Artist Reuben Paterson talks to Joanna Wane about omens, Aussies and navigating a pathway to the future.
It was just a week before the grand unveiling when the news came through from Australia. The waka had missed the boat.
A 10m-high sculpture made from hundreds of iridescent chandelier crystals and weighing almost a tonne, it was stranded on land in one of eight containers left behind on the wharf, a casualty of the shipping disruptions caused by Covid-19.
Auckland artist Reuben Paterson, who'd been waiting to welcome his waka from the Brisbane studio where the massive work was constructed, might have seen that as a bad omen. It was certainly spooky timing.
The day he got the call was the 135th anniversary of the eruption of Mt Tarawera, one of New Zealand's most devastating natural disasters, which destroyed the famous Pink and White Terraces and displaced Paterson's ancestors from their land at the foot of the mountain.
His crystal waka — commissioned by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki to rise in a shimmer of light from the pool on the gallery's forecourt — was inspired by stories of a phantom war canoe seen slipping silently across the misty waters of Lake Tarawera 10 days before the eruption, an ominous portent of what was to come.
A dawn ceremony had been planned at the gallery to mark its expected arrival last month, with waiata by children from the bilingual unit at Westmere Primary School, where Paterson (Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāi Tūhoe and Tūhourangi) used to teach. Supporters from all around the country were preparing to travel to Auckland for the big day.
Artistic temperaments are legendary, but there were no tantrums or tears from Paterson when he found out the waka was a no-show and that the unveiling had been postponed indefinitely. "You know me, always going to the philosophical!" he replied cheerfully, when I got back in touch to commiserate and say how gutted he must have been by the delay.
"My inbox was filled with special anniversary messages about Tarawera from whānau, and I just could not separate that anniversary of the eruption from the crystal waka disruption. It all made sense that they would talk to each other and align with one another as an anniversary and as an artwork. Isn't that just the way it should be? It brings this work to life knowing he [the waka] is integrated into his history."
So many threads of Paterson's own story are woven through that. Reconnection with his culture, after the dislocation of being raised as an urban Māori with feet planted firmly in a Pākehā world. An openness to the mysteries and magic of what might be considered the spiritual realm. His non-linear interpretation of time. There's a sense of his irreverent playfulness too, in the waka's use of glitter, which has become his artistic signature.
It's indicative of Paterson's standing that three of his works (including a series of glitter gourds) featured in Auckland Art Gallery's recent landmark Toi Tū Toi Ora' exhibition of contemporary Māori art. After the loneliness and savage bullying of his high-school years — for being both brown AND gay — he's emerged with an outlook on life that can best be described as perky, even when things don't always go according to plan.
"It's something I'm sure irritates people, because I have a very positive disposition," he says. "I guess I'm just a happy guy! I'm doing what I've always really wanted to do; maybe that's what makes happiness. The time of being broody is important and necessary, but artists can't go through history just brooding. Now is the time for a different offering."
The waka did eventually make landfall. Lifted into place by crane, Guide Kaiārahi was officially launched at dawn on Thursday, as tamariki from Westmere Primary sang on the forecourt. Slender and almost delicate, despite its imposing size, the glowing waka looks poised for flight, rising past the gallery's mezzanine window.
In a masterpiece of engineering, stainless steel and plexiglass have been used for the skeleton of the hull, framing almost 600 hand-cast chandelier crystals that play with the light.
There's also real beauty in the detail. Tauihu and taurapa (intricately decorative elements on the bow and stern) were inspired by two 19th-century pieces Paterson found in Te Papa's Taonga Māori Collection that were once used as a training tool for carvers.
It's more than two years since he first pitched the concept of the sculpture, which has been fully sponsored by the Edmiston Trust for an undisclosed amount and is one of the gallery's most significant commissions in recent years.
While the waka was physically constructed across the Tasman — and border restrictions meant almost all of the liaison had to be done by email, video and Zoom — Paterson held a clear vision of the installed work in his mind. The crystals, he said, would create "a navigational star system in the rainbows and light orbs they project around the entrance to the gallery, guiding the waka on his own path".
Kaiārahi means guide in te reo, and the artwork's title is also a nod to Guide Sophia, who led tourists to the Pink and White Terraces in the late 19th century and is said to have been the first person to see the ghostly waka on Lake Tarawera.
If that was a premonition, it foretold a truly terrible event. However, omens aren't necessarily ominous or frightening, says Paterson.
"To a child's mind, apparitions aren't unusual. Our creation stories are just as magical. The phantom waka is fascinating in that it's an unexplainable event and we're always intrigued by phenomena. But I think it's a story that has existed throughout history for all of us. Perhaps this waka is a different kind of omen, ready to navigate fearlessly towards something new."
In 2013, Paterson took up an artist residency at New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and settled in, until a relationship break-up helped propel him back to Auckland late last year. Jetson, his border collie, has shadowed him faithfully, shedding trails of glitter and dog hair.
"It's me and him all the way," says Paterson, who keeps a bed for Jetson on the floor of his studio in Henderson. "We hang out all the time."
These days, the 47-year-old feels at home out west, but his childhood whenua was the eastern suburbs, where his father Louis was a landscape gardener. There's a rainbow group at Macleans College now, but it was a very lonely world in the mid-80s for a young boy who felt no one had his back. (His talent was already obvious, though. A colleague tells me his wife studied art with Paterson in their teens. "He was a genius even then.")
He came out to his family at the age of 19. That was a difficult time, especially for his father. "The tensions of religion and the tensions of sexuality. It took us a while to realise the core was that we loved each other and that was the most important thing."
Awarded New Zealand's prestigious Moet et Chandon Award to France the year he graduated from art school, Paterson headed for Europe. Three months after he got home, his father died. "I'd come back from my big OE and grown up a lot," he says. "Stepping back into family life, I wanted to know my father more and I wanted him to know me more. So yes, I did feel like we'd been cheated. One of the greatest reliefs was to have at least made a step towards having a closer connection with him."
The artwork Paterson created as a tribute to his late father, titled "The Wharenui that Dad Built", would become pivotal to his practice. He'd tinkered with glitter in his artworks before, but this was the first time he'd corralled it into sharp lines, playing with traditional designs to create sparkling kōwhaiwhai patterns that would have been considered quite radical at the time.
"That portrait gave me my art career," says Paterson, who was working as a primary school teacher at the time and remembers being very taken by Gavin Bishop's picture book, The House that Jack Built, which resets the old-fashioned rhyme in colonial New Zealand.
The four panels that comprise the metaphorical portrait are also a physical representation of his father, at the same standing height and also at the same width when he was lying in a state of wake. "That's quite hidden; I haven't talked about that until recently. Alive or passed, I wanted to celebrate him and present him to the world."
The pou of family remain a strong foundation for Paterson, who's close to his mother, Sue Foss, and has matching tattoos on his feet representing himself and his two younger brothers. An older full sister was adopted out at birth. "We didn't find her till my mid-20s, so I grew up as the eldest. I had to give her back the perch." He's also traced his Scottish heritage back to Aberdeen and Inveraray, confirming the unusual spelling of his surname, with its single "t".
When he was overseas, the place he thought of most was Piha, the glitter landscape of his childhood with its black, iron-rich sands. The crystal waka is an echo of those memories, linking back to the sea and the foreshore. Installed permanently outdoors, the sculpture needed to be able to withstand the elements. It was time, he decided, for glitter to grow up.
Paterson cried when he was finally able to fly to Brisbane post-lockdown and view the work in progress at UAP (Urban Art Projects), an international public arts manufacturer that also created the giant Boy Walking sculpture in Auckland's Potters Park. "Seeing it for the first time physically, I thought it would be very practical for me, but I just wept. They felt quite ancestral, the tears."
Working long-distance with the UAP team was a meticulous process that involved a constant exchange of sketches, weekly virtual meetings and a great deal of trust to translate the artistic concept into a physical reality. "Everything you see is a decision. Every detail is a thought and a consideration. It was a huge amount of work."
Originally, Paterson wanted the creation suspended above the pool but, because of its weight, the sculpture is anchored by a stainless-steel pole that has been repeatedly polished to create an almost ghostly reflection — so it looks as though the waka is floating after all.
That connection between the material world and the supernatural is something he felt at Te Papa when he held the artefacts from the taonga collection, and which now imbues his artwork. "They have a mana and a mauri you can feel," he says. "It's there and it's tangible. And my waka has that. I don't know why, but he does.
"Last year, I had the realisation that terms like myth and legend don't work for me. I started to understand that every living and non-living thing has whakapapa. It's a philosophical way to look at the world where you can view everything as having a lineage to you — or that you have a lineage from everything around you. I don't think we need to place humans first.
"To frame the smallest thing to the largest is probably the way I would say I like to live spiritually; that everything is interconnected and deserves the same respect humanity gives itself. In the past, I've talked about doing this for glitter, taking something locked down and giving it a new type of freedom. I think we can do that with the world around us, too."
Reuben Paterson is giving a free public talk at the Auckland Art Gallery about his crystal waka, Guide Kaiārahi, on July 18 at 2pm.