‘Nope, that’s not gonna work. And this one, nope that shows too much of the photograph’s border, so it’s not gonna work neither.’ It’s mid-2020 and I am standing in Graham ‘GT’ Thompson’s wood workshop with a number of lockdown photographs to be framed. Based upon the numerous, delicately balanced towers of photo frames that surround us, it appears that he has made productive use of the COVID-19 lockdown. A slight perfectionist by nature, GT is trying to match one particular photograph with a frame that best complements it, sending each failed candidate away with a flurry of hilarious expletives. ‘What about this one, GT?’ I ask, smiling. I’m just winding him up at this point. ‘No, no, no, not at all!’
Being an accomplished professional photographer himself, he knows exactly how a frame pairs, or does not pair, with a photograph; much like how a red wine pairs best with red meats, or a grey suit pairs with brown shoes. He knows, probably better than most, that the duty of the frame is to enhance its partnered artwork, not simply encase it.
Finally, we arrive upon a bold, white frame that grants a window-like effect to the greyscale photo. After a quick adjustment and a wipe-down of fingerprints, he holds it up to his eyeline. ‘Perfect!’ The frame has been constructed from rimu wood skirting boards of the Old Akaroa Hospital, its origin inscribed in impeccable calligraphy upon its backing board by Deb, GT’s partner.
I enquire where Deb learnt to write like this. ‘Primary school,’ she replies, highlighting our generational difference with a dry smile. Deb and GT own and operate Silvan Made, a small artisan business that produces and retails products manufactured from salvaged heritage wood. Although their primary focus is photo frames, they also stock serving trays, platters, the odd coffee table, and boxes of differing descriptions and uses.
After GT has constructed and put the finishing touches on each, often bespoke product, Deb braves the Canterbury elements and takes them to various markets. A little modest and reticent in nature, Deb does not freely boast about the origin of her products. But, when asked, it is a story worth taking the time to listen to.
Prior to 2011, Deb and GT owned The Silvan art gallery in Addington. A maître d’ in a past life, Deb operated its café and floor space, and GT facilitated art exhibitions, including some of his own. On top of film and advertisement location scouting, GT also operated a materials salvaging business. Then the calamity of February 2011 struck, and everything, literally, came crumbling down. The art gallery was gone, and artistic work, including film scouting, dried up completely. ‘What people don’t realise is the scale of destruction that the earthquake wrought, beyond the streets and buildings. Christchurch once had a thriving art scene, with intense international interest, as we are the gateway to the rest of the South Island. Now that’s just gone, and it’s taking a long time to rebuild,’ explains Deb.
The earthquake razed over a hundred Canterbury heritage buildings, with many more, such as the famed Christchurch Cathedral, either being reconstructed or still under review. As long-time residents of Christchurch, the loss hit the couple hard. With an emphasis on rapidity to the reconstruction effort, heritage materials began the journey to landfill. Wood from trees that likely stood on the Canterbury Plains before the arrival of Māori was scheduled to disappear forever. What else was meant to be done with it? Preservation of history was somewhat, and unfortunately understandably, low on the priority list for a devastated city.
That duty was to be left to those who really cared; and, luckily for us, there were at least two people who really did care. From the ashes of adversity, an opportunity raised its battered and splintered head. ‘I got a call from an old acquaintance, the manager of the Red Zone at the time, who knew of my salvaging history,’ GT recalls. ‘He told me of an old Red Zone house that was due to be demolished, and was wondering if I’d be interested in saving some of its materials for my own use.’
What this acquaintance overlooked, albeit innocently, was just how determined and resourceful the couple were. Deb and GT saved and packed every last scrap of wood. When the demolition crew arrived to the scene they found no house to demolish, and Deb and GT having afternoon tea in the backyard. ‘All wrapped up here, boys, probably don’t need you today!’ GT announed to them, with a chuckle. And so began a tempestuous and brazen rivalry between the Thompsons and the Christchurch wrecking crews. What they lacked in machinery and manpower they made up for in spades with their rat cunning.
GT has an outstanding story of how he incorporated the services of an archaeologist into the salvaging of one particular property. Unfortunately, that’s a story that has to remain off the record for ‘technical’ reasons; however, should you be lucky enough to catch him in the right mood, you might just become privy to the details.
‘I became a timber freak!’ he exclaims. ‘We were both despondent but motivated by the prospect that [these materials] were going to waste,’ adds Deb. To date, the couple have salvaged approximately 100 tonnes of timber from over 700 properties. Many of the items that were subsequently produced have been donated back to the original property owners.
‘Reuse and repurpose culture was once huge in New Zealand. I don’t think that is the case any longer,’ says Deb, soberly.
But Silvan Made exemplifies what can be achieved with a predilection for repurposing old materials. By salvaging relics of a previous era, thus preserving the memories engrained within them, one can give a new purpose to something meaningful. Photographs may immortalise moments, but the Silvan frames immortalise where they took place. What’s in a Silvan frame? Canterbury history. Your history.
Words & Images Isaac McCarthy