Working class man

By Adam Gifford

Sam Harrison says much of what he does in the studio is about fighting control. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sam Harrison says much of what he does in the studio is about fighting control. Photo / Dean Purcell

A Sam Harrison woodcut is a bravura performance - big, ambitious, the lines carved into rough plyboard building up a well-rendered form. His technical skill can make one stand back and ask "where's the art?" until you realise his is an art that comes first from the hands and the heart rather than the head.

At the Jensen Gallery is a selection of woodcuts and sculptures, a small sampling of the Christchurch 24-year-old's protean activity. So why the body as a subject?

"I've always been fascinated with watching people, observing them. I like the idea of it being something that's timeless, anyone can relate to the human figure," Harrison says.

While other artists talk of their "practice", Harrison talks about work. Doing a bachelor of art and design at Canterbury Institute of Technology was a way to keep working in the gap from school to what comes after.

"I just work, that's all you can do. It's nice dealing with people and having people round.

I've got a lot of friends who don't do much, they're just there [in the studio] with their clothes off and I'm trying to make work off them," he says, laughing.

He's also hungry to learn from the work of other artists.

"I probably spend half my time getting books out of the library and looking at them, and people keep putting things in my face all the time. Since the fifth form, I've not really given myself anything else in life to do. I'm a bit dyslexic and struggled through everything else. I think I was just lazy, because now when I am interested I can do it fine."

Harrison finds out how to do things by giving them a go, or having friends show him. He's recently learned the traditional method of casting plaster for sculpture, having developed his own techniques using roofing silicon and concrete.

"It opened up new stuff I can do, so my brain is ticking again. The woodcuts look more anal than they are. They look very laborious and painful but I just do big graphite drawings and then, when the model is not there, I carve through the thing. Usually I have four or five things on the go at once, so when I get bored I jump on to something else."

A larger than life sculpture and a long woodcut of a reclining figure are both of the same model. "That's Vincent. I got him to lie down and he fell asleep. I think he likes sleeping."

The print has similarities to Durer's portrait of the dead Christ. Harrison says he didn't look at the Durer while he was doing it, "but it was in my head".

Harrison draws inspiration in his printmaking from the German Expressionists, and in sculpture form Italian Marino Marini, even if they don't come out that way.

"I struggle with the idea of the way I work most of the time. It irritates me. I do a tiny print and I just make it, and then I get to a big one and that changes the process."

He says much of what he does in the studio is about fighting control. "The first work [in a new direction] I am always really excited about, and then I somehow manage to control it, suck the life out of it, and then do another first work, so that process of letting go and tightening and letting go, I find it is opening up."

Harrison takes on religious subjects, such as the large crucifixion woodcut which is part of the James Wallace Collection in the Pah Homestead.

"My dad is the pastor of a small church, Judah, which he started in the 60s, and he's awesome. It's just 50 or so people, just simple. I think that's where the relevance is for me."

Meanwhile, he's looking forward to getting back to the studio for some concentrated drawing.

"All my friends from art school always talk about proposals. I've never written a proposal in my life. I don't even know what they're talking about. I say, 'Why don't you just do some work?' They don't understand the idea of work."

What: Sculpture, Paper by Sam Harrison

Where and when: Jensen Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to December 18

- NZ Herald

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