It’s not often you receive an email signed “mystical archaeologist”. Sculptor Wanda Gillespie’s signature appears alongside two more predictable monikers: “contemporary artist” and “woodcarver”, but on viewing her reimagined wooden abacus sculptures and curvaceous carved wooden portraits of alien-like faces, a mystical element reveals itself.
“Re-imagining the purpose of functional objects has been a common theme in my artistic practice. In previous iterations of the abacus, I’ve labelled them “Higher Consciousness Integrating Calculators”; instead of devices to calculate sums, I’ve imagined them measuring spiritual development. I’m attracted to the absurdity of trying to measure what can’t be measured.
"But I guess wood sculptor is more what I title myself as, because it encompasses the carving aspect of my work,” says Wanda from her studio at the Warren Woodworkshop in Auckland.
Her work for the Molly Morpeth Award, titled The Mist Dweller, is the bust of a child-like figure looking through a reconfigured abacus. She explains the character is attempting to calculate an alternative sequence for this pandemic-altered world.
The work was thought up while on an artist residency in the Auckland region’s coastal settlement of Karekare. Wanda’s stint there was interrupted by lockdown and it made her ponder the elasticity of time slowed by lockdowns, then sped up by regulatory changes.
“I’d go walking along the beach at Karekare and the mountains seemed so close, but it took much longer to reach them. At that moment, time didn’t feel as consistent as it once did. I was also thinking about how indigenous cultures see time in a less lineal way.”
This pondering of the properties of time led the artist to place black sand from the beach into an empty hourglass that happened to be in her studio, influencing her decision to place the outline of the curved hourglass in the centre of the abacus.
The title of the work refers to the Maori legend The Dwellers of the Mist.
“Te Wao Nui Tiriwa (Tiriwa’s great forest) was the ancient name for the Karekare district and Tiriwa was the fairy chieftain, who, legends say, supplanted Kahui Tipua (flocks of goblins). Not much is known about these fairy folk, but some say they may well have been the moa hunters of long ago. For me it’s more of a poetic title for people who live in the misty mountains of the Waitakere ranges.”
Wanda modelled the carved portrait from a photograph of a friend’s daughter, however her figures are not intended to be necessarily human.
“I imagine they are more from an in-between space. I see my sculptures as artefacts with invented pasts or imagined futures.”
Her colour palette was influenced by the greens and blacks of the West Auckland bush landscapes and the pink sunsets and coastal flowers she noticed on walks.
As for the abacus, it’s been a recurring theme since she completed her fine arts degree at Elam and her Master of Fine Arts at Melbourne University.
“I’ve always been interested in functional objects from the past and then redescribing them in an esoteric or mystical way. My husband is Russian and we have an heirloom Russian abacus in our house, so I started to play with the patterns and designs of the rods and beads. The first abacus I made had curved rods at the time I was influenced by Colin McCahon’s landscapes and waterfall paintings.”
Natural materials, particularly wood, have always been Wanda’s go-to. “I always try to use local timbers, in this case I used rata for the portrait which was a very difficult hardwood to carve and I chose rewarewa for the frame for its watery, snake-like pattern. Wood was once a living material, so I am drawn to this energetic quality, and the fact it connects us to its whenua [place].”