Opo the dolphin statue could go bronze

By Peter de Graaf, Peter Jackson


The beheading of the Opo statue at Opononi last month - whether by accident or deliberate act of vandalism - has produced a silver lining.

Historic Places Trust Northland manager Stuart Park has declared the 1960 statue to be the second most iconic work produced by prominent sculptor Russell Clark, with significant historic and artistic value.

Mr Park last week called for the now repaired statue to be moved out of harm's way.

Resident Ian Leigh-Mackenzie, a former policeman and publican called a meeting about the statue's future to which 30 people came. All but a few agreed to move the statue under cover, probably in the care of the Hokianga Historical Society, to avoid further vandalism and protect it from the elements.

"The top of the boy's nose has gone, and one ear has gone," Mr Leigh-Mackenzie said.

"It's becoming quite weathered, and people clamber all over it. That would keep it nice and shiny if it was bronze, but stone doesn't handle it so well."

Far North District councillor Sally Macauley said if the new statue was to be cast in bronze it would be "almost certain" to attract Lottery Board funding.

Mr Leigh-Mackenzie said two sculptors had already expressed interest. Alex Lau, who has worked with Kerikeri artist Chris Booth and recently unveiled her statue of Michael Jones scoring the first try in the 1987 Rugby World Cup, outside Eden Park in Auckland, had quoted $15,812 for the moulding process and $20,700 for the statue itself.

A quote was awaited from Sonny Hawkins, who was responsible for the New Zealand sculpture unveiled last year in London's Hyde Park.

In the meantime a stone preservation specialist from Te Papa was keen to examine the existing statue, and would advise on how it should be cared for.

Part of a new committee's role would be to explore funding. Mr Leigh-Mackenzie said some "amazing" generosity had already been shown. A quarry at Matamata, where Clark sourced his Hinuera stone more than 50 years ago, had offered a new block the same size, while a scrap metal dealer had offered half a tonne of bronze.

"There's a lot of goodwill out there," Mr Leigh-Mackenzie said.

OPO statue creator left legacy of public artworks

The man who created the Opo statue, Russell Clark (1905-66), is perhaps the most accomplished New Zealand artist most people have never heard of.

He was the Listener's first designer when the magazine was founded in 1939 and its chief illustrator until 1962. While living in Dunedin he taught a young artist by the name of Colin McCahon and in 1944 was appointed an official war artist to the New Zealand forces in the Pacific.

Later in life he became a senior lecturer at University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and created many iconic public murals and sculptures. He was best known, however, for his illustrations over many decades for the New Zealand School Journal.

Stuart Park, Northland manager of the Historic Places Trust, said that gave him enormous public exposure.

"Everybody who went to school in the 1950s,'60s and '70s has been exposed to his work, without knowing who he is. He had an enormous influence, and is possibly the New Zealand artist who's been seen by the greatest number of people."

While the Opo statue was not registered with the Historic Places Trust, it was a significant part of New Zealand's heritage, Mr Park added.

Clark never saw Opo. His only connection was via a friend in the Hokianga, photographer and artist Eric Lee-Johnson. Clark prepared two designs, with Lee-Johnson, Hokianga identity William Yakas and Opononi store owner Gordon Andrewes making the final choice.

He completed the statue in early 1960.

In his autobiography No Road to Follow, Mr Lee-Johnson claimed the statue was to have been placed by Opo's grave, a short distance away near the memorial hall, but was "scandalously commandeered" for a plinth in front of the then newly-built Opononi Hotel.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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