Last Tuesday night, feeling burnt out from a long year (with writers block to boot), I wandered up the stairs at Motel bar to meet up with Sandy Rodgers, an up and coming local contemporary artist specialising in an interpretation of colonial era maps.
After selecting a table I did the usual by sliding the recorder next to her drink and having a chat about her art, lifestyle and influences. First off I asked her how long she had been doing art for. “I’ve always painted ever since childhood, I always did art throughout school, I went to teachers college for a short time and I concentrated on art there. I studied Maori art at Waiwhetu and that was weaving and Maori design.”
Rodgers’ art goes back to an era long ago, with her Maori heritage – Ngati Porou – you would think her art would predominantly concentrate on pre-European themes, but the era of Captain Cook is prominent. The maps in her recent works are intriguing – through layering images and print outs of text she has managed to recreate an antiquated feel from a time some 200+ years ago.
As she pointed out herself, “It’s funny when I first arrived back in New Zealand following my OE I really wanted to study, write and paint about Maori history and pre-European history and somehow it’s twisted by itself into more colonial and European history, there was still the Maori element there. The newer works are more Maori mythology which has been wonderful, researching stories which we didn’t learn at school which nobody learned at school where you actually have to be part of that district to know them.”
There is a long and detailed process of what she does to get the picture she wants, “basically what I use is a range of mediums depending on what it is I need, so I use all sorts of different brands. To be honest I’m still trying to find the perfect medium. Still working my way through brand names. I use watercolours, all my work is in watercolours. That’s the washed look and even the dark browns on that side, and that’s all watercolours mixed quite thick obviously.”
“But I also use a lot of ink and ink gets mixed in the watercolours as well. Once I’ve put that basic information, a layer of tissue goes over top and it’s almost like what you wrap stuff with tissue, it’s not really fine tissue, it’s quite strong. That goes over and all the water colour, ink and also graphite goes on top of that and then there will be a layer of shellac and probably usually ink over the shellac and then another layer of shellac.”
For the uninformed shellac is a long used varnish from the secretions of the lac insect from India and Thailand. It is best used as a primer or finisher as it helps prevent blotching and as Rodgers has found it is excellent for layering to create texture as well as shine.
“Yes shellac is beautiful because it just ages everything so nicely and it’s effectively a varnish. It’s just an old-fashioned varnish, they used to make vinyl records from shellac. Pretty tough stuff…”
Most artists have a philosophical background on which they build their art, and Rodgers is no exception. She draws a lot of inspiration from her experience of the world: “the philosophy really behind my work is the learning path. And what my work is for me is my opportunity to learn as much as I can about my heritage and it’s a very personal thing and a very personal path that I’ve decided I need to take. Because I was away from New Zealand for about six years and I was horribly homesick.”
“When I was on my way home I was in South America for a few months and when I was there I started researching New Zealand history. That’s where it really began in terms of where I am now, I was trying to find out something more everyday. That was about two years ago when I was on my way back, I had been all over the Americas, Europe and Asia too.”
“All of these places influence my work massively, because every place I go to I go to a museum which is really where my work stems from. This is because I love artifacts and the stories they tell – it might be just a segment of an ancient belt that a warrior once wore and the story behind that. And the museums in the Americas are what really inspired me; the Mayans and all the early history. It made me think, well what about early New Zealand history, and how much do we know about that, and how much do we see of that?”
Despite her excellence as an artist Rodgers finds it just as challenging as every artist making a living, the hard work and long hours are finally starting to pay off.
“I have a lot of support. A lot of moral support, it’s wonderful to be back in Wellington because I’ve got family and friends here and galleries and all sorts of people to help me which I love and I missed horribly when I was abroad. But it is hard because it is a small place, there’s not a lot of people in it (particularly art buyers). Luckily we’ve got a lot of art lovers. I make a full time living out of it. I don’t have any other job or any assistance, so I sell just enough but I work pretty long hours to survive.”
The hours for Rodgers are pretty insane, in her studio out the back of her family home she plugs away at it for at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I thought that Salient could get long with the up to 60 hour weeks around the office, but 80 hours minimum every week is pretty intense. I wondered whether it takes a toll on her health but Rodgers was pleased to say, “amazingly enough, no, not on my health.
I don’t understand it actually, I’ve managed to survive a whole winter of working insanely and not even the touch of the flu, knock on wood, I always knock on wood when I say that! I eat really well though, that’s the one thing I do.”
To survive such an intense creative workload you need to have a way to keep the batteries charged. Like many artists as a deadline approaches it gets harder: “the closer I get to a show I can do five hours sleep and just sort of working from there on. I have sort of learned the art of power napping… I have a little couch in my studio and when I am totally exhausted I can lie down for ten to twenty minutes. It’s kind of sleep, but really it’s rest rather than sleep. Then I can get up and actually feel rejuvenated. Unfortunately I don’t drink coffee. I wish I did but I don’t so I overdose on energy drinks, which is even worse for you than coffee, but I also drink a whole lot Berocca. Berocca’s good because it is vitamins.”
There are less conventional ways to keep sane and like many local artists she listens to National Radio (or Radio New Zealand National as they rebranded themselves), “heaps and heaps and heaps. Sometimes there’s wonderful stuff on, but sometimes and I think it’s three o’clock in the morning they do this weather report and it is so random and it goes for so long, currents and winds. I don’t even know the name, I couldn’t name the name but there’s this guy, I don’t know his name either. He’s hilarious, he does sort of throughout the night, I couldn’t even tell you what day it is but he gets to this weird ‘Okay, I’m really really tired now, nobody’s probably listening to me so I’m just going to blabber on like a mad man.’ I LOVE IT!”
This impressed me because Rodgers has such a great lifestyle; she lives her art 24/7. She is in her little space every day just like a medieval crafts person or artisan. She gets up everyday, goes to her workspace with the radio playing and just does it by expressing herself with her art. This reflects the kiwiana zeitgeist of National Radio, you could be in your home, at a bach, in the car or tucked up in bed and it makes you feel warm and cosy which is quite refreshing when you are like me and spend so much time disconnecting yourself on the Internet.
So where to now for Sandy Rodgers? Next year she is easing back on solo shows in Wellington but is keeping an eye out for other artists to possibly do a joint show.
I finished by asking her if she would love to ever get to show her art at the Wellington City Gallery. “That’s my goal. The one thing I’m willing to say about myself is that I’m willing to work my ass off to get there.
I’ve got the passion, and I definitely want the City Gallery to one day come and see me and say can you please come and have a show with us, and I’d go yes, I’d love to. And ever since I was a little girl that’s how I’ve wanted it to be.”
“And you love doing it…” I added
You can check out some of Rodgers’ works yourself by popping into Ashton Grove at 253 Wakefield Street.