John Edgar – Meet the makers behind our awards — 26.04.18

In this series we introduce you to the dedicated artists who have created symbols for each our awards. The awards are a representative symbol honouring excellence in the arts in New Zealand. Today we hear from John Edgar ONZM who created The Arts Foundation Icon awards.

John Edgar has been described as one of New Zealand’s finest self-taught artists. He has always retained strong links with, and a passion for the environment, his thoughts reflecting what we do with it and the damage we cause it.  He has been working in stone for over twenty years and more, and is recognised as a master of his craft.

Icon Awards are limited to a living circle of 20.  Established in 2003, each Icon receives a medallion and pin.  The artist has the pin forever, while the medallion is presented to a successor at a future ceremony.

"Icon artists are celebrated as having reached the pinnacle of the creative arts of Aotearoa New Zealand and the medallions are the tangible evidence of their achievements. However, the medallions are more than precious bronze taonga or treasures.  The Icon medallions are imbued with a mauri or life force of their own as they represent artists of Aotearoa New Zealand who have gone before as Icons. The medallions are enriched as they are passed on from one Icon to the next, from the dead to the living, and the medallion is thus saturated with the mana of many artists. The mauri of each medallion grows with each passing between artists." - Elizabeth Ellis, Trustee

 John chose bronze for the medallions for its rich colour, strength and hardness, and for its long association with the history of medals and coinage.  Each medallion is made unique by the setting of pounamu at the centre.   New Zealand's nephrite jade (pounamu) is a most treasured resource, a unique stone from this land of stones.  The medallions are boxed in New Zealand matai, sourced from recycled timber from the central North Island.  The lapel pins are cast in silver and have dark green pounamu set in the centre.

In your own words, describe your practice

Since 1978 I have been making small and large sculptures from a wide range of hard stone, sometimes including other materials such as glass and copper.  For the first 10 years, I worked predominantly in New Zealand stone – pounamu (nephrite jade), pakohe (argillite), basalt, and marble.  For the past 30 years, I have been sourcing large blocks of granite, basalt, limestone, sandstone, serpentine and marble from India, China, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Scotland.  My work is held in private and public collections in New Zealand and overseas.

An artwork can function as a symbol of recognition for an individual, like our awards do. In what ways can art represent the mana of an award or individual achievement?

I have always been pleased that my small work is worn as personal amulets - protectors of spirit. The bond between the wearer and the amulet is very intimate, and often people tell me that they “love” their special pendant and rarely take it off.  At the other end of the scale, my larger sculptures are enjoyed by people who come across them and tell me of their experiences in discovering and thinking about the work.  In these instances, it is up to the artwork to communicate with the viewer, and for the viewer to interpret the meaning of the sculpture in their own way. Almost always, my work, both large or small, is very tactile, inviting one to experience the sensuous quality of the material surface.

The twenty bronze and pounamu ICON awards that I made in 2004 have been awarded to prominent New Zealand artists. At any time, there can be no more than twenty recipients. Each artist has their name engraved on the bronze ICON disc, and on their death the disc is returned to the Arts Foundation, and awarded to another artist whose name is added to the names of the prior recipients.  In this way, the ICON discs accumulate the names, and the discs gain mana (power and prestige) by association with our famous artists.

Art can also develop meaning in communities. Your artwork is an important part of the award that we use your work for. Can you talk about your work in the context of communities?

Art, imagination and creativity are fundamental human activities, and have been since the first humans made cave paintings.  Through art, identity is created and communicated, and members of a community are empowered by what they share in common, be it social, cultural or spiritual. One of the important functions of art is to bring people together and provide an understanding of who we are and what our values are.  Many times I have been surprised and excited by what friends or strangers tell me about what my art means to them, and how it has enriched their life. I find that young people often have a great perception of an artwork, perhaps as they have fewer preconceptions and an open mind.  This has been an ongoing source of inspiration and encouragement to me.

McLeod’s Crossing, the pedestrian bridge over the Oratia Stream that I designed for Falls Park, Auckland in 2004 has been very popular with locals and visitors alike. People take their lunch and sit in the circular area at the top of the bridge.  Wedding parties have their photographs taken on the bridge. Children ride their bikes and skateboards over it, and other people use it as a short cut between the Falls Park Hotel and the Aquatic Centre.  It is always being used, and is an important focal point for the residents of Henderson.

My exhibition Calculus that toured New Zealand galleries and museums from 2002 to 2005,

was comprised of 100 altered stones. They varied in size from 50 to 300 mm long, and were made from greywacke, jasper, jade, argillite, marble, limestone, glass (New Zealand), chrysoprase (Australia), lapis lazuli (Afghanistan), granite (Africa), sandstone (India), marble (Italy). In Latin, calculus means a small stone used in counting, as for example, on an abacus. The symbols embedded in the stones were mathematical signs such as plus, minus, multiply, divide, and numbers.  While each stone alone had a message or story to tell, together when viewed as a group they evoked equations of symbols and numbers, mathematical sentences.  The overall impact of the exhibition was greater than the sum of its parts. At the conclusion of the exhibition tour, the entire exhibition was purchased by the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Where can people find your work and learn more about your practice?

My website and the websites of my dealer galleries provide good information.  They are easy places to begin learning about my art.  My work is held in the following public and private collections:

Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland

Public sculptures in Aucklan - The Domain, Queen Street, Waitakere Central, Falls Park

Bank of New Zealand Collection, Wellington

Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch

Corning Museum of Glass, NY, USA

Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt

Jonathon Custance Collection, Wellington

Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington

National Museum of Australia, Canberra

Unitec Institute of Technology, Auckland

University of Auckland, Auckland

Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland

West Coast Society of Arts, Greymouth

Windsor Great Park, United Kingdom

My work can be viewed at the following dealer galleries:

Trish Clark, Auckland

Fingers, Auckland

Masterworks, Auckland

Brick Bay, Matakana

Avid, Wellington

Milford, Dunedin and Christchurch

I prefer my work to stay in New Zealand, where it has been held, worn, viewed and appreciated by many people over the past 40 years. In some families my work is owned by two or three generations, and it is always wonderful to know that they become family heirlooms.  Even although I have made over 4000 small and large art works, my work rarely comes up for resale at auction, and I like to think that is because it is treasured by the owners, and passed on within families.

In 2009 I was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  It has been a great honour to be supported in my art by New Zealanders and to know that my stone sculptures hold a special place in this country.

John Edgar ONZM answered these questions for us on 17 January, 2018.