OUR PEOPLE: Brilliant output hallmark of colourful career

By Jill Nicholas

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Low-key sculptor, pot thrower, ceramic maker who’s created the type of controversy that’s the true artist’s trademark

ARTIST: George Andrews has kept a low profile despite his huge talent. PHOTO/BEN FRASER
ARTIST: George Andrews has kept a low profile despite his huge talent. PHOTO/BEN FRASER

As a small boy George Andrews would sit by a dam on his parents' farm in South West Africa, fashioning animal figures from clay.

"I'm still working with clay so I guess l've never grown up," is this sculptor's deprecating take on himself. To us, George seems very grown up, he's certainly seriously talented.

It was George who sculpted the work that sparked one of the city's biggest art controversies, the life-sized figure of Rotorua-born aviator Jean Batten.

Love it or hate it, no one could agree where to place it.

After much argy bargy, the piece came to rest at the airport. George believes she was banished there; initially reluctant to say so on the record we convince him otherwise, reminding him where would the creative world be if artists didn't ignite such polarisation?

Less contentious was his Camille Malfroy bust, fronting the Government Gardens geyser which carries the city's French-born geothermal engineering pioneer's name.

It's in bronze. George works in various mediums; Jean Batten's cast in aluminium. His hand-thrown clay pottery's been in high demand for decades; the ceramic shell process is a favourite.

With credentials of this kind we're bemused so little's "out there" about George the person. It's understandable, he's palpably uncomfortable talking about himself. "People say all publicity's good publicity but I've always kept a low profile."

Sorry, George, but we're upping the ante on that; blame your art scene mates and those you've taught. It was they who urged us to unveil the man they praise as their mentor, someone who's unstintingly shared his time and knowledge.

At George's recent birthday party they reinforced that admiration with a "gobsmacking" haka. In his words it "buzzed him out". Even as we sat, pen poised, at his dining table, George remained hesitant. We pressed on, encouraging him to let us hear that two-toned accent of his.

The South West African influence of his early years remains but comes with a Kiwi twist. He's been in this country since he was 14, his parents trading what's now Namibia for Tauranga.

George wanted a hands-on art career, his play it safe father insisted he work in a bank.

He hadn't turned 21 when a colleague suggested they cross the Tasman.

"We spent months touring in a Kombi van, driving tractors to survive, it was wonderful."

However, his creative side was demanding a voice; the University of South Australia's School of Art welcomed him but the reality was the student lifestyle appealed more than lectures.

"I discovered this was a mistake years later when I had to scrabble like hell for things I didn't pick up then because a lot of time was spent partying, drinking. It was students' glory days, the time of the Vietnam war."

A year short of graduation he quit studies and came home. "My learnings were static, I didn't think I was getting anywhere."

He enticed an Aussie girlfriend to the Mount. "So I could surf, I've always been into surfing like anything."

"Like anything" is a phrase that crops up continually in his conversation.

His surfie lifestyle was financed by work at the Roller Mills.

The relationship hit the rocks, the pair returned to Australia, George turning to pottery . . . "making things people might buy".

When his father had a stroke he came home, labouring on a Paengaroa farm then moulding fibreglass tanks. He was on a sheep farm when he began to take pottery seriously.

"The South African next door let me put up a pottery with a diesel-fired kiln, I made a fair living."

Something else he took seriously was a Rotorua girl called Marion. They met at the Church of Christ, marrying in 1978.

Settled in Mamaku, George built a wood-fired kiln: "a wonderful time, we'd fill up the van and sell pottery all over the place. My father said 'why don't you get a proper job?' but we paid off our Housing Corp loan in record time."

Seven years on George turned to sculpting, studying at Waiariki Polytech's night classes.

"Then they asked me to be a tutor; because I didn't come from a teaching background I identified with the students, was always in trouble with the administrators."

Students couldn't get enough of his classes. "They wouldn't go home, worked nights, weekends became carnival time, wives and kids turned up."

Invitations to run workshops around the country flowed in, Waiariki sponsored him on fact-finding courses.

Seeing the ceramic shell process in Coromandel took George into porcelain. "That's when I began to bake things in Marion's oven, she gets really pissed off with me."

Inspired by his son playing with blu-tack, he developed the medals awarded to school of nursing graduates.

In Dunedin he "looked at" bronze work, introducing it to Waiariki. "It was seat-of-the-pants casting but eventually we got heaps better."

Word got around, RECT approached him to sculpt Jean Batten.

He acknowledges it was a period that taught him a "hell of a lot" about sculpture and people.

"It was too radical for some, my gas cylinders would get turned off, one staff member threatened to push her over, I said 'go ahead, my son and I'll put her back up again'."

It took some years for George to return to public display pieces. The Malfroy bust broke his self-imposed drought, private commissions followed and continue.

After two decades he farewelled Waiariki. "I intended to stay four years, remained 20, then found I was getting bad tempered, I'd been there too long."

Regardless, he classifies his Waiariki years as his creative life's high points.

"Everything I've done I'm indebted to Waiariki for, the freedom that allowed me to explore. I count it as a lucky time, I don't think what we did would be allowed in today's education environment with [such stringent] health and safety regulations."


GEORGE ANDREWS

- Born: Outjo, South West Africa (now Namibia), 1948.

- Education: Windhoek Catholic boarding school, Tauranga Boys' College, arts faculty University of South Australia, degree completed at Monash University, Melbourne.

- Family: Wife Marion, son, two daughters, five grandchildren.

- Interests: Family, kayaking "a student taught me", fishing (sea and lake), gardening, reading "biographies, adventure, I've read a hang of a lot about World War II." New Testament study at Church of Christ.

- On Rotorua's arts scene: "It's vigorous, lovely, there're so many wonderful people practising here."

- Personal philosophy: "Make a wonderfully disastrous mistake and you learn fast."

- Rotorua Daily Post

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