Always making, always thinking
Julian McKinnon speaks to four artists about a delicate balance: the joys and challenges of living by and working with art.
It’s mid-afternoon on a fine summer day in Auckland; the air is warm and muggy. A gentle breeze is swaying through the leaves of an oak tree outside Panmure Public Library, bringing welcome respite from the clammy heat. Salome Tanuvasa is sitting at a shaded bench beneath the tree.
“Art is a lifelong journey. Things don’t always work out, but I don’t try to force anything. If opportunities come, they come,” she says. Of late, opportunities have been coming aplenty for Tanuvasa, with exhibitions in Shanghai and Sydney complementing frequent group showings in Auckland. She had her first solo dealer show with Tim Melville Gallery in 2018, titled In a Midnight Hour. That exhibition presented a substantial series of works on paper and fabric, characterised by bright colours and uncomplicated gestural lines. “It was a really good learning experience, and led me to new ways of working with colour and mark-making,” she says. The results were quietly evocative, yet open to interpretation – the groupings of lines and marks could be read as representations of trees or water, or simply as soothing abstract arrangements.
Tanuvasa is of Tongan and Samoan heritage. She completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Elam in 2014, then undertook teacher training in 2015, before settling into her current groove. “I’ve had a few struggles in terms of growing my practice, and the kind of subjects I tackle. I’ve wondered about representing my identity as a Pacific Islander in the art scene. I was born in New Zealand – my parents migrated here for a better life. How to speak to that history is something I’m still learning about. So, I was quite nervous about showing with Tim, even though he was very open to different possibilities. Moving into drawing in the way I have been was really freeing. I got away from pre-conceived, heavy ideas and just focused instead on ways of communicating through the work. I was really interested to see what kinds of understanding people took from it. The works made use of simple forms and marks, but they resonated for people for a range of reasons. People made their own associations.”
Tanuvasa has two young children, and works as an educator at Te Tuhi gallery, making for significant demands on her time. “Making art has to fit in around my job and family life. Working under those pressures helps me to cut the crap. I have to be decisive. If I had more time, I would probably make quite different work. Right now I have to arrange time, mostly at night, to keep working. That means I really need to focus or zone in. Often, I have to come back and analyse the work later.” Despite the challenges, she has no intention of leaving art behind. “I feel like art is always going to be a part of what I do. At a later stage, I’d like to return to the islands and further develop my understanding of traditional approaches to image-making. I’m interested in how what I do relates to the broader context of the Pacific – although I don’t feel like that’s a pressure that’s affecting me now. I feel like I still have a lot of opportunity to be open and experimental.”
Jae Hoon Lee’s voice is projecting out of a small device running a chat app. His words are occasionally distorted by a scratchy connection. “I’ve just been working on a project in Taiwan, photographing waterfalls in the highlands. It’s a great environment and I’m going to go back to develop it further, though for now I’m in Korea,” he says. Changing countries and time zones is relatively standard for Lee, who grew up in Seoul and studied in California before settling in New Zealand. “Auckland is my base camp, but I consider myself a wanderer, or eternal tourist. At my home in Three Kings, I have a small dedicated space for producing artwork – my desktop computer is set up there. But I go out to different places to collect new material. My laptop and camera are like a mobile studio,” he says.
Lee’s digital photo-collage works have earned him wide acclaim; he’s attended residencies and exhibited widely in countries across the Pacific Rim. His distinctive, uncanny images of rock formations appear natural; though on closer inspection are obviously altered. “I’ve been collecting images – of rock layers, stratification – from around the world. Sometimes I stitch together images from different locations into a single work. By moving my body from one place to another, I feel like I’m drawing a line physically – like an invisible thread runs behind the images I capture. Threading together these different temporal and physical perspectives creates a kind of psychological expansion.” As much as Lee enjoys the constant wandering, and the headspace that goes with it, working in this way isn’t without its difficulties. “I’ve made a few mistakes, and it’s been a learning curve. In terms of Auckland dealers, I’ve moved a few times in recent years. It isn’t just about your relationship with a dealer, but their relationship to other parties as well. Sometimes things happen. But I think, now, curators and dealers understand that I’ll deliver the work, even if I am always on the move.”
Lee was the Paramount Award winner at the Wallace Art Awards in 2013, an appreciable moment of achievement. “I felt very satisfied when I won the Wallace award. But, at the same time, there was a responsibility that came with that recognition; I felt a pressure to develop my work further, with more delicacy. It’s an endless journey. I almost feel I have more to prove as time goes by,” he says. Part of that pressure is the ongoing endeavour of keeping his work fresh. “Every artist has to sometimes reinvent what they do. Otherwise you just show the same thing over and over again.”
Looking at the bigger picture of sustaining a practice in the long run, Lee is candid. “It is getting tougher to survive as an artist. I might be one of many mid-career artists who are facing the decade ahead cautiously. But at the same time, I feel lucky to have made it this far. Of course, there are slumps – times when I feel blocked. That’s just part of the deal. Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I making art? Why keep doing this nonsense?’ When you’re in that place, you need to find something positive in order to keep going. For me, that’s going to new places, and seeing new things,” he says. “I need to keep moving in order to keep the dots connected.”
“Coming out of art school, ‘selling’ was kind of a dirty word. You were meant to be this pure being who just made work and people came to you. But that’s not really how it goes,” says Simon Kaan, his voice ringing out over Skype. Dunedin-based Kaan has sustained a national profile as a painter and printmaker for two decades. “Getting comfortable working within an art market takes time, especially early on. Personally, I’ve never seen it as cold, hard business. That’s counterproductive – it can become quite daunting or isolating. I think it’s important to see that there’s reciprocity involved. It’s a huge compliment if someone wants to buy and live with your work.”
Of Māori and Chinese heritage, Kaan has learned to adapt to meet the challenges of changing times. “The way I’ve made work within the market has shifted and changed, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the market itself has shifted and changed over the past 20 years. In the late 1990s there was a thirst for contemporary Māori art – galleries were kind of seeking us out. Shows would sell out pretty much before the gallery doors opened. Then in 2007 it changed: people just stopped buying work. I slipped into the abyss. I would have a show and five people would turn up and nothing would sell. At that time, I had two young kids; my art was the sole income for my family, and my income quartered for a couple of years. The irony is that I think it was a good thing. In some ways, it hardened me up. I just kept going to the studio and working.”
Kaan identifies as Ngāi Tahu, and other artists from his iwi make up an important community. “We have a similar kaupapa, and for the last five to ten years that’s given me a community of peers, and a certain context through which to read my work. The visual culture of Ngāi Tahu is quite different from a lot of other iwi.” Like many artists, Kaan supplements his income through teaching – though it’s about more than just paying the bills. “I teach Māori perspectives on contemporary art at Otago Polytechnic. I mentor the Māori students there as well. I see it as a way of giving back – to all students. Young people need to know how to position themselves within the various contexts they’ll inhabit – teaching in schools, working in institutions, exhibiting in galleries, and so on. I’m personally quite hard-wired to focus on the next generation. Often within Māori communities that tuakana–teina relationship is a natural process; it’s critical for ongoing cultural development. It’s particularly important with younger Ngāi Tahu artists that they can see that there is a community for them to come into.”
As for the ups and downs of working as an artist, Kaan sees it as all part of the territory. “I feel I go through a two-or-three-year cycle, where I’ll crack on to something and explore it in different ways. Sometimes I’ll get into a groove for a couple of years. Then, generally, I’ll hit a wall. I’ve had times where I’ve produced work over a whole year that no one ever saw. It just got labelled ‘e for experimental’ and got shelved. Times like that are tough. Pushing through just takes time and a lot of hard work. Of course, whānau support has also been really crucial, especially from my partner Sarah, who’s had my back for 20 years. Mostly I describe being an artist as the best job in the world. Then, other days, it’s the worst job in the world,” he says with a laugh.
Judy Darragh is sipping a cup of coffee at a café in central Auckland. “I’ve been practising for 40 years. I love that word, ‘practise’, because you never get it right. There’s always more to learn,” she says. Throughout her years as a working artist, Darragh has sustained a rich output of vibrant, colourful sculptures, paintings and installations. “I’m always working, always thinking. Making art just becomes part of your life. You have relationships, you have kids, you have family and friends. But being in the studio – in the zone, when everything falls away – that’s what it’s all about.”
Darragh also notes that things don’t always line up in a straightforward way. “You’ve got to have the space, the time, the resources,” she says. “As you get older, it gets easier. There are strategies or patterns that you recognise. You’ve got all your ideas and visual diaries from over the years. And, if it’s not working, you can walk away.”
Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, Darragh encountered an environment with little encouragement for the arts. After training in visual communication and design, she gravitated towards teaching. “My dad was a freezing worker. He used to say to me, ‘When are you going to stop this art rubbish?’ My family never understood what I was doing – though they approved of the fact that I was a teacher. Socially, there was never an expectation that you could make a living as an artist. But that all changed in the 80s. Artists were making money; people were buying art; there was champagne and cocaine. And then it popped.” The pattern has repeated several times since, though Darragh has avoided being dragged down by cycles of boom and bust. “I’ve always taught, and that offers a freedom. I didn’t have to rely on art sales. I also didn’t want to over-invest in my work. I saw artists producing big canvasses and bronzes, really expensive stuff to make, and then they needed to command high prices. If it didn’t work out, it was ruinous.” Similar patterns have faced artists in recent years – though fresh possibilities also exist. “I see a younger generation coming through, and they’re inventive – selling their work on Instagram, rather than through a dealer. It’s fantastic to see that kind of thing happening,” she says.
As an educator, Darragh has some misgivings about the present situation in the arts. “It’s standard these days for grads to come out of art school with $50k of debt. How are you going to pay that back as an artist? Hello! I think that’s part of why the attrition rate is so high – it’s probably higher now than ever. You come out, look at your situation, and go into advertising, or film work. My generation didn’t have debt. We were very lucky,” she says. On this subject and others, Darragh doesn’t shy away from speaking her truth. “I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m 61; I’m not reliant on the institutional model any more; I know how to create my own projects and opportunities. I just want to stir stuff up.
“If you really want that big career, think about what you have to do – the politics, the competition, the money – is that really what you’ve signed up for? I’m quite happy operating outside of that. I think art is more interesting when it’s chewing around the edges. You also get to keep your perspective. There’s too much ego in the art world; there are too many gate-keepers. I’d prefer to see artists get some real traction, and call the shots.”