By LINDA HERRICK arts editor
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something ... green. That sums up the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of items in Carole Shepheard's huge new Off Site exhibition opened yesterday by Prime Minister Helen Clark at Pakuranga's public gallery, Te Tuhi.
Collected over the years by Shepheard, or begged and borrowed from friends, colleagues and even strangers, every item in the show is glass - clear glass and clear green glass. Why green? Why not blue?
It's all to do with memory, says Shepheard, who is an associate professor at Elam Fine Arts School, where she is also in the fifth and - hopefully - final year of study for her doctorate.
"I've chosen to use green in the show because the memory I have of my childhood is of a green vase that used to sit on the kitchen table and have white Shasta daisies in it, very un-fancy, very easy to grow.
"I was gathering the pieces for this show and I had gone searching for this green vase I remembered, or one like it. All that was left when my mother died 25 years ago were three pieces of clear glass, and I've got those. I went into a little china shop in Westmere and found the vase I needed."
That's where the kindness of strangers came into the picture. "At the shop I was explaining to the woman behind the counter what I was doing for the show and another customer asked what I was going to do with the vase. I explained and she said she had a bowl I might like. I gave her my address then forgot about it. I got home one day and she'd left the bowl on my doorstep. I don't know who she is."
Other strangers helped: a man who outbid Shepheard for several cartons of glass bottles at a Webb's auction, but who gave her most of the bottles anyway; and the owner of a secondhand shop in Kingsland, who has lent her a substantial collection.
Anyone who has popped into Shepheard's "On Site" downtown studio-gallery space, called the Museum of Cultural Anxiety, or visited her recent installation in the lobby at the Gus Fisher Gallery, will have had a taste of what she's been working towards over the past five years; Off Site is not only an exhibition in its own right, it is also Shepheard's doctorate examination show.
"My research is into the whole notion of collecting and display," says Shepheard. "I set up this space [the Museum of Cultural Anxiety] and started to show here, and I've had work exhibited in other centres and in Tokyo last year, all object-based shows.
"Two people have graduated from Elam so far with doctorates; it is new but there is a demand out there for a step above masters to find some equity with other fields of research, to position art as a research activity."
Although Shepheard has been collecting for many years - the quantity of fine china in her studio attests to that - she is more of a magpie gatherer than the obsessives who haunt auction houses in search of a single Clarice Cliff or Royal Doulton line.
"The shows I've had here at Moca have looked at various types of collecting, even the official form like people who go to auctions all the time, but that is not my main interest at all. The person who goes to garage sales, junk sales, market days, or just finds little things as they travel, tokens of memory - that's what the show is about.
"I've got objects that have a huge memory value. A colleague has given me a lot of green glass and he said the only one he was attached to was a bowl because his mother made salads in it. I asked him to describe the salads and there it was: the finely sliced lettuce, the sliced tomatoes, the boiled egg and the mayonnaise made with sweetened condensed milk."
In other words, the kind of salad many of our mothers made, a by-now discredited concoction which is still so evocative of homely comforts of the past. But even definition of "the past" is another aspect of Shepheard's research for Off Site.
"I have some very old pieces and some brand new. When I try to unravel what the past might be, I couldn't find anything, there is no definitive 'the past'. Then I read a document by British archaeologist and museum expert Susan Pearce, who said the past was anything up to midnight last night."
Shepheard has been a prominent and prolific artist in New Zealand for more than 20 years, skilfully slipping between media such as craftwork, painting, print-making and "constructions" using different materials. As long ago as 1982, the Herald's T. J. McNamara described a collection of her prints as "works of depth, tenderness, charm and intimacy".
She has spent much of her adult life teaching, and strongly identified herself early on as a feminist artist, helping to set up the Feminist Art Network in 1982 and the Artists Alliance in 1991. She is also on the board of the Auckland Art Gallery.
It's hard to believe now, but this confident woman in her mid-50s was a shy country girl from Inglewood when she first started at Elam at age 18.
"I had a few very wobbly periods in my first year," she recalls. "I had never lived in a city before and it was very hard. But it was in the 60s and that might say something - most people say if you can remember the 60s you weren't there. The group I went through Elam with is still being discussed in terms of quite an interesting time: Marte Szirmay, Christine Hellyer, Alexis Hunter, Claudia Pond Eley, Rick Killeen, Ian Scott - all of those people have continued with their art and been pivotal in all sorts of movements, so there must have been something in the water."
After graduating from Elam, and moving into secondary teaching before leaving work to raise children, Shepheard struggled to get back to her art. "I started doing night classes and weekend workshops, and then I gradually started to exhibit."
Shepheard joined Elam's teaching staff in 1989 and is now responsible for the masters degree programme right across the faculty - there are 85 masters students this year. She believes the environment at the school "really keeps you on your toes".
"You are working with very creative students of all ages who are breaking the rules, finding new ways to look at things. They are very articulate and able to enter an energetic debate. There are others who come into it from a more intellectual level but it is not a hierarchical set-up."
Shepheard finds glass in all its forms absolutely fascinating.
"It is referred to as a liquid solid. In its melted state it is liquid and when it cools down and becomes hard, there is no structural change to the material. Glassblowing is a magical process and quite dangerous. There's going to be a feeling of danger in the show in that glass is a material you have to be very careful with. It can be beautiful, and it has real strength unless you enact violence on it. And it can be used as a weapon."
She is aware this type of work could never be shown in a private gallery. "It's not sellable, it's ephemeral. On one level it's critiquing what public galleries do. There's a body of work by a whole range of people, including our students at Elam, unsure about where they're going to be able to put their work. And it's true - quite a few gallery owners don't understand what I'm doing. That's all right."
* Carole Shepheard: Off Site, Te Tuhi - The Mark, Pakuranga, until August 11; Shepheard will talk about the installation at the gallery on July 21 at 2pm.