Creative projects often begin with the simplest of questions. When cousin Neil, who I had not seen for some time, asked me if I still made sculptures, I simply replied… “yes”. With that answer a new project began which a year later would result in the largest work I have made.
Neil and Sarah invited me to visit their holiday home in the Coromandel, to get a feel for the place and an idea of what might be suitable. Neil was keen that the work complemented a pond he had been creating. Three days of reflecting on several possibilities, the hours ticked down to imminent departure and still there was no clear image of what could work.
We had ridden our bikes through coastal pine forests, hiked to the top of a prominent former pa site and fished on a deserted beach. I also had many chats with Neil and Sarah about their family and their interests. A random read of one of their many books helped the ideas to coalesce. I came across 19th century images of kauri log rafts assembled on the nearby Wharekawa harbour. It dawned on me that the elements I needed for the work had aligned.
With a bit of arm waving about what could be where, I left Neil and Sarah’s with a few vague notions and the promise of making a maquette to give a clearer idea of how the work might look.
The image I had in mind comprised five tall poles of pinus radiata forming a seven metre diameter circle - the circumference of a mature kauri. Prosaic exotics would be used to reference the majestic giant of indigenous flora.
Other layers of signification evolved - five poles for the five members of the family. Notches, representing the corresponding decades of each person’s age would be cut into the poles. They would be aligned to the points of the compass and matched to mark summer and winter solstice. Shadows would be cast across the pond which could then be read as the ‘face’ of these markers of the family in time, place and space.
The ‘Pou Project’, as we came to name it, began at the start of 2014. Over the remainder of the year we kept in touch. A small model was made and friend Larissa photographed it and inserted the image onto shots of the intended location beside the pond. Neil and Sarah gave it the green light and plans were underway to make it happen. Neil engaged a local engineer/project manager, Andrew Hartley, to oversee the logistics of the process – materials purchase and delivery, hole digger and crane hire.
I wanted the work to evoke a sense of grandeur to carry the idea of what has been lost with the destruction of the kauri forests. I wanted to ensure it complemented the scale of the environment and not be overpowered by the nearby pines.
When I arrived on a Monday, mid-December, five tapered 12 metre power poles were lying on the ground ready for processing. Each weighed over a tonne. I soon realized I had my work cut out for me if I was to get them into the ground by the end of the week. Andrew had the other teams of people lined up ready for the installation. However, there was a proviso that it being so close to Christmas, they could be called away to other jobs if the weather meant that the council needed the digger and crane for repair work. The forecast was not flash!
On the second day it began to rain and did so for the next two days. This was a blessing in disguise as I was able to char the poles with a gas burner and not worry too much about the fire ban which had been in place. The blackening of the poles was deliberate. It referenced traditional wood preserving techniques, related to the dark bark of the nearby pines and looked wonderful when wet!
Each part of the work on the poles posed a question which needed a solution. How to cut all notches to the same depth…draw a guideline on the chain saw bar. How to wrap the springy stainless bands in the absence of clamps…use rope and a bit of stick as a tourniquet. Rolling a one tonne pole had me lying on my back pushing with my legs. Creativity did not stop with the maquette. Action lead to results, review and a new set of actions and so on it went with the Friday at the end of the week all set for installation.
Andrew did a superb job of co-ordinating the different tasks required. The four and a half day construction timeframe would not have been possible without his contribution! The digger with augur arrived on the Thursday, earlier than expected. I needed to mark out where the holes were going to be placed – something I had overlooked with my focus on finishing the poles. While they set up Andrew and I got out a compass, a cell phone (with a sun tracking app) and the maquette. Several marker spots and a few erasures later we had marked the circle – higher on the rise than earlier expected but fortuitously, just above the water table level which the augur revealed at the three metre depth which the 600mm diameter holes were taken to.
Although shortened by a metre to reduce weight, lifting the poles into their holes was a delicate moment. Would a tapered pole slip through the knot which bound them to the crane? Fortunately no. All held well and were placed and propped with efficient team-work by Andrew, Jack and team.
With all poles in the ground, hole collapses and dropped poles avoided we had time for a quiet beer and a chat while we waited…and waited….for the concrete truck to arrive. The driver had got lost. Easy to do in the country. Eventually we spotted him barreling along on another road heading in the opposite direction. A quick call from Andrew and the concrete was on its way. Once again it was action stations.
A heap of concrete later and the poles were not going to move for a while. A chance to stand back and get a feel for how it all ‘worked’. Neil and Sarah arrived later that evening and he summed it up with a simple – "Wow!"
The next day Neil and I cleaned up the site. It was 21st December, nearly summer solstice. At mid-day the western-most pole cast a shadow down the middle of the pole to its east as planned. I suggested to Neil that he might like to hammer a 2014 dollar coin into the shadow line as a marker.
Before heading off to meet up with my wife Eva and family for Christmas I had a final walk around to see what I had not been able to see while up close to the pou. How did they ‘work’ in relation to the pond and the wider environment. Beyond the intentional ideas they did evoke that ephemeral feeling in the gut that there was indeed something bigger at work.
Acknowledging…..Neil and Sarah for the opportunity and wonderful support to create the Pou Project; Andrew for a superb co-ordination job; Larissa for the images which meant I didn’t have to speak a thousand words; Eva for her unequivocal encouragement and support on the home front; The Learning Connexion for the equipment and time essential for making the work.