Voyager 2021 media awards

The woman behind New Zealand's biggest art project

By Kim Knight

The boundary between the kitchen and the living room is marked by a Formica table with two child booster seats. Red couches. Plastic dragons and a cardboard castle. Very good art on very modest West Auckland walls.

Occasionally, a train roars past. A dog barks. I don't notice the plane overhead until I listen back to the interview with the woman who lives 11km — and a million miles — from the artwork that will define her career.

That's not entirely true. The arterati will always talk about Sara Hughes' desire to articulate social meaning by utilising aspects of perception and semiology. Friends, family and collectors will know her next painting show is called 8 Minutes and 17 Seconds — that is the time it takes sunlight to travel to Earth. The rest of us? We'll just think those windows at the new convention centre are pretty cool. Or not. Because this is Auckland, and we really love to hate public art.

For the past three years, Hughes, 47, has been immersed in making the country's biggest ever public art work. Her enormous glass pieces — 550 panels in total — will sit alongside an equally enormous terracotta tile work being created separately by Peata Larkin.

The two women artists, one Pakeha, one Maori, both mothers and both under 50 years old, were hand-picked. Their work will adorn the $703 million New Zealand International Convention Centre ,with the exhibition hall capable of holding up to 4000 people. You will be able to see the building from Ponsonby. Back at that kitchen table, Hughes says: "It's nice when art can't be ignored."

 Sara Hughes' New Zealand International Convention Centre work being installed, 2019. Photo / Tobias Krauss
Sara Hughes' New Zealand International Convention Centre work being installed, 2019. Photo / Tobias Krauss

She was born in Vancouver. Her parents, Peter and Kim (who separated when she was 12), were, respectively, math and science teachers. Her father was on a Commonwealth Scholarship working on his PhD when they became involved in anti-Vietnam War protests. They were asked to leave — and when they came home to New Zealand, they settled in the Hokianga.

"What did my dad say in his 70th birthday speech recently? 'We didn't want to be working for The Man. We were looking for something different.'"

Decades later, and for the first time, Hughes is making art that directly reflects her Far North childhood. Contemporary artists, she thinks, have deliberately steered away from the school of landscape-as-influencer.

"There's such a strong New Zealand painting history of amazing people from [Colin] McCahon and [Toss] Woollaston and [Ralph] Hotere and [Frances] Hodgkins, all those people for whom the land was really important. I think maybe for me, or some artists of my generation, we were not necessarily wanting that to be our main subject focus."

And yet, here she is with 2400sq m — or around half an acre — of glass that takes the enormity of the New Zealand bush as its starting point. Visitors will experience what it's like to walk under a tangle of trees; to look up, through and around hundreds of translucent panels and see colour and light and space.

The piece has been growing steadily since February — an army of fins, marching down Nelson and Hobson streets; a more solid, paint-by-number effect on Wellesley St West.

"I think people aren't really sure what it is," Hughes told Canvas, back in March. "There hasn't been a lot of publicity about it yet and so I guess the comments I've had so far have been from people I know and they've been positive. I'm sure there will be a range of responses. That's part of putting art out into the public realm."

Hughes has been here before. In 2015, she worked alongside sculptor husband Gregor Kregar and architect Davor Popadich on an aerial sculpture near New Lynn's railway and bus station. The $200,000 Auckland-Council funded work was titled Transit Clouds, but the public called it as they saw it: "The giant cock," says Hughes. "Let's just get it out there!"

Viewed from a certain angle, before all pieces were installed, one of the cloud forms did, she concedes, "have a slightly phallic look to it". But, as her husband argued in newspaper articles at the time, so do lamp posts and trees.

Hughes: "We definitely hadn't intentionally wanted to put up a large phallus in New Lynn."

She has heard anecdotally that at the height of the furore shops in the area experienced increased foot traffic. Transit Clouds (literally) hung in there. And now it's just another bullet point in the side bar that accompanies every public art-bashing story ever — because nobody ever wrote a headline saying, "Aucklanders welcome Council spend on sculpture."

On the face of it, Captain Cook, a pair of chopsticks and a giant chicken wing have little in common. But Michael Parekowhai's Lighthouse on Queens Wharf, Seung Yul Oh's OnDo on Dominion Rd and Reuben Paterson's The Golden Promise at Massey University's Albany Campus are just three of the city's most recent public art controversies.

A close up of artist Sara Hughes work for the New Zealand Convention Centre. Photo / Tobias Krauss.
A close up of artist Sara Hughes work for the New Zealand Convention Centre. Photo / Tobias Krauss.

"It's a brave artist that dares to expose themselves publicly," says Emma Bugden, newly announced managing curator of Christchurch's Scape Public Art. "But thank goodness for all our sakes that they do. When art leaves the white cube of the gallery and inserts itself into the world it generates encounters that might be thrilling, moving or challenging. It is where art and life intersect."

Increasingly, it is where Hughes is presenting her work. Last year, her pink and purple and yellow Magma mural (next to Galbraith's Alehouse on the corner of Symonds St and Mt Eden Rd) was recognised with a certificate of merit by the International Downtown Association. In Christchurch, she has created flag walls for a post-earthquake Cathedral Square. Critic magazine reported: "The pieces welcome you with open arms and serve as protection from the loneliness that is inherent to a city in recovery."

Hughes grew up with art. Her father was friends with Gretchen Albrecht's brother and two of the painter's works hung in the Hughes' home.

As two school teachers there was not a lot of disposable income but they valued and appreciated contemporary art ... "I do have memories of the paintings in our house and looking and thinking about them. It was interesting that Gretchen's son went on to be a mathematician. The relationship between maths and art is entwined — I can see aspects of this in my practice."

Sara Hughes in her studio. Photo / Tobias Krauss.
Sara Hughes in her studio. Photo / Tobias Krauss.

She entered Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts as a painter, graduating in 1999. When she started travelling and stood inside the churches and chapels she had only ever seen as flat surfaces in lecture-room presentations, "that immersive experience was so affecting". When she came home to do her Masters, her final work was an installation that visitors had to move around to see in its entirety. Today, her resume is peppered with awards and international residencies; reviewers and art writers spend pages dissecting her use of colour.

Once, she told Artlink, "Colour has been 'degraded' throughout Western history as being feminine. Decorative, frivolous, unstable, irrational ..."

In 2010, Hughes created Colour code. In brief, it involved taking the 10 predominant colours of the front page of the website of the largest commercial bank of every country in the world to create a palate of 1950 colours that could exist online as six-digit codes that could be interpreted by HTML to allow the creation of 16 million colours.


"When I say 'I'm an artist' I think, perhaps, some people think I get up at 10 o'clock and wait for inspiration to strike ... a typical process is often not just going into the studio and picking up my brushes and pens, it's actually a lot of research, sometimes working with other people — there has to be a reason for making the work."

The very first publicly released drawings for the Convention Centre — the ones that accompanied newspaper articles outlining how many more pokie machines SkyCity would be able to operate in exchange for funding the building; the ones that touted what a boost the sex industry would get from the thousands of conference-goers the building would attract — featured block colours, quite a bit of white, and silver fern motifs.

Seven years (and many more headlines) later: "It was a huge change for all those people involved," says Hughes. "From the architects, to the clients, to the NZICC board ... to suddenly have what will be the most colourful building in New Zealand. I do remember at the first presentation, there were a few wide-eyed looks in the room."

Hughes' epic reimagining began with watercolour paintings that were transferred to digital files for the ceramic ink on glass printing and baking that had to be conducted in Singapore. She worked alongside freelance graphic designer Lei Wen, "Side-by-side on screen for months, creating lots of glass samples, projecting the files to the real size of the glass panels to understand scale." Hughes made four factory visits and understands just one panel was broken in the manufacturing stage. At the time of this interview, at least, none had been lost in the install.

Before you get to Hughes' kitchen table, you walk past the artist's studio her stepfather Bruce built. Skylights pull the sun through and her painted canvases — for the upcoming show at Gow Langsford — look lit from within. Layer after layer of colour — and time.

You have to work really hard," she says. "It's not easy to have other jobs and come home and work all night, or to have children and then work all night. You sort of think, 'Well, why do you do it?' But there is some sort of drive or desire or want, to give or to share or to make, that is just part of me, and I can see that it is part of Gregor. There is probably some obsessive gene. Sometimes you'll do a talk and some student might ask me, 'well how do you get a gallery?' and, for me, it just wasn't an expectation. It just wasn't something you even thought was even possible ... maybe that's not right, to go to university for that many years and come out and think that you're going to have to do waitressing?"

To be fair, she says, there are more dealer and public galleries now "but there are more artists as well".

Hughes and her Slovenian-born husband met at Elam. Over the years, they've shared studio spaces, and travelled on each other's residencies. Other tourists stuff duty-free liquor in the overhead locker, "we'd always have crazy kilos of art books".

Two artists in one house works for Hughes, "because being an artist and a mum — I can do those two things, but not much else gets in there. I don't have a huge amount of time to meet up with other people or be in a group artist space ... it's really healthy and important to get that feedback and, because we know each other's work so well, we're able to start a conversation in the middle."

Artist Sara Hughes' creation taking shape at the New Zealand International Convention Centre. Photo / Tobias Krauss.
Artist Sara Hughes' creation taking shape at the New Zealand International Convention Centre. Photo / Tobias Krauss.

There's a perception, she suspects, that artists don't have long-term relationships; that, historically, children were definitely not part of the mix. Marriage was never part of her plan, she says, "but it was a really great thing to do". And now the couple have two boys, aged 5 and 7 (her mother looks after them most Sundays, "so I can work and think"). One has recently begun to exercise artistic clout.

"If he doesn't want to do something, he says 'Mummy, I'm not going to give you any drawings for a WHOLE WEEK'. That's his threat. So he understands the value of his drawings."

The New Zealand International Convention Centre's developer/owner is the SkyCity Entertainment Group. The architects are Warren and Mahoney in association with Moller Architects and Woods Bagot. No one is saying how much Hughes or Larkin are being paid for their work, or how much it is costing to produce it. Paul Baragwanath, managing director of Arttform, the independent consulting company that connected Hughes and Larkin to the project, says the women were selected for their ability to deal with the building's enormous physical parameters — but also for their courage and discipline.

"You're integrating art into architecture and there are many, many people involved. Scores of people. That takes great tenacity."

The brief, he says, was to consider the realm between the Earth and the sky: "This is the New Zealand International Convention Centre. So this is about capturing the uniqueness of our country. Identity. Who are we and what differentiates us? It had to say 'New Zealand', it had to in some way capture that. When you do that, it's obviously quite big.

"You usually see an artwork completed. Aucklanders are seeing this unfold. It is a brave thing to do."

Hughes' windows went in before Larkin's terracotta-tile tower cladding, because they form part of the building's waterproof membrane.

No completion date has been confirmed but when the Convention Centre is finished, the glass will be illuminated — and the artwork will have a name. ("The title is in development," Baragwanath says.)

In her studio, Hughes is moving on. Sort of. The canvases on her work tables have been partly shaped by three years of thinking about the glass pieces Auckland will be living with for a very long time.

"It has felt like a huge responsibility," says Hughes. "And a huge privilege as well. To be asked to create a work of that scale is really something very different for New Zealand. I think that's quite a meaningful thing when the private sector decides that art is valuable enough that that is what we want to showcase."

And the risk? The fear of public fall-out?

"I really believe that art is something that I want people to be able to see. Something that can be part of their daily experience. That they don't have to go to an art gallery or feel somehow intimidated by going into a space they're not familiar with. That it's just something that's part of life."