By MICHELE HEWITSON



You catch Chris Booth when you can. The Kerikeri-based sculptor - and he is adamant that he will always be a New Zealand-based artist - now spends up to nine months a year out of the country.



He is that rare beast: a New Zealand artist much in demand abroad. One who has, in the past year alone, completed commissions in Steinbergen in Germany, in Somerset and London, and has visited the site for his next big public commission in downtown Melbourne. He was home long enough to complete a 100-tonne stone sculpture for the Seresin wine estate in Marlborough.



This year he has commissions in France, Canada, Italy, England, Australia - and Waiheke Island.

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Yet it is only in the past few years that he has been recognised internationally and paid in keeping with that recognition. He'd prefer to say, more modestly, that he is getting better known internationally. "I'm certainly at the stage where work is coming to me rather than me having to actually find work."



It is odd talking money with Booth - he can now ask and get anywhere between $70,000 and $100,000 for a commission. It should be said that the fascination with the baser side of art is all mine (but let's admit it, we all want to know) although Booth would no doubt agree that he deserves to be paid well for his often Herculean labours with those enormous slabs and boulders.



But Booth is the very model of the unassuming internationally successful artist. He is slight of body and softly spoken, dressed less for success for his city appointment than for scrambling up a scraggy rock face should one happen to present itself.



That's not to say that Booth's career has been one of those rare happy accidents which happen when talent and haphazard discovery collide. He's made this career (which we revel in vicariously because he is so thoroughly one of our own despite the time he spends away) with as much precision as he makes one of his pieces.



Booth combines natural materials with mathematics and engineering. Rock Sky Strata, the private commission he undertook in London last year was, by way of example, built to such tight engineering specifications that had it been modified by 10mm the structure would have become unstable.



His career has been made with equal dedication to detail. At 19 (Booth is now a youthful 52), he left his studies at Ilam art school in Christchurch to travel to St Ives in Cornwall where he found a night job cleaning toilets in a rugby club. During the day he studied under notable sculptors including Barbara Hepworth.



He decided, "I wanted to go and work with a great artist." The great artists took him on, gave him a studio to work in, gave him a flat for a peppercorn rent.



"It was literally the case," says Booth, "that they couldn't believe that a young New Zealander could come all that way to actually learn from these people." It also helped, he says, that he didn't go there to scrounge. "I offered my services for nothing - and they couldn't refuse."



Along the way to building his reputation he has taken punts on showing his work overseas, in Italy and Australia, in exhibitions where nothing sold (stored in an attic in Italy somewhere is a piece he made for a show in 1988) but where he got plenty of feedback and, even more importantly, the Booth name - and those soaring monoliths - stuck in the minds of those who would later be in control of the purse-strings of public commissions.



Recognition, though, seems to be as important to Booth as financial reward. The much-loved Gateway which gently ushers Aucklanders into Albert Park left him $20,000 out of pocket in the late 80s when the project ran into funding difficulties. He holds no grudge: he is pictured here with Gateway which he visits, to touch the stone, each time he comes home.



For the Steinbergen Strata project, his contribution to an Expo 2000 initiative in which six sculptors represented six continents, he was paid in accommodation, food and $25,000. "To be honest," he says, "that was quite a bit of money compared to some of the projects I've done."



(Booth represented New Zealand and Australia in the project, so watch out, they'll be claiming him as one of theirs soon).



A piece he created for an art and nature sculpture park in 1999 reaped him accommodation, food and a chainsaw.



That Steinbergen Strata looks as though it has always been part of its environment. A working quarry set in forest, with a smaller abandoned quarry alongside, it is testament to the driving philosophy of Booth's nature-based land art.



Every bit as important as the engineering specifications which hold the work together is the intricately researched history of the area which Booth undertakes before he so much as picks up a piece of schist.



Steinbergen Strata recreates the layers of strata deposited by ancient seas and long since quarried: it is a celebration of stone. But it is also informed, says Booth, by the history of the area, which was where Russians were incarcerated during the Second World War, and by the cheap labour from the East and Russia which provided a workforce for the quarry.



You won't see anything as laboured as a statement created from rock, but Booth says that his knowledge of the area affects his "sensitivity" to the piece while he's making it.



At home he consults the local iwi, in Australia the elders of the Aboriginal community. He needs to be certain that the proposed site is not tapu and that it does not have a spiritual significance to the indigenous people, which would mean that nothing should be built on it.



He works, whenever possible, with the local stone and is prepared, he says, to walk away from a project at any stage should the indigenous people object.



On a 1996 project in Queensland, in return for the local knowledge imparted to him, Booth created, gratis and with the help of Aborigines, a sculpture for the entrance to their community.



This in a part of the world where, when the white man from New Zealand turned up and asked where the Aboriginal elders might be found, he was told: "If there's any Abo in this town, you know what, we'll run them out of bloody town."



When Booth returned to New Zealand one of his newly made Aboriginal friends came with him to help to build a sculpture for the Takahanga Marae in Kaikoura. While on the marae, Booth says, they made a call to Queensland.



"His parents said, 'You didn't hear about the sculpture, did you? These bloody white farmers got pissed one night and they got their big truck and they backed it into the sculpture and tried to bowl it over."'



What, asked Booth, heart in mouth, had happened to the sculpture?



"They wrecked the back of the truck."



"What they didn't know," says Booth, laughing, "was that we'd put stainless steel rods right through it and we put a huge concrete foundation on the bottom. They thought it was just balanced there."



It's a funny story, the sort of story in which Booth takes huge pleasure. And it is the perfect way of summing up the career of Chris Booth: attention to detail whether spiritual or structural, will always pay.