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Potted agaves and sculptural plants fill the veranda at Sam Harrison’s house, and by the front door there’s a large bearded stone head staring back at me. As we go inside, Sam smilingly explains that the imposing artwork at the door is ‘the head of Llew Summers’. The late artist made the self-portrait some years ago and wound up giving it to Sam, who treasures the work as one of his favourite pieces.

It’s an unconventional reminder of the late sculptor’s renowned generosity towards friends and fellow artists. Llew and Sam were good mates for years, sharing a passion not just for art but also New Zealand’s wild places that would sometimes lead to back country tramps and hunting trips. They first met only a few years after Sam had graduated from the School of Art and Design at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, around the time of Sam’s first solo exhibition in Christchurch – Fallen at the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCA).

‘Llew was so full of life and made so much stuff possible for me; he let me use his yard and showed me how to make mouldings and how to cast in concrete,’ Sam says. ‘He gave us the artists’ house on his property to live in for two years and that was a huge help. We’d catch up for lunch and a coffee and talk about art and what we’d been up to. He was one of those people, you don’t realise how special and unique they are until they’re not there.

‘He taught me a massive amount about the art world and was always so willing to give up space, time and his concrete mixer! Some of my biggest projects could not have happened without him.’

Sam and wife Anna have filled their own modest city home with art. Along with Llew’s head, there are prints, drawings and life-size figurative sculptures from different phases in Sam’s career and a growing collection of works from other local artists including Miranda Parkes, Tjalling de Vries, Jason Greig, Philip Trusttum and Julia Morison. The visual impact of it all is invigorating and for Sam, there is much to appreciate when contemplating others’ creative ideas. ‘The work I respond to the most is usually not at all like my own!’

A large front room off the hall is currently where Sam has his studio but he’s in the throes of building a new space out back that will give him a lot more room to play with. He has also recently developed a website to showcase his practice: samharrisonartist.com.
It will be exciting to see what comes out of his new studio. This award-winning artist has already created an impressive body of work over the past decade or more and has had many solo and group exhibitions in New Zealand, Australia and Hong Kong. Sam’s work is in a number of public collections, including the Wallace Arts Trust in Auckland and Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery.

In Christchurch, he is perhaps best known for a piece called Bathing Figure that was unveiled at the Christchurch Arts Centre in 2016 as part of SCAPE Public Art’s Presence exhibition.

He grew up in Papanui, the son of a dressmaker/embroidery teacher and a church pastor. Naturally creative, Sam says his love of drawing and making things was given free rein along with his passion for sports and the outdoors. ‘Even now, I balance my practice with going into the hills and that also informs what I do to a degree. I want to achieve that sense of authenticity and connection with real life.’
Sam is well known for his facility and nuance in observing the human form. He is phenomenally skilled at working with the nude but there’s a thread of introspection and vulnerability running through his finished pieces that surpasses the merely representational. Communicated through his work are deeper realities and reflections upon what it means to be human. Faces are often shadowed or covered. Figures kneel or are curled up on themselves. It feels like his woodcuts and sculptures of wax and plaster or concrete are somehow drawn from an ancient place or inspired by an older arts heritage or tradition.

 

‘I think it’s just the timeless nature of the human figure,’ explains Sam. ‘It’s what makes it seem like the work is connecting back. Personally I find the deeper you dive into this, the more you find and the more work I make the more original it becomes. I’m not feeding off artists I love – I’m building on what I’ve already done. Technically, I like to push things further and further; my last show pushed everything I knew to the absolute limit.’

That last show, Obscura at Nadene Milne Gallery, featured veiled heads and draped figures. Viewing these pieces at Sam’s home, I find them rather haunting. With so much concealed, they are an antithesis to conventional portraiture.

‘In my brain, the male and female veiled figures are Adam and Eve…I’ve worked with the figure for so long and it was like, how can I make it feel fresh, contemporary and relevant. I’d made a reclining veiled figure and found I really liked it. As soon as I veiled it, I felt like it became universal. It could have come from right now or a thousand years ago.’

The process of making each figure was laborious, starting with charcoal drawings of a life model before making a plaster sculpture based on the drawings. This was then covered with a sheet and painted with plaster, which was filled in and strengthened. A mould was then made of that to reproduce the final solid work. ‘Technically, it pushed 10 years of making sculpture right to the very limit. The whole process was exciting. I’ve always admired artists who are not afraid of opening new doors.’

Another experimental work from the show, standing near the table at which we are sitting and chatting, is one of Sam’s self-portraits: it’s a deconstructed headless figure coloured using sheep blood. Sounds disturbing, yet there’s no denying its elemental power – a kind of earthy, organic cousin to Rodin’s Walking Man. ‘I used a lot of sheep blood in that show – many litres of it went into another work called Akeldama, or ‘Field of Blood’, a suite of colour field paintings. I wanted to bring colour to my practice and blood is obviously so symbolic.’

As has been observed, Sam’s experience as a hunter means he’s well acquainted with the raw realities of the body, life and death. A much earlier show – Render – directly drew on his experiences as a hunter.

He is unflinching in his acceptance of how, for him, hunting satisfies something fairly primal. In his spare moments, he enjoys crafting bespoke knives for both hunting and for the kitchen. A broader respect for nature is reflected in his latest passion for keeping bees. ‘I like to have hobbies – to keep making art every day you also need mental space and some distraction.’

As we end our interview, we pause by the stone head at the front door. Sam often thinks of Llew and draws strength from the memory of a man he looks back on as one of New Zealand’s most authentic artists. ‘He worked on his own and did what he wanted – in this day and age, that’s admirable and I find it so inspiring.’

samharrisonartist.com