I’ve had an affinity with art since before I can remember. I went through a Seurat phase in primary school. Chalked up an asphalt car park with Picasso’s Guernica. And explained numerical modelling for my PhD defense with Colin McCahon.
Art and science both seek to offer narratives about the world. Science takes the objective path, or close to it, while art meanders along the more subjective. But they often overlap or complement each other, as was the case at COCA last Saturday.
The exhibition was by Artists for Save Our Water, an ensemble of 12 artists gathered essentially to protest against a reservoir and irrigation scheme that had been proposed for central Canterbury. I covered Saturday’s closing reception previously. (The Press was there, but they didn’t seem to be taking notes.)
After the reception, I took the opportunity to talk to a couple of the artists about their work.
Margaret Ryley is an artist and potter based in North Canterbury. While Artists for Save our Water is in its second year, she has been depicting water in her pieces for much longer. Her initial inspiration was the Ashley.
“I grew up playing in the river, observing the river, feeling the stones.”
But over time, Ryley has noticed things change. Both along the Ashley and the larger Waimakariri just north of Christchurch.
“The Waimakariri was this large river that you went over going into Christchurch. And in earlier years I can remember it flooding. I can remember my father having to go up round the gorge to get into Christchurch because then there was a huge volume of water. It’s not been the same since…”
It is this new, quieter river that Ryley conveys through her artwork. Pieces of pottery and porcelain lie scattered along an arc, the small white porcelain pieces framing the larger glazed clays, fitting materials for a river. There was no definite boundary, and in fact the pieces had been moved slightly by observers, much the same way that real rivers are.
The white porcelain pieces are the white stones of the river. Their occasional black lines represent both bridge and geological past. Of the clay pieces, the walnut ash glaze gives a golden colour, the copper a blue to mimic the water. But there isn’t much blue.
Ryley says of the rivers:
“There are more and more piles of stones and less and less water.”
Her concern is that a natural and beautiful ecosystem is being degraded by careless use. Nesting birds are deprived of suitable nesting sites. Charismatic braids lost. These are risks posed by greater abstraction of water.
As part of the Save Our Water project, the 12 artists toured the Waimakariri River, and the site of the proposed reservoir. I asked Ryley what new insights she garnered from this experience.
The first was the sense of how fleeting anything you do to the rocks was. They could become your canvas, but before too long the river would wash the canvas away.
“But also the magnitude of what people were trying to do to make use of the water which they see as being wasted going out to sea without any regard for the natural order of things. And to look at the area that they wish to dam, to have only the hilltops which would be islands in the middle of a dam, and a great dam that overshadowed the township of Coalgate. It’s just horrifying that people could think that they could do that.”
The second artist I spoke with was painter Linda James. She has not always focused on rivers…
“But I have actually always done water; something about the power of the water.”
James is fascinated by the constancy and patterns of water flow, its circularity, its eddies. These features come across strongly in her three large paintings, each of a waterfall. Not of the Waimakarari, but made out as picturesque postcards.
I noticed the unconventional canvases: free-hanging, unframed and comprising a patchwork of smaller canvas pieces.
“I like the way it makes a texture and you get separate patterns going. Like you’ll get the big picture and then you’ll get the patterns of the surface.”
In one corner of one painting she has written the words ‘Out of the chaos’.
“There’s always these patterns that are formed in whatever you look at. … There’s somehow these patterns are always there but it’s so destructive. I mean if these rivers are in flood … Harmony can be so ruthless.”
Of the bigger picture of water use in Canterbury, James agrees that we should be growing crops and irrigating them, but not on such a large scale.
“It lacks any foresight.”