Art Alternatives

By Adrienne Rewi

Phil Trusttum at work in his Christchurch studio before the earthquakes.

There’s a quiet, groundswell of change occurring in the Christchurch arts scene in the shattering aftermath of two major earthquakes and thousands of after shocks. There are stories everywhere of artists who have lost homes, studios, years’ worth of research and work. And now, eight months after the September quake and three months after February 22, there’s a growing feeling of discontent coupled with an inspiring move by artists to reclaim some of their personal power, to look for new, exciting ways for the arts community to move forward with the city rebuild. Artists are banding together and formulating plans for their own artistic destiny.

There’s a new, revitalized camaraderie happening, says leading New Zealand painter, Philip Trusttum.

 “We were friends in small print before the earthquakes but now we’re friends in CAPITAL letters. We’ve all helped each other and artists who’ve refused to exhibit together previously have met for discussions. There’s been no animosity at all, because there are much bigger issues to face now and artists from all career stages are keen to be involved,” he says.

Known as a prolific and passionate artist, Trusttum is not currently painting. His family home was demolished after the February quake and although his studio was unharmed, he’s set painting aside until June. He and his family have the use of a friend’s home for a few months and he’s using that time to organize an exhibition for earthquake-affected Christchurch artists. “Moving On” will bring together over 100 works by over 43 artists at Arts in Oxford Gallery on June 4. 

“Earthquake Still Life” by Barry Cleavin.

According to fellow artist and friend, leading New Zealand printmaker, Barry Cleavin, Trusttum is “a retracted political beast,” and the fact that he is the organizing force of this exhibition and is contacting every artist personally, is astonishing.

“Phil is a painter not a political art beast and it is amazing to see him out in the arts community as a liaison man. It’s an indication of his big spirit, of his generosity in difficult times. He lost his house but he can look beyond the ruins and see a future. He’s suffered more than many yet he’s channeled all his usual painting energy into other artists. I hope everyone sees that as a generous act on his part and not something he’s doing for his own gain.”

 Cleavin says “there must be something seriously wrong with the communication channels within the Christchurch arts community to bring Trusttum out” in this way.

“There was no early personal contact or representation that I know of, made to Christchurch arts practitioners by arts organizations after the first inconvenient shakes. As for the more noticeable second disturbance, still nothing. We are though, appreciative of private individuals being mindful of our plight; but we thirst for some ‘real time’ national and local recognition of our cultural problems.”

 Trusttum agrees. “The only reason I was able to get in to my home and studio in the red zone to salvage materials and possessions, was thanks to people in Auckland and Whanganui mobilizing on my behalf. No arts organization anywhere phoned to ask if any local artists were okay.”

Christchurch artists, Grant Takle (left) and Philip Trusttum discuss one of Takle’s new earthquake-inspired works to be shown at “Moving On” an exhibition at Arts on Oxford Gallery in Oxford, North Canterbury.

 Artist Grant Tackle says the wider arts community needs to support artists if they want them.

“One of the lessons from all this should be that arts organizations need to mobilize much more quickly at a local level to assist and support artists. They need someone dedicated to that – someone on the ground, with a finger on the pulse, someone who knows the artists, someone who can visit and interact with artists,” he says.

 Tackle lost his suburban home studio. His double garage work space was flooded with liquefaction, which destroyed the art works and materials he needed for his next exhibition. In a determined effort to “get back to normal” he has resumed work in a small garden sleep-out.

“The whole business has been mentally and physically fatiguing,” he says. “It took us a week to remove all the liquefaction and even now, everyday life is bombarded with distracting tasks that affect your creative processes.”

Christchurch painter, Simon Edwards is making the most of his Sydenham studio before he has to move again in a month’s time.

For all the fatigue, anxiety, distress and discontent you encounter among Christchurch artists, there is an excitement about the future. With the loss of so many dealer galleries, artists are getting together to talk about making their own way. Painter Simon Edwards has shared studio spaces with a core group of artists – Ross Gray, Miranda Parkes, Shannon Williamson, Rosa Scott and Mike Southern – through both earthquakes.

“Our Manchester Street studio was green stickered in September so we all went back there. We worked there for about two months before an engineer came in and told us after shocks had worsened damage. He told us to evacuate within three hours. That probably saved our lives because the whole building collapsed in the February earthquake.”

Like most, Edwards has been keen to return to painting, to get back to normal but with all arts supply stores in Christchurch damaged and closed by the earthquakes, and unable to get his brand of paint anywhere in New Zealand, he’s had to wait for supplies from Italy. It seems a small issue compared to some but coupled with several studio moves and periods with no studio at all, it has impacted on his ability to focus. Nonetheless, he held an exhibition in Queenstown last week and now he and his Sydenham studio mates are planning their own future.

“With so many galleries out of action, we’ve decided to open our studio spaces and have our own small exhibitions and get-togethers on a regular basis – maybe once a week. There are opportunities now for new ways for people to view art – and new ways for artists to get together to engage with the art market. We’d already organized a show in a High Street space before the earthquakes; now we want to build on that. It’s not just about keeping our careers active, it’s about avoiding that sense of isolation that has set in since the earthquakes.”

Christchurch printmaker, Denise Copland has had to rethink the series of works she was preparing before the Christchurch earthquakes.

Across town printmaker, Denise Copland has been thinking the same thing.

“We have the potential here for an enormous paradigm shift. The earthquakes may have ruined buildings and lives, but they’ve also given us the gift of opportunity and that’s very exciting,” she says.

“The arts community can’t go back to the way it was. It must change and work in completely different ways, ways we’ve never known before. Artists working collaboratively to stage their own shows is one likely outcome. It’s a way for artists to reclaim some of the power base about how art is seen and exhibited. Artists are the producers but for too long, curators and galleries have been deciding what’s needed and we’ve had to try and fulfill their needs. Now, since the earthquakes, artists here are communicating with each other like never before. They’ve banded together and they’re all ready for change – even if they have to do it themselves.”

Painter/photographer Jane Zusters enjoyed this enormous studio space in Lichfield Street but had to vacate after the September earthquake when the building was red-stickered.

After the September earthquake, painter Jane Zusters was locked out of her Lichfield Street studio for several months after it was red-stickered. She and several other artists had been working in the Bains’ building for a number of years. In the February earthquake, the studio above her, occupied by painter Eion Stevens, completely collapsed into the space she shared with fellow painter, Karen Giles. Stevens lost everything including around 60 paintings. Zusters was unexpectedly able to salvage a few treasured items when the Lost Art salvage crew entered the adjacent studio to salvage works for painter, Rua Pick.

“The wall between our studios had collapsed so I was able to get through and get my fantastic Spanish filberts that I bought in London 11 years ago for 5 pounds each. They were utterly irreplaceable to me in the scrafitto work I do.”

Zusters has been deeply saddened by the loss of her huge shared studio and now back working in one small room of her Linwood home, she’s finding painting a challenge. Since September, she’s spent a lot of time photographing earthquake damage around the city and that is already filtering into her work.

“The earthquakes have definitely changed my work. I’m much more into photography now. I’ve always done it but without a studio for so long, it became my sole creative outlet. Now I’m working on a series of works that have evolved from both quakes.”

 Zusters is also keen on artist-driven exhibitions. She and Giles had just converted half of their giant studio into a gallery space prior to the quakes, and they’d already staged a group show there a week before the September quake.

Martin Trusttum, CPIT: “We’re free to determine a new future.”

Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) Stakeholder Manager for Creative Industries, Martin Trusttum is very excited about working through the challenges that lie ahead for the Christchurch arts community. He and other CPIT staff lead the charge after the February earthquake and gathered together a host of arts organizations who had lost offices due to damage or closure. He says CPIT, largely undamaged in the quake, had the space to support others in a collaborative arts hub. Today, representatives from Creative New Zealand, the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, the Body Festival, SCAPE Biennial, CHART, Art on Tour NZ, the Writers’ Festival, the Buskers’ Festival, Christchurch City Council, Canterbury Symphony Orchestra, Christchurch City Choir and the Christchurch Arts Festival, are all working from offices at CPIT.

“It’s working very well,” says Martin Trusttum.

“What’s so exciting is, now they’re all in the same space, these groups can now liaise on a daily basis. It’s fuelled new ideas and removed barriers to communication. CPIT has given them rent-free space for three months but I’d like to see that extended.  There have been ideas about working collaboratively in an arts precinct before but buildings, rents, leases and the like stood in the way. Now those impediments are gone and we’re free to determine a new future. Everyone here is interested in a collective space, a precinct of some kind and we have the resources and presence to drive it.”

 He says Arts Voice Christchurch has been formed since February, driven by Creative New Zealand, who are partnering with CPIT to find space.

“They’ve facilitated meetings and out of that Arts Voice was born. It aims to speak for artists in the city rebuild. We need people with contacts in the community, the council, in government and Arts Voice is charged with doing that work, while CPIT will look for spaces and manpower.

 “The vision CPIT has put forward is a Creative Precinct separate to CPIT, utilizing existing city spaces and creating new ones where required. We’re looking at the wider High Street area as a likely position and we’re recommending a performance space to hold 700-800 people, a second smaller space for 300-400, plus administrative, rehearsal, commercial, green and leisure spaces all allied to the arts. I think it’s entirely feasible if we can pool resources and assets and capitalize on the creative thinking that is currently happening. It’s very promising but it will take a lot of energy and compromise.”

 In the short term, CPIT is already changing their Student Union building into a public performance space. Trusttum says it’s an ideal venue for rehearsals, film screenings, music performances and exhibitions and he hopes to have it up and running within the next three months. There’s also a proposal in place to provide partially-funded mobile gallery spaces for artists – portable, flexible structures that can be placed on CPIT land and leased to artists for a nominal fee.

“The mobile element is appealing because it means we can stage exhibitions anywhere. We’ve also been offered some significant exhibition and studio space by Urban Homes, who own a number of private homes on the perimeter of the red zone. Artists we’ve spoken with have been very enthusiastic and supportive of our ideas and we’ll have more meetings with them to discuss options.  Everything is moving at breakneck speed now. We want mobile galleries up and running by August and our first exhibition will be work by the Art and Design and Architectural Studies faculties at CPIT.”

 Christchurch painter, David Woodings was thrown to the ground in his studio when the February 22nd earthquake struck the city.

Along with the growing body of exciting ideas for the future, there are serious thoughts about what this citywide disaster might mean for the future of arts and cultural communities throughout earthquake-prone New Zealand. Artist and former director of Southland Museum and Art Gallery (and former member of the National Services Te Paerangi Advisory Group), David Woodings, was thrown to the floor in his suburban studio the day of the February quake. He picked himself up and ever since, he’s been trying to reclaim some sense of normality. It hasn’t been easy. There were ten days spent clearing liquefaction from his property; days when he volunteered to help COCA pack over 1,000 art works for transport and storage; and still, the noise and disruption as diggers and lorries restore order to his brutalized neighbourhood roads. But the daily upheavals haven’t stopped him thinking about the future.

“In the long term, you’d have to say that opportunities for gallery spaces in the cheap, upstairs city spaces are largely gone. I think new galleries will be located in beautiful, architecturally-designed buildings and it will be interesting to see how the higher costs of those spaces impacts on the arts. I think there will need to be some very clever thinking about what facilities will become art galleries and whether in fact, they even need to be in the central city. This is the first time New Zealand has experienced a disaster of this scale and it will be interesting to see how the arts reclaim their place in the new city.”

 Woodings likes the idea of new building owners being asked to contribute a percentage of their building costs to public art.

“If someone is spending $10-million or more on a building for instance, a small percentage given over to sculpture or major interior artworks on the site would be a great support for our arts community. It’s done elsewhere in the world so why not here?

 “The earthquakes generally, have also given artists, galleries and museums the opportunity to think very carefully as a collective, about how they might prepare themselves should anything like this ever happen again. It seems to me that this sector wasn’t as prepared as it could have been to deal with the magnitude of damage and the recovery of artworks and heritage objects. New Zealand’s major cultural facilities should look at Christchurch and discuss and prepare some kind of process that would enable faster salvage and recovery before demolition begins. I think it would be useful to form a registry of qualified people in the community, who can be called upon to assist. I have 25 years of museum and arts administration experience but no one called me; I volunteered. A register of helpers with collective skills and passions, on the ground, in every city, could have a significant impact on recovery.

“There’s a real need too, to understand what a city’s cultural collections entail. A lot of valuable private collections are unknown to major arts and cultural institutions. But if you consider private and public losses here in Christchurch, the dollars quickly stack up. More than the financial impact though, we need to think of it in terms of the loss to New Zealand’s collective history and culture. Every time you lose any part of public and private collections, you lose part of your heritage. That’s very sad and I think we need to find ways to ensure it never happens on this scale again.”

 The opinions expressed in this blog and comments are the authors’ and do not represent the views of National Services Te Paerangi or Te Papa.