Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions with Askew One - aka Elliot O'Donnell

Artist Askew One - aka Elliot O'Donnell - is inspired by CK Stead's poem Auckland as he transforms the silos for the Tank Art Project in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter. Last year, Auckland Council painted over his Poynton Tce mural. He believes in 'public art that's not dictated by the council, consent-wise'.

Artist Askew One - aka Elliot O'Donnell - takes a break. Picture / Dean Purcell
Artist Askew One - aka Elliot O'Donnell - takes a break. Picture / Dean Purcell

1. What springs to mind when you hear the words "public committee"?

Bureaucratic hoops you must jump through. I'm not a fan of committees. It seems to be about finding a reason something shouldn't happen rather than why it should. People are allowed to have the discussion about art being good or bad - it's vital. But some people appoint themselves as the gatekeepers and it goes against the grain of art, which should be seen as a democratic thing. Ultimately some people are censoring what others see.

2. Define radical?

If you're too radical you're seen as a terrorist. I've been called that - a visual terrorist. A lot of people I know who do what I do propagate that. But I'd attach that term to a lot of advertising I see around the city.

3. What in nature inspires you?

I look for a lot of colours that are used in nature. In most cases when people paint, they analyse colours in quite a restrictive way. They think tonally. I looked in a more macro way. I looked at things like crystal formations and rock formations. Nature has a way of throwing the most insane combination of colours together.

4. What space is sacrosanct?

Personally, all sorts. Some spaces aesthetically don't gel with what I do. Generally I don't paint places of worship. But maybe I would if it were a derelict church that was no longer used for its purpose. If I were invited to do that I might. I try my very hardest not to be a complete arsehole in what I do.

5. What other visual media excites you and informs your work?

Everything. Photography, moving images, sculpture, old street signs. Old relics that others might miss. I wish there was more hand-painted signwriting in this city. There is a charm to hand-painted signs, even when they're badly done.

6. Describe the ideal surface - how does it feel and look?

I like lots of surfaces. When you're working outdoors you have to deal with everything from metal, fibreglass, stucco to smooth concrete. It's probably easier to ask which is my least favourite. That would be vertical corrugated iron fences and unprimed wood fences. Old ones, that soak up the paint.

7. What city in the world have you felt most liberated, artistically?

Detroit is my favourite city on earth for all the reasons a lot of people find it scary or an abomination. It's a warzone in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Sixty per cent of it is abandoned. There is despair and crime and yet for all that, it has heart, spirit and soul.

8. When do you feel exposed?

I've felt uncomfortable in London and Sydney. I've felt Sydney jarring way more than, say, LA. The US can be so extreme. The scale in which things can go wrong is unfathomable for someone who comes from New Zealand. In Detroit, 30 per cent of the police force has been laid off. It's kind of self-governed. So surviving there is about knowing how to deal with people. It's an interesting dynamic. You won't see police patrolling, but you'll see a Cadillac patrolling. They're the locals, who are protecting their own interests. That can be interesting because they have guns over there.

9. What are your convictions - other than the ones related to the law?

I feel the world would be a better place if people had a more empathetic, open-hearted view and stopped focusing on the trivial money-related issues. If they took time to look at people sleeping on the street and did something to help. Homelessness in this city is so visible now. It's bad. So is sniffing glue. That's not something I've seen since the 1990s. I think there is a storm brewing in terms of our economy. The worst is yet to come. Social services are far less accessible.

10. Do you fear acceptance by the mainstream will damage your credibility or your currency?

It's necessary for me to have exposure commercially so there is awareness among the mainstream. I have an agenda which requires that awareness. If I were limited to working at night with limited resources it would be much harder to achieve my goal. I want to create significant large public work that lasts for a long time. Some might say I've sold out. But I have to be realistic about what I can do creatively but also to survive.

11. What is the most vital lesson you have learnt in being schooled by life?

I get instant karma. Honestly, ask anyone I know. If I approach anything with a negative mindset it comes back on me. I try not to be negative. I try to keep a positive vibe. Literally, the world works that way.

12. How do politics drive your work?

There's this perceived anarchy - like the internet or the arts. It's as though they're seen as uncontrollable. I think there is a way bigger disconnect between politics and the way those around me feel about the world. And somewhere along the way we've forgotten that politicians work for us. That informs the subject matter I touch on. I don't believe in aligning yourself with one political party. I voted Labour in my first election. It was my granddad's 70th birthday. There was this sense of optimism. It was when Helen Clark came in just after a hardcore National era and there are a lot of parallels between now and then.

- NZ Herald

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