Godfather of NZ sculpture

After more than 60 years sculpting it is understandable that Greer Twiss struggles to find room for his work.

"I have a big collection of my own work. One of the problems of a sculptor is what the hell do you do with it. It just fills up space in your studio — I keep small works. Large works are more difficult to find homes for ... especially when you are the type of sculptor I am. I don’t make good stuff for gardens."

As most of his works are inside pieces it also made his works hard to home.

"Once they are over a certain size it becomes an argument between a piano and a piece of sculpture.

"The last couple of years I’ve given a lot away to galleries and collections. You get to like things so you want them [to] carry on."

Twiss (84) describes himself primarily as an object maker and has a soft spot for small works that can "dissipate" into a person’s home, allowing them to have a long-term relationship with it as compared to brief looks at large works in galleries or streets.

"In a house you keep bumping into it, you can walk around it, you can encompass it in your own environment. It’s a valuable way for an art work to operate."

In the past few years instead of making works out of bronze, iron or other metals he has been sculpting with "nice quality" wax and choosing not to cast them.

"It has the colour and texture I enjoy."

It needs to be cared for to ensure its longevity such as being placed in museum-style glass cases when on display which is a look he likes and has used in the past. He enclosed a series of rusted mild steel animals, real and imaginary, that way for an exhibition.

"It seems appropriate to move back to some of that glass case work with the waxes. It has a nice quality about it, it separates the viewer — here I am one minute talking about making them small so they are accessible and the next minute I’m putting them in glass so they’re not accessible.

"I enjoy that argument about accessibility."

Yet he is also known for large works such as the bronze Karangahape Rocks on Karangahape Rd (1967-1969) in Auckland and the recently reinstalled stainless steel Flight Support for Albatross for the Auckland City Sculpture Trust on the Devonport side of the Waitemata.

Twiss is thrilled to see the 7m-high sculpture flying again, remembering when he first made the maquette for the work, soldering metal bits on and cutting others off as the piece took shape.

Greer Twiss' Runner
Greer Twiss' Runner
"I like to leave the residue of those little attempts in the work; it shows how it changes and progresses."

However, the engineers and computer designers attempted to take these "ad hoc" additions out, cleaning up the design.

"I said hold on a minute, you’ve taken those bits out that are about the story of the structure."

It was originally put up at the Devonport ferry terminal but did not have a "happy life" especially after engineers put in more stabilising structures. It was eventually taken down.

"The birds got lost within the sculpture."

So when it was decided to put it up again seven years later, Twiss made sure it was revised so the birds shone again.

"I’m very pleased with what’s come about. The Devonport wharf is the ideal spot."

Twiss says the work will "probably" be his last "decent-sized" work.

"I’m too old to climb ladders now."

The Karangahape Rd work has grown on him over the years. In the beginning he would close his eyes when he went past it to avoid looking at it.

Twiss, who started out as a puppeteer, created it on his return from a trip to Europe where as a recipient of a QEII Arts Council travel grant in 1965, he studied the lost-wax process. He described the creation of the work as an interesting exercise as there was not a foundry facility around which could do the work, so he did it himself.

"It was a huge learning endeavour. It was hard work in the end and I didn’t want to know about it."

After visiting it one day to photograph it early one morning and having a conversation with two men sitting at the foot of it who offered him a drink, he feels more positive towards it.

"Afterwards I thought how nice it was that they identified with the work. It’s what public works should do, people make them their meeting place, it’s an identifiable place in the community. It’s lasted very well, it’s become a nice work within the community, a lot of people enjoy it. "

Greer Twiss' Victory 2013
Greer Twiss' Victory 2013
Other public art sculptures he has made have not lasted so well. Of 10 major commissioned works only four remain. Some have been stolen due to the valuable material they have been made from such as eight of 12 bronze birds on poles in Auckland Domain’s fern garden.

Twiss, who is known for his inventiveness, was also a guest contributor to the sculpture park at the Seoul Olympics.

He says he often "horrifies" people who see him working.

"I’ve had the odd student who has worked all day with me and they go home and I sit and look at it and pull it apart. By the next morning they come in and it’s a totally different work."

Working small gives him the ability to "come and go" to find out what a piece is about.

"I have a broad parameter but chance is a big factor and change in a viewpoint."

Twiss does draw and some of those works are included in the Dunedin exhibition, but not as a starting point for a work. He draws after he has completed work or between sessions or projects.

"Then I put it away and start making work. It’s a way of filling a gap in a way. Drawing is a nice way to learning to see a direction, a vision."

Twiss had his first one-man show in 1954 — "it’s a long time ago". He has gone on to exhibit extensively in group and solo shows throughout New Zealand and overseas and has been the subject of two retrospective exhibitions (City Gallery Wellington and Auckland Art Gallery).

His sculptures are included in all major public and many private collections in New Zealand, as well as being held in international collections.

In 2002, Twiss was awarded an ONZM for sculpture, and in 2011 he became the recipient of an Icon Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, an award limited to 20 living art-makers. Alongside his sculpture work, Twiss taught at the University of Auckland, where he was an associate professor at the Elam School of Fine Arts, becoming head of sculpture in 1974.

He loved the students and their ideas.

"When I retired [in 1998] I found it very sad as each morning I was not confronted by a problem I’d never come across before. Every day you never knew what a students would come up with, it really keeps you alive."

Teaching had always been part of Twiss’ plans. He started out as an intermediate school teacher.

Greer Twiss' Clamped Cushion
Greer Twiss' Clamped Cushion
"I really liked it. Describing things to intermediate school level, you had to re-think how to talk about it to people who had no knowledge of arts and put it in an interesting way. It is a good test for the brain.

"Teaching was a good solution for me."

While teaching at school level, art still came first.

"I’d joke there was a lamppost on the way home when I passed that lamppost I’d cease being a teacher and start being a sculptor and then I’d work till 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning on sculpture."

Moving on to university gave him more freedom as he was expected to be a "full-time sculptor as well as a full-time teacher".

"It was a good for students to see me carrying on my practice."

The only downside he sees in that approach is that his work "fed my own self" rather than "feeding a client".

"I made what I wanted to make, which is a little bit indulgent and in some ways restrictive. It meant I was not pushed into other territories you didn’t necessarily want to go to. Commissions are hard work as you have to meet a client’s expectations. So I avoided commissions as they ate into my teaching time, which was a nuisance."

Twiss has worked in a variety of media including lead, fibreglass, galvanised iron and wax, but he is best known for his bronzes, which he often strategically angles on small bases.

He started out working in clay and wax, tried wood and stone carving then moved on to bronze, lead and stainless steel.

"Stone is the least likeable material. I had a couple of goes at carving it. I hated it."

The Dunedin exhibition features many of his small works that he has kept over the years.

"Quite a lot of them are my favourite works. There is an athlete figure which I get a lot of enjoyment from. I can’t model that way these days, I know too much. When you learn how to do things, that actually constrains some of the adventure you put into works. So some of my early works I get a lot of pleasure out of ."

TO see

"Greer Twiss — years of making",  Fe29, St Clair, until January 9.

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