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31 January 2019

Carving a Niche

Internationally acclaimed sculptor John Edgar made a brave decision to leave a promising academic career and embrace the world of art, and now he exhibits and sells his works all around the world.


Tucked away in the industrial heart of Glendene, West Auckland, and rubbing shoulders with an unlikely collection of neighbours from panel beaters to boat builders, is the workshop of a talented and internationally respected sculptor.

Here, John Edgar crafts sculptures that find their way into galleries, public places and private homes and gardens throughout New Zealand and around the world. In the yard outside his workshop, blocks of granite, basalt and other stone in all shapes and sizes, many blackened by age and weathering, are stacked into piles, waiting their turn.

A self-taught sculptor, John has been working with stone for 40 years, after giving up a promising career as an academic scientist.

“I studied science at school and university, then in the 70s I decided I preferred to be an artist, so now I call myself a sculptor.”

“I have always liked making things,” he says. “My father had a workshop in his house in Mt Albert, and I was always fixing things and making things. I loved it, but I was academic, so I was channelled into science. It was a hard decision to change.”

John’s works are abstract compositions with strong references to science, nature and the landscape. Many are in series that have developed since he first began sculpting. In “Coins of the Realm”, each piece is made from two contrasting local stones and banded with copper. “These are a small token of New Zealand, made from New Zealand materials. I said I would make 1000 coins, and I am up to 780,” he says. “Some years I have a burst of activity and make a whole lot, and then some years, none.”

Another collection, “Calculus”, uses stones from throughout New Zealand, each polished and inscribed with a mathematical symbol, often inlayed with other brightly coloured stones like serpentine, jasper and lapis lazuli, coloured glass, metals, and other small objects. 

He’s equally at home making larger pieces, like “Lie of The Land”, installed in 2012 in The Savill Garden’s New Zealand Garden in Windsor Great Park, Windsor, UK. Or there’s “Transformer”, in the Auckland Domain, a 3.5m-high granite standing stone embedded with slices of contrasting red granite. John believes it is important that large works like this are personal, tactile and approachable. “I want people to be able to go up and touch these pieces and sit on them.”

John was living in the South Island when he got back into crafting things, using materials like bone and wood. “It started small; I might have made some earrings and someone admired them, so I began making more and selling them. I found a job in a greenstone souvenir factory. That got me going – I learned a lot about how to work with stone.”

Then, returning to Auckland in the late 70s, John set up his own workshop, “and I never looked back.”

He started out using New Zealand stone – pounamu, basalt, jasper, argillite – mainly making smaller pieces, “but in the 80s I decided I wanted to make my work larger. It was very difficult to get big pieces of New Zealand stone, as there weren’t really quarries here, so I began to source granite, marble and limestone from overseas – mainly China, India, Italy, America and the UK. Somehow, over the years, I have managed to accumulate around 300 tonnes of raw materials,” he says.

John’s work is influenced by nature, geology and landscape and the structures of the land that come from natural shapes, and the structure of the stone is an important inspiration in his work.To be a successful sculptor, he says, you need to understand stone implicitly. “I come up with an idea and do concept drawings and then work out what sort of stone would be most suitable, and try to find the right piece.”

Not so much now, “because I have more stone in my yard than I can ever use”, but in his formative sculpting years, John spent a lot of time travelling, prospecting and studying the landscape and gradually, over the years, he says, his work has become simpler in its form, but it still allows the stone to speak.

“And, no matter what, for me sculpture must also have a tactile quality. It must feel good to touch,” he says. “Form is paramount and it is interesting how different pieces suggest different things and remind people of things I have never even thought of. I like that idea of multiple meanings.”

Inspiration for John arrives in many guises: “I don't know where it comes from. Sometimes it is from the outside, what I am reading or listening to; it often comes in bursts when I am working or concentrating on something else.”

Moving to live on Auckland’s rugged West Coast has been an influence, too, and he is passionate about his own little corner of Auckland: “I love the West Coast; I’m inspired by it. As soon as I moved here my work because bigger and changed completely, it became more to do with landscape. The beaches here are dramatic, and powerful, and the landscape is vigorous. Living by a kauri forest with wonderful ridges, streams and forms came through into my work straight away,” he says.

“This is my home and I won’t be going away from here. It’s not so busy, and west Auckland has huge ethnic diversity, which is really healthy, and there’s a good community. There are great restaurants and food shops, Asian supermarkets, fruit and vegetables. I’ve seen the most wonderful changes over the past 30 years,” he says.

John has owned his workshop in Glendene for about 12 years now, and says buying it was a good decision. “In the past, I have worked out of my home or garage, but I really need to be somewhere with space, with a big workshop, where I can make noise and no one complains. A residential area is no good when you are using big, noisy tools all day.”

It’s also practical and convenient. A sculpture may be a thing of great beauty when it is completed, but along the way, John often calls on the services of his neighbours – welders, blacksmiths, and engineering companies. “This is a great area for me.”

Considering the delicate nature of much of his work, John has an impressive kit of mostly high-speed power tools – saws, drills, grinders, and polishers. “The tools make the process faster, but you have to be able to control them so they do what you want them to do. You have to understand how things behave – both the tools and the stone – to get the results you want,” he says.

Even after 40 years John says he looks forward to coming into his workshop every day. “I work hard every day, spending time drawing and thinking. When the work is monotonous, I can let my mind wander productively – and sometimes I get a burst of light, and a new idea. I find it a very stimulating process.”

Over the years, John’s sculpture has appeared in solo and group exhibitions; he also takes on public and private commissions, and is constantly coming up with new ideas and concepts to develop and work on.

New Zealand is a great country for an artist, he says. “It’s been a privilege to be a creative artist in this country. We are fully supported by New Zealanders who continue to buy my work. I’ve never had to have another job.”

Most of John’s work is sold locally. “For a small country, it is remarkable how many artists can live and survive here. We are lucky that we have a vigorous art gallery system, lots of dealer galleries in Auckland, about maybe 20-30 openings every week, which is quite remarkable. New Zealanders are passionate collectors of art. How lucky can we be!”


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