Gregory James studied fine art at university in South Africa and in New Zealand at Hungry Creek Art School, Puhoi. He is a sculptor and stone carving tutor. Here he pays homage to Whangārei's Town Basin Sculpture Trail and its founder Scott Pothan, a member of a family which has been influential in the city's art culture.
There is a strong cohesion and unity to this collection which is remarkable because it has been built over two decades and every work is by a different artist. This is what intrigues me most.
The Whāngārei Sculpture Trail is laid out along both banks of the Hātea River in the Town Basin. Beside the calm, jade coloured water Scott Pothan, founding director of the Whāngārei Art Museum, points out that the river is deep enough for ocean-going vessels.
Still waters run deep. As it turns out Pothan, who has just been introduced to me by a mutual friend, is the architect of the sculpture trail. Pothan resigned as director of the art museum in 2015 but he is obviously still passionate about an institution he helped build from the ground up and to which he devoted 20 years.
The sculpture trail (and its centrepiece Waka and Wave in particular) remains his legacy. It is an unexpected privilege to get a tour of a significant sculpture trail by the driving force behind its establishment.
Our informal tour begins at Reyburn House, the oldest and last remaining settler building in that part of town. It has been beautifully restored and granted a New Zealand Historic Places Trust Category 2 listing. The wrap-around veranda and sash windows are welcoming. It is home to the Northland Society of Arts and its art collection.
Pothan tells us how devoted his late mother, Janet, was to the art society and to the building's restoration. I'm finding it hard to remain indoors however – I'm far too interested in a large sandstone sculpture outside.
It depicts a seated female contemplating the river before her. It is a beautifully considered design and expertly carved, stylised with slightly exaggerated proportions, but it is the eroded veins in the sandstone that most catch my eye. The 20 years since completion have worn away the softer veins in the sandstone (Paradise stone from a local quarry), mapping out topographical lines over the entire surface, like woodgrain.
Some layers have flaked off and been glued back but this adds to the preciousness - she won't last forever, enjoy her while you can. Her plinth is a rough boulder with the same weathered effect. This ties her to the plinth and the plinth to the land.
The sculpture is where it belongs. The title Lottie is carved in a large classic font between her ankles. It commemorates Lottie, or Charlotte, who was the first child born to the Robert Reyburn family who built the house, circa 1860. Lottie died as a child.
Both the use of stone mason's calligraphy and primitivism of the human figure are reminiscent of the master sculptor Eric Gill. This sculptor has carved his name - Kap Pothan, Scott's father, a prolific self-taught stone carver and another family member who spent decades very active in Whangārei's art scene.
The walk downstream from Reyburn House is nostalgic for Pothan who shares anecdotes and family memories, such as where the family ketch was moored and which tree their dinghy was tethered to. The Pothan connection to the land is strong and all around us.
It soon becomes clear this is no ordinary small-town sculpture trail; it is in fact a very well curated first-rate exhibition. There is a strong cohesion and unity to the collection which is remarkable because it has been built over two decades and every work is by a different artist. This is what intrigues me most.
A selection of sculpture commissioned by Pothan is interspersed with the winning entries of the biennial Whāngārei Sculpture Symposium. Organised through Creative Northland, the symposium has run five times in the past decade.
There is a selection process for entry and up to 20 artists (or teams of artists) are selected to take part. It is run over 10 days with work being produced on-site and open to view by the public. Local businesses provide studio space along Hātea Rd which flanks the reserve and river. The winning sculpture is purchased by the council and added to the Sculpture Trail; the rest are auctioned with proceeds going to the artists.
What consolidates the winning entries with the rest of the Sculpture Trail is that Pothan used to be one of two judges. He and fellow judge, Kura Te Waru Rewiri, applied a consistent set of criteria the process. The most important attribute was site specificity and honouring the heritage and history of the area. Hence Māori cultural themes and design motifs feature strongly in the collection, as do references to shipping or fishing.
1998 was a watershed year for the riverbank and Hihiaua Peninsula. In response to the local council recalibrating the entire design concept for the area, a number of key changes started to reshape the area into the beautiful attraction it is today.
Reyburn House was relocated to its present site and restoration began, largely driven by Janet Pothan; Lottie by Kap Pothan was installed in its current location, and the opus piece which would set the standard and thematic design concept for the sculpture trail was commissioned by Scott Pothan.
It was Waka and Wave, a collaboration between Whangārei carver Te Warihi Hetaraka and internationally acclaimed Kerikeri sculptor Chris Booth. The commission was visionary in that no beautification or botanical rehabilitation had begun in the area which was still run-down dockland.
The sculpture was also massively ambitious with a price tag of $250,000 in a rural town with no existing culture of public artwork. It would take eight years to complete. What the public will never see or know about are the exhaustive negotiations to keep the project on track for that long.
Far later than intended for a Millenial Fund commemorative piece, Waka and Wave would finally be unveiled in 2006, by which time the redevelopment of the area into a public park was well under way.
Waka and Wave is a large work located on Hihiaua Peninsula, at the marine entrance to the Town Basin. It blends two styles and two cultures. The precise factory-cut stone of the waka tete (fishing waka) contrasts with the rustic monoliths of natural stone which suggest a massive wave breaking over the waka and crashing on to the shore.
The work references colonisation and the Maori being subsumed by European settlers, yet staying afloat and emerging out from under the wave. Surprisingly, it was local iwi who objected to the meaning, not Pākehā. Māori were offended by the implication they were being made subordinate to the Pākehā. It took months of diplomacy from Pothan and Hetaraka to gain local iwi approval.
The waka is positioned on an angle to the shoreline with the prow extending - floating - out over the water. Pothan points out that at high tide the prow is partially submerged giving the impression the waka is about to be launched from the shore. Significantly, the artist has not depicted a waka taua (war canoe) which are larger, more imposing and more decorative than the waka tete – a workhorse. This is a commemoration of the daily life and ordinary people who first settled the area.
The waka is made from cast concrete and covered in purpose-made bluestone tiles. Hetaraka hand-ground each tile on the reverse to fit the contours of the waka, and hand-carved the waka taurapa and prow.
It is a compelling and interactive sculpture – no child could resist climbing all over it – and the robust solidity is an engineering feat. The massive stone arch is an imposing monument to centuries of Western civilisation; the primitive stacking of rustic stone monoliths dating back beyond Stonehenge. With minimum manmade intervention, combined with the technological advances of vaulted ceilings and curved archways, the strategic keystone holds these unlikely looking structures in space.
The 2018 Whangārei District Council Award at the sculpture symposium went to Steve Molloy for Intrepid Journey. The concept of journey was a special theme of the event.
This work is carved from dark hard-stone, possibly basalt. It is a modern rendering of a traditional Māori pattern and evocative of movement. It is a simple abstraction of a traditional manaia pattern which has meanings around the journey from the living to the dead.
The most striking feature are the deep hollows carved into the opposing faces, carved almost all the way through with only a small amount of stone separating them. There is something beautiful about the smoothly polished interiors of these deep hollows. This contrasts boldly with the rough texturing of the edges. At first glance this work might be dismissed as another clichéd repetition of a Māori motif. But it is subtly and stunningly more than that.
Two years earlier, in 2016 the council award went to Rex O'Brien for Kaitiaki Manu, meaning flying on the winds of change. Carved from Maungatapere basalt in the stylised form of a wood pigeon (kukupa), this sculpture references the impact of the first people arriving in New Zealand.
The Whāngārei Sculpture Trail features almost 20 works of varying material, size and style.
It is a remarkable achievement and one of which Pothan is justifiably proud. The area is a testament to how his family, as a microcosm of New Zealand, have acted with artistic sensibilities and love for their community and environment to transform the mundane to the level of art.
Pothan refers to the artworks as his. The Sculpture Trail is his in a way because he made it happen, and he made it happen against adversity.