Manuka tie decay in New Zealand

It is 2009. I am on a long, long flight. Needing to fill out an application for a visitor’s visa, I dig into my hand-luggage for a pen. I smile at what else I have brought with me. Carefully folded are three high-quality silk ties given to me by a friend who, on his retirement, swore he would never wear one again. I told him what I planned to do with them. He beamed.

Tie 1

I am lured back to New Zealand every year by the prospect of casting a dry fly over trout of memorable size in rivers of unforgettable beauty. This year takes me to the banks of a little-known creek off the Waikikamukau river. The creek is home to tiny trout that dart for cover as I approach. Only in the winter spawning season will the massive pink mama trout make their way up from the lake to await that brief and critical tail-flickering encounter with a hook-jawed male. However, I am not here for the trout. I am here for the manuka forest through which the creek tumbles. I want to install the ties and seek three trees of neck-size girth standing together.

Tie 2

In 2012, I pull on my hiking boots and return to my chosen manukas. I am amused by the way my carefully knotted ties with the naily tie-pins have maintained their business-like form but look like they have done way too many business trips. I wonder where this idea will go in the coming years.

Tie 3

2016 finds me back at the creek. I am always fascinated by decay of man-made things but my little project in entropy seems to be a bit of a flop. Let’s be honest, the whole thing looks like what it is: three ties rotting on tree trunks. I have a sneaking feeling that Andy Goldsworthy is watching over my shoulder with a wry smile.

Tie 4

It is 2019. The ties are now gorgeously decayed. Their strut has long gone. They are almost at one with the flakey manuka bark and so are becoming part of nature. Time is the “artist.” I like what I see.

I try to recall why I did this in the first place. It was something to do with my anger about the bank-induced financial crisis of 2008. Why the tie thing? A tie…. That symbol of the powerful smart man. That totally unlikely, brightly coloured, pants-pointing neck-wear. I realise that my anger is now redirected towards the Trumps, Putins and Johnsons of the world. Maybe my exposed tie experiment conjures up more than macho-corporate decay; perhaps it speaks to our daily-growing awareness of that biggest of human trade-offs: on one hand, we have our booming population living life-styles that are driven by manufacturing economies that in turn are driven by the business and political worlds (both lorded over by tie-bearing men.) On the other hand, we have our inevitable, massive and global impact on the environment. Whatever path humans take, nature will win in the end. Big mama trout will swim upstream to spawn long after us clever and exotically dressed hominids have been consigned to the archives of the planet’s natural history. I admit to finding comfort in this.

Meeting Mike Howell

Tasman Golf Club, Nelson, New Zealand. It is pretty and quiet. I put $20 for my round in the “honesty box.” The sun is shining. I stand on the first tee. I am greeted by a fine view over the bay. All is well in the world. I hear a car pull up. Another golfer. “Fancy a round?” Friendly voice. Good bloke, I reckon. “Great idea!” I say.  “Mike Howell” he says. Firm handshake.

Meeting Mike Howell 1

By the first green, we have established the basics of the who, what, when and where of our respective lives. By the second, I have learnt that Mike is no ordinary golfer; he is also painter, sculpter, teacher, writer, illustrator, scientist, conservationist, fisherman, hunter, traveller, grandfather and the golf club’s Mr Fix-it. I tell him of my brief foray into painting and Talking Beautiful Stuff and how I don’t like the word art because I can’t define art and how I hate artspeak. His spine stiffens slightly; he turns to look at me anew. It’s like a gundog that’s caught a new scent. I see I have stepped into his professional domain.

Meeting Mike Howell 2

Mike’s entire home is his studio. It is hung about with beautiful stuff. I ask about what, at first sight, looks like a mixed-media collage of sticks and shells on a blue background. Some minutes later, I understand this is his tribute to the skills of the polynesian seafarers of yesteryear. For centuries, pacific islanders have paddled huge distances using for navigation aids only the night sky (the geographically arranged shells: note the two shells at the bottom doubling as New Zealand,) wave charts that record changes in the ocean swell thrown up by islands and reefs (the sticks) and the direction of flight of migratory birds such as godwits (the black twines.) These elements all come together in a pleasing and intriguing whole. I ask Mike about other paintings that could be described as “maori.” I realise that I have touched on what really floats his boat. He is professionally passionate about image-making as a means of education and keeping traditions alive among cultures that do not have a written history. He believes firmly that all children should be aware of the artistic heritage of their society and, as a means to bridge cultures, that of other societies as well. I am in awe of his clarity of thought together with his commitment to and eloquence on the subject. “But I have to show you my latest thing,” he enthuses. “It’s a tokotoko!” Right !

Meeting Mike Howell 3

A tokotoko is a stick that a wise maori elder might lean on whilst talking of generations past and accompanying myths and legends. Anyone else holding the tokotoko has the authority to speak. This tokotoko is an exceptionally beautiful piece of work. It would be fitting for the most respected of elders. It is a driftwood sapling with roots that mike has meticulously carved and adorned to produce images of some of New Zealands iconic, rare or even extinct fauna. It is a hand-crafted lesson in the unique ecology of this country.

Meeting Mike Howell 4

Prominent on the shaft is a Tuatara. In evolutionary terms it is a very very old beast. The name derives from maori meaning “peaks on the back”. I turn the tokotoko in my hands.

Meeting Mike Howell 5

Top right I find a huia. It is now extinct. It was the largest of the New Zealand wattlebird species. It was a striking black songbird. Female and male huia had dramatically different bill sizes and shapes; this is thought to be the most extreme sexual bill dimorphism of any bird species. Underneath the huia there is a South Island kokako that is also believed to be extinct. However, occasional snippets of song and possible glimpses of the “Grey Ghost” continue to tantalise ornithologists. Lower on the shaft of Mike’s tokotoko there is a representation of one of the native giant kauri snails. These molluscs are carnivorous, cannabilistic and may live for up to twenty years. Some species are also declining in numbers. Nestling right next to the snail is the increasingly endangered lesser short-tailed bat (pekapeka-tou-poto.) It is, unusually, a terrestrial bat that forages on the forest floor. Top left is a long fin eel (tuna kuwharuwharu;) one of the largest eels in the world. Its potential lifespan is about one hundred years and is found only in the rivers and lakes here. It was an important food source for the maori.

Meeting Mike Howell 6

The last feature of the tokotoko that Mike draws my attention to is a small brown godwit in flight. This brings our conversation full circle back to navigation. Each year about 80,000 of New Zealand’s godwits fly to the Yellow Sea (between China and North Korea), then on to Alaska, and back again. Precisely how they achieve this extraordinary feat is not entirely understood but it is certain that phases of the moon and the positions of stars (also incorporated on the tokotoko) guide these extraordinary birds on their epic journey.

I struggle to digest the aesthetic and intellectual span of Mike’s work. He very successfully makes manifest his eclectic interests and passions via a wide variety of image-making techniques. I take my hat off to him. He is committed to promoting humanity’s capacity to create beautiful stuff for the benefit of cultural future of generations to come. Meeting him is an enriching experience. And to think that when I first met him, I reckoned he was just a good bloke!

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.

The Hills Sculpture Park 2

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!

The Hills Sculpture Park 3

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.

The Hills Sculpture Park 4

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.

The Hills Sculpture Park 5

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.

The Hills Sculpture Park 6

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.

The Hills Sculpture Park 7

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.

Blackbird Valley 2

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.

Blackbird Valley 3

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.

Blackbird Valley 4

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.

Blackbird Valley 5

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.

Blackbird Valley 6

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™!


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.


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!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

WOW 10

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.