The CollaborationNZ Experience
Collab. Summer camp for artists. Really, really good artists. What I’m doing here, I don’t know. But what the hey; I’ll probably never get a better learning opportunity absent private lessons.
But what exactly are these collabs, or more formally collaborations? The common pattern is for some body of artists representing varied skills to gather for a period of time to create art while exchanging skills and, mostly after the power tools are off in the evening, drink beer. It is an opportunity to exchange best practices with the best of artist. I learned wood surfacing techniques from the celebrated wood sculptor Benoit Averly, metal chiseling approaches from the phenomenal Neville Parker. Bill Dorman gently told me that most of what I’ve been doing for half a century is wrong and I’m fortunate to still be alive (the power tool thing). He also helped me immensely with technique and design thinking. Me? I taught them how to make a not-toxic rust solution. I think, on balance, I got more than I gave.
CollaborationNZ is held in March every two years at Mt. Manaia Baptist Camp
in Whangarei, a beautiful coastal town in the north of New Zealand. Pacific Northwest Sculptors was well-represented with four participants, Carole Murphy, Rick Crawford, Sherry Wagner and myself. Rick was the only one of us who had been before. Rick told me continuously that “Collab will change your art.” I think he may be right.
Day one is all about greetings. Old friends meeting old. New people nervously working through the rituals and protocols. Māori touching of noses and foreheads. Is that covid-protocol? Oh…covid is so last year (note: ironically, the author contracted covid in New Zealand after penning this draft, but not from Māori nose touching). Then the welcoming feast, the first of a week of nightly gatherings to enjoy hearty food shared seated a long tables of fellow artist.
Day two and the fun starts. Everything is organized, planned and precision timed. Oh, forget that: it’s not even close. Especially for the newbies, there is a process of wandering, feeling one’s way around, figuring out who to team with and what resources are available. There are a lot. Almost anything one can imagine in wood, metal, stone, glass or ceramic can be done. There is a resource pile too: a collection of brick-a-brack ranging from baby doll heads to giant steel buzz saw blades. Down outside the wood tent, to-die-for slabs of local woods stand ready to be carved, turned or cut and joined into extraordinary furniture. Maybe you conceive of a piece that needs a stone element. Down the hill to the stone carver’s tent you trot, hoping to team with someone who embraces your inspiration. Meanwhile, people are pulling on you, requesting help with a wood element, metal fitting or ceramic highlight, depending on your skill.
After what is essentially chaos-driven speed dating for artists, the camp sets into a rhythm of planning, pounding, sawing molding and forming. The work is exhausting and never ending. Twelve hour days seem to be the norm; more for some. By day two I am already exhausted, worn down by long days, sleep disturbed by mental problem-solving and the absence of my habitual 15 minute power nap. Throw in some jet lag for good measure.
Day four comes and the public visit of the camp is layered over a frenzy driven by the realization that projects are just too big to finish in two more days. Working with strange tools outside your own environment is just too slow, the resource artists: welders, woodworkers, painters and blacksmiths are all too backed up. Finishing treatments that deserve a week of coating and curing are going to get, at most, one day.
Day five seemed to be peak frenzy, and peak exhaustion. I am personally dealing with a crisis: the wooden arch for one of my bells is cutting across the grain. It’s too weak to hold up and it’s clear that the piece will dry, crack and fall apart. Maybe not on me, but surely on the buyer. This will be a personal disappointment to me, but also will dishonor the work of others who have pitched in. Secretly, I fear that I will get a reputation as a poor designer with limited hard skills. In despair, I contemplate abandoning the entire composition and hanging the bell from a bloody hook. They say bloody a lot here. They have other exclamatory words that get muttered as I scramble away from someone turning to beat a white hot piece of iron. Rick talks me out of abandoning the composition. I get several good ideas to save the arch. Sherry kicks in a brilliant ceramic medallion which fuses the whole thing together, both structurally and visually.
Day six comes with its impossible 9:00 pm deadline. People are moving fast and with nervous, perhaps determined, energy. By this time though, it is the movement of a well-trained kitchen. If Tai has a piece of wood, he’ll turn left. Helen will beeline for the fabrics. The movement is constant, frenetic. but strangely organized. Think honeybee hive with tools.
But somehow it miraculously seems to happen. On Thursday night at nine(ish) all the work is done. Cataloging and photographing starts. It will take all night because there are so many pieces, stalwart collaboration committee members working into the morning hours to photograph and log each of the hundreds of pieces.
The seventh day. The day of rest. Well, not for the wicked: while one crew helps pack, load and haul artwork off to the auction site in town, the others are left to begin turning a littered artist workshop back into a children’s summer camp. The metals tent is littered with steel and copper shards. The wood tent covered in shavings and remnants. Rags, brushes and odds and ends of caustic or sticky finishing treatments litter countertops and sinks. Day seven is another busy and messy day as we make the camp right for small children and bare feet.
Day eight is a true day of rest, and of celebration, as we converge on the cultural center for the auction event. The display is outstanding thanks to the curative eye of artist / gallery owner Alex Gupton. Pieces sell for less than commercial value (some gallery owners, knowing this, buy at action, then take and mark up the price for resale in their galleries). Unfortunately, the one work I covet is equally desired by another artist and I end up paying dear. I am nonetheless proud to own this piece with major contributions from leading artists. The saved bell, the one Rick coached me to persevere on, is purchased by a fellow artist, one of the collaborators on the piece. This makes me happy. The auction overall is a success, raising over $70,000 New Zealand dollars and helping fund the next collaboration in two years.
That night is the final BBQ, lubricated by abundant libations. A bleary-eyed crew will arise the next day to say heart-felt, sometimes tearful goodbyes as they disperse to parts of New Zealand and far reaches of the world. It has been an intense week full of coaching, learning, pounding, grinding and sawing. It has been a week where we have learned just how much can be built with the right determination, creativity, skill and cooperation. It is an experience highly recommended for any artist with the means and motivation.