Two fishermen posed for an iconic Napier statue. But their relationship with the artist who turned them to brass didn't stop there. Roger Moroney reports.
While their fishing careers are over, their places on deck — toiling with a bulging net and bedecked in tough weather gear — continues.
Day after day.
Week after week and year after year.
Skipper Lawrence Hughes and crewman Dean Skews, both proud Hawke's Bay lads, who worked the trawler Mercury Belle out of Napier, are still hauling the great net in and have been since the October of 1978.
That's the year the remarkable statue simply and appropriately titled "Trawlermen" was unveiled outside the National Aquarium on Napier's Marine Parade.
It's a brass artwork which the skilled and inspired artist Alan Strathern spent two years creating.
Both Hughes and Skews are proud to have been chosen by Strathern to be the "models" for the statue, but both said when they go by it today their thoughts are more with the artist than the fact they were the subjects.
The pair were among a number of different local men who Strathern used as his models.
"He was a hell of a nice man," Hughes, now 72 and well-retired from the sea, said of Strathern, who after wrapping up the statue later moved to Wellington, and is currently living in the South Island.
Strathern was never one to seek accolades and always kept a low profile, and Skews said the intensive work he put into creating the statue took its toll on him.
He lived a quiet and pretty basic existence while in Napier, where he also worked as an orderly at the old Napier Hospital, and there were many times the lads would call on him with some fish to ensure there was always food on the table.
"I always think about Alan when I see the statue," Skews said, adding that Strathern essentially told him the work would likely be his "last hurrah".
It was all sparked off in 1974 after another hard-toiling voyage far out into the Bay aboard Hughes' trawler the Mercury Belle, which he had bought in Gisborne in the late '60s.
Strangely, the funding for the statue was sparked by an overcharged electricity account.
For many years the Municipal Electricity Department had been overcharging New Zealand Cement Holdings for the power they were using.
The billing errors came to light in 1973 and the two companies decided to donate part of the overcharges, which tallied up to around $10,000, for the creation of a sculpture for the Napier City Council.
Invercargill-born sculptor Alan Strathern, who was living in Napier at that time, was commissioned to build the bronze artwork.
So it was, after a "bad trip up the coast" on a dreary afternoon in 1974, that the lads edged the Mercury Belle up to mooring points along West Quay.
There was a young man standing on the quayside and he happily grabbed the bow line they threw ashore and attached it.
He then did the same with the stern mooring and the lads began chatting with him.
"He pounced on us," Skews said with a smile.
"He wanted some ideas about fishermen at work and it went from there — we became good friends."
So the voyages began for Strathern, who went to sea aboard the trawler several times.
"He would be out on the deck drawing, sketching," Skews said.
Strathern also took a string of photos of the pair at work preparing the nets and later hauling them in.
He was a perfectionist and ensured what he created would represent the "trawlermen" landscape perfectly.
"He drew so much ... every little detail," Skews said, adding that the artist was reluctant to pass on some of the sketches as he reckoned they were still not good enough.
Then the construction began, with the council giving Strathern access to a vacant large shed in Greenmeadows where he set up shop.
Skews remembers helping him dig the casting hole for the moulds which they lined with red bricks.
With a smile he said he also recalled times when people passing would become concerned at the glow of fire they spotted inside the shed when the doors were open.
Strathern used wax to sculpt the great statue's moulds which he would fill with bronze.
His preparations were exacting and could be draining.
He would use the equivalent of a dentist's drill to do the fine facial features and other minute details.
Hughes said they supplied him with fish for casting, which he would wrap in clay to make the moulds for castings.
To his concern he noticed Strathern would later scrape it off the fish and happily eat it.
"So we made sure we got him plenty of fresh fish."
It was two years of artistic toil, and both the "models" kept in constant touch with
Strathern and watched it all come together.
The only aspect the artist wanted to change was the actual facial looks and expressions, as both the lads at that time did not look weathered enough.
Indeed, for Skews was only a teenager and Hughes in his late 20s.
Local brothers Lance and Bradley Gordon were also used as models for the statue's eyes, hands and body.
"It took several weeks to put in place and the whole sculpture was lifted in by crane," Hughes said.
Unfortunately Hughes was unable to be there when Mayor Clyde Jeffery carried out the official unveiling as he was taking the Mercury Belle, which he had put for sale, to its new port at Whitianga in the north.
On that note, sadly it would later go down in the northern waters.
"It's sad ... all the work I did on it and now it's at the bottom of the sea."
But his wife June and their children attended, as did Skews and his family.
And the children were thrilled their dads were the figures who featured in it, and today the grandchildren proudly tell their friends who those fishermen are.
They do represent their old trade, for Skews, 60, kicked off his career aboard trawlers when he was 16, and with his dad in the fishing industry he could tail a crayfish or fillet a fish by the time he was 12.
He kicked off his working years working on the fish trucks and got to meet the trawler skippers — among them Lawrence Hughes.
So when Hughes offered him the crew spot on the Mercury Belle he took it.
After 20 years aboard trawlers he went ashore, but stayed in the game working in fish processing, retail and occasionally doing relieving work on trawlers.
Hughes spent 50 years on the trawler front at sea, but cut back the time he spent out there by taking on smaller trawlers and less hours ... he was not seeing enough of their children.
He started out as a 15-year old trawlerman, and when he was 18 bought his first trawler — and he skippered five through the years.
Both are proud to have been the trawlermen used by Strathern and proud to have worked with such an inspirational and artistically brilliant man.
The statue today is nicely weathered after 41 years, which Hughes' wife Jane said was exactly what Strathern had wanted.
"He said never to polish it ... let it weather."
Skews said the low walling which housed it would be perfect for something he hoped the council may like to consider.
For the placement of small memorial plaques of the names of all the Bay fishermen who lost their lives at sea pursuing catches.
"I think we need to have something for them and that would be the right place."