and permanent manifestation of these shows is the tastefully designed World of WearableArt™ and Classic Cars Museum.

WOW Museum

To glimpse the World of WearableArt™ is to be seduced into a world of heart-stopping beauty and mind-numbing creativity. It is more than fashion. It is more than costume. It is more than theatre. It is at once thrilling and inspiring.

Good advice would be to make New Zealand your destination and take in the World of WearableArt™. Better advice would be to make the World of WearableArt™ your destination and take in New Zealand. So why all the hype? Here are some of the winners. Just enjoy!

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Conversations with Guggenheim. Designed by Rodney Leong of Auckland, NZ. Winner 2008 Centre Port Wellington Inspired by Architecture Section.

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Dragon Fish. Designed by Susan Holmes of Auckland, NZ. Winner of the 1996 Silk Section. Winner of the 1996 Chez Eelco Supreme WearableArt™ Award.

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The Beehive Bra. Designed by Narresh Kukreja & Shivan Bhatia, India. Commended 2006 Scenic Circle Hotels Bizarre Bra Section. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

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Reflection. Designed by Erna & Karl Van der Wat of Auckland, NZ. Winner 2011 WOW® Factor Award. Winner 2011 Dominion Post People’s Choice Award. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

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Hylonome. Designed by Mary Wing To of United Kingdom. Winner 2011 Brancott Estate Supreme WOW® Award. Winner 2011 Tourism New Zealand Avant Garde. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

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Superminx. Designed by Simon Hames of Wellington, NZ. Winner 1999 Montana Supreme WearableArt Award. Winner 1999 Smythes Solicitors Dynasties and Empires Section. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

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Lady of the Wood. Designed by David Walker, United States. Winner 2009 Montana Supreme WOW® Award. Winner 200 Tourism New Zealand Avant Garde Section. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

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Hermacea. Designed by Jan Kerr, Paraparumu, NZ. Winner 2011 WETA Award
Winner 2011 American Express Open Section. Photo credit: World of WearableArt™ Ltd

World of WearableArt™ is an original concept created by Suzie Moncrieff in 1987 and owned by World of WearableArt™ Limited. Images reproduced here by kind permission of World of WearableArt™ and Classic Cars Museum; Nelson, New Zealand.

Alison Hale’s horses

Alison Hale grew up and still lives on the rugged west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. She has painted every facet of country life there and has won high acclaim for doing so. New Zealanders collect her work avidly seeking a glimpse of a bygone era.

Alison Hale 1

Dark of the Night: 70cm x 50cm oil on canvas.

Alison’s formative years were spent riding, rounding up, caring for and dreaming about working horses; no surprise then that horses feature prominently in her painting.

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Unfinished Business: 122cm x150cm oil on canvas.

Her horses live. They are anatomically and ergonomically correct. Her oil is liberally thinned and in places runs down the canvas reminding the viewer of the never-ending west coast rain.

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Out of the Blue: 93cm x 21cm oil on canvas.

Alison is based in the unlikely mining town of Reefton. Since I met her there in 2006 working in her studio, her theme has moved steadily away from a wet and gritty country reality towards the equine dream-world of her younger days. Now, elegant fantasy horses in fantasy settings step forward onto her canvases. These are beautiful, technically accomplished and captivating paintings. They too will be eagerly collected by her compatriots.

Bruce Bay cairns, New Zealand

In Maori mythology, southern right whales (tohorara) have god-like status. Hoping to glimpse these increasingly rare beasts, tourists driving the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island stop at Bruce Bay. Weather permitting, people from every continent get out of their rented vehicles and stare out to sea. They have time on their hands. There is no café; only the road, the ocean and the rocks in between.

Bruce Bay 1

Something in this wild, beautiful place impels the visitors to leave hundreds of carefully balanced cairns. Some are simple; some show ingenious engineering skills; some are beautiful. All have a primitive appeal. Are they just marks of passing for the next tourist or is there at play some great whale-spirit?

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I left my own cairn at Bruce Bay but I felt like an intruder. Reassuringly, it will have been washed away, like the others, in one of the great storms that lash this rugged coastline.

There is a Maori cemetery at the end of the beach.