The best teacher Otago artist Russell Moses has had didn't come from art school or the halls of academia. He did try Elam once, back in the 60s - for a day.

"I went to the open day at Elam in 1966 thinking I might go to art school but everyone was into that minimalist, hard-edged pop art and it was not for me at all ... I decided to teach myself."

So Moses was the pupil, and the world around him his teacher. Once famously described as a "nature mystic", even the jobs Moses has had over the past 30 years - recycling yards, landscape gardening - have sat comfortably with his artistic values.


"I come from a working-class background and my art has a modular, hands-on approach all the way through," he says. "I spent quite a bit of time landscaping people's gardens, then designing gardens and building outdoor environments, providing a sort of outdoor gallery. It is better for me than a life of academia."

Print-maker, sculptor, ceramic artist - Port Chalmers-based Moses has built a formidable reputation for his elegant and celebratory work, which has been exhibited internationally and is held in public collections in Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton.

The names of some of his shows signpost his philosophical outlook: Artists For Peace, Waste Not, Want Not, as does his input on the Public Practices Symposium in Christchurch and Dunedin in 1993, and the environment art workshop at the Art Educators Conference in Dunedin two years after that.

He's not a big self-advertiser, and says that until recently, "I've never kept a visual document of my work. They just went out and found their home. Yet I do have a very large body of work which amounts to 30 years."

His latest efforts, on show at the G2/FHE Galleries in Auckland, are large, multi-unit Fibrolite pieces inspired by a visit to the Rainbow Warrior memorial at Matauri Bay in Northland. At initial glance, the recurring shapes in Matauri Bay: Site Pacific look like mere, the flat Maori club. But that would be too lateral.

Think Rainbow Warrior, think of a French bomb in Auckland Harbour, French agents, French nuclear testing.

"The shape is taken from the very old tool for drawing and draughting, the French curve," explains Moses. "There is a connotation between Matauri Bay and the French curve.

"We went up there last year. My partner had never been to Northland before. We were moved by the spirit of the place and the memorial in the bay.

"The boat is dead but in a sense it is a living organism under water, it is still growing. So this body of work is about a specific area in Northland which is why I call it Site Pacific. This is not a shape you could use in a South Island landscape."

Moses, who was born in Palmerston North in 1948, "grew up all over the North Island" because his father worked with the Ministry of Works and the family moved constantly between ministry camps. In Otorohanga, Moses met a young teacher - Don Selwyn, who went on to become the great actor and film-maker.

"Don taught me Maori," recalls Moses. "There were only two Pakeha in the class and my skin was so white. But then we shifted schools again, we were always on the move."

Which must at least explain partly why his education was less than complete. "The only thing I was ever good at was drawing. I guess I was like what would be known now as the Ritalin kid, hyperactive, disruptive and dyslexic to boot. The only way they could shut me up was to pop me in a corner with pencils and art paper and leave me to it."

After high school, Moses worked on a farm near Te Awamutu for a season, then moved to Auckland where he turned his back on Elam and worked in a demo yard in Newton Gully. "You could recycle things and make art out of it as well, it was great."

But in 1971 when he met his partner, who was from Dunedin, it was "go south, young man", where he kept on with the demo-recycling business and met a man who was equally into environmental concerns: Ralph Hotere.

"Ralph was building his studio on Observation Pt and he was into recycling way back. He'd come in and get doors for his studio, bits and pieces."

Moses ended up intermittently sharing Hotere's studio on the point. "In the late-70s I was doing ceramic sculpture, which no one else seemed to be doing.

"I started making big, candelabra-like trees, firing them in pits outside, using cowpats for fuel. It was all very ritualistic, and Ralph would occasionally come out of the studio and help me collect the cowpats from the paddocks."

But Observation Pt - and Hotere's studio - were destroyed in the name of progress by the Otago port authority, a "desecration" expressed in the art of both men, in Moses' case including the large elegiac Headland wall piece that used clay from the excavations.

"I found a way to respond. Losing Observation Pt was like a death in the family, you work it through and it comes out in your work. My work is all intuitive. It's like working the land - you're hands-on first and you work it out. The energy comes and you get told what to do as you go along if you listen. Then it grows and evolves and that's how it all works."

Given his not-so-fond memories of school, Moses recalls that a few years ago he and a group of artists, including Hotere, were asked to express their childhood feelings and contribute the results to the Port Chalmers School hall.

"Ralph made a little chair covered in nails," says Moses with a laugh, "and I got a chair which I broke up then put together again and nailed on the wall. It had a big D on it - for deconstruction, but also for Dunce. In those days, they could be quite cruel to children."

* Russell Moses, G2/FHE Galleries, until June 28.