Luring visions behind resin

Sculptor Bryn Jones loves a unique challenge. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Sculptor Bryn Jones loves a unique challenge. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Bryn Jones’ mermaid will float over the Peter Nicholls Sculpture Plinth on the Knox lawn for the next four months. Rebecca Fox talks to the sculptor about being surrounded by art every day.

For Bryn Jones, getting the details right — the flow of hair on a mermaid, the way a dog’s legs are crossed or a facial expression — is paramount, so it is not surprising that he can spend more than 2000 hours on one of his life-sized sculptures.

Known for his public sculptures — such as Sir Edmund Hillary at Mt Cook, the cedar cone at Dunedin Botanic Gardens, the Pelorus Jack dolphin statue at Collinet Point near French Pass and the sea lion at St Clair — Jones loves a unique challenge.

It is what has driven him to attempt his latest sculpture, Waiting on a Friend, of a dog, a cross between a Labrador and Weimaraner, lying on its back legs patiently waiting for his friend on a towel with an open book and drink at his side.

"It’s really challenging, the way they sit down and cross their two back feet together laying on a haunch, it is extremely difficult to get just right — the more interesting it is, the more challenging it is going to be."

The picture he is creating, which has been modelled in clay and cast in fibreglass and resin, should sit perfectly in a sculpture exhibition held alongside an Australian beach, he says.

"I find them fascinating, how their [dogs] eyes have evolved to replicate human eyes. There is subtle and fitting relationships between them."

Yet, as important as the artistic success of the sculpture is, it is the unseen work, the planning that begins right at the start of a new project, that ensures it gets viewed.

The choice of materials means it is lightweight and strong and it is created in pieces. This means it can be dismantled, packed in a crate and checked in as part of Jones’ luggage when he flies to Australia. Then it is bolted together with the help of his son on site.

"It’s really handy and manageable. I just hire a car, pack it in and drive to the coast and set it up."

It is also affordable compared with the $1300 plus three months time it can take to get a sculpture across the ditch if freighting it.

Photo: Peter McIntosh
Photo: Peter McIntosh
"Just jumping on a plane is so much more simple to do."

That is the beauty of his fibreglass sculptures and the mermaid recently installed at the new Peter Nicholls Sculpture Plinth at Knox Church gardens which was opened last year.

The life-sized mermaid Lure is anchored by an omega and made from sand-cast steel. It was created for a sculpture exhibition at Kaipara Harbour in 2022. Jones carved it out of wood before getting it cast at Giltech, a company which has done a lot of his work over the years, and then welded together by another Dunedin company.

"The interesting thing for me is that it is in relief. It’s only, at its widest point, 12mm thick. So the illusion when you look at it is of a three-dimensional shape but it’s not. That’s reasonably challenging when you make it but incredibly satisfying when it works."

Lure was a product of the Covid lockdowns and a book Jones was reading at the time on the Russian rusalka or mermaid.

"[It] made me start thinking about the relevance of the mermaid, the excitement or lure to go somewhere interesting and exciting yet which had inherent dangers, evils and perils. They still exist today because of Covid as they did back in the old days."

While it has been welcoming guests on his veranda since then, he felt it fitted the sculpture plinth quite well, as the foreshore was not far from that spot back in the day.

"There is the serpent-in-the-garden thing and it has a really attractive aspect to it. The colours go well in the environment with the rusted steel base."

While he has continued to make works since Covid, the commission work which kept him busy prior to that was "decimated" by the pandemic.

"It kind of stifled everything else. There had been a steady flow for the past eight years, one after another, then nothing."

Part of that is the massive cost of cast bronze figures, as they require using the costly lost wax process which means a sculpture could cost around $100,000 for a full figure.

Bryn Jones’ Lure, displayed in Knox garden. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Bryn Jones’ Lure, displayed in Knox garden. Photo: Gregor Richardson
A few years ago, he completed a pair of figures to be situated in the garden of a family in Wānaka.

"Whereas Lure is much more achievable. The cost is massively less and the process is a lot easier and the effect can be just as interesting."

So these days Jones, who is also the head of art at John McGlashan College, has been busy creating sculptures for public and sculpture exhibitions — last year alone he did five, including two in Australia. And he already has two projects for sculpture events booked for this year.

"They’ve come back and are building up."

These events and exhibitions provided greater exposure of his work. In Auckland, New Zealand Sculpture OnShore showcased about 100 pieces of sculpture, including one of his works, on the clifftop of Operetu Fort, Takapuna in Devonport. It attracted more than 20,000 people.

He showed other works at Sculpture in the Gardens events in Wollongong and in Mudgee in New South Wales.

"People love it in the gardens, people see it as bit of a spectacle. They’re layered in content and meaning."

Before Covid, he exhibited at "Sculpture by the Sea", in Bondi, Sydney, which is one of the biggest sculpture events. For that he created, out of fibreglass, a 2m-tall male figure standing on a soap box yelling out.

"That’s huge — half a million people wander through.

"It’s great exposure."

It is now 20 years since Jones’ first major outdoor piece was unveiled — the Sir Edmund Hillary sculpture.

Photo: Peter McIntosh
Photo: Peter McIntosh
"I did life-size at art school — it’s the impact really. It’s the proportional thing — if it’s slightly bigger ... the impact is a lot more appealing. The Sir Edmund Hillary for Mt Cook was just slightly bigger than life-size.

"It’s just the way we relate to shapes and sizes."

At art school, he started out carving life-sized figures in wood.

"It’s really time consuming. It takes forever to get something done and it’s pretty hard on your body. You end up with arthritis in wrist joints. So I started modelling and casting — you can cast anything. You can cast in stone, plastics and different metals. Working in that model in soft form is a lot more immediate. It’s another skill itself, making a decent mould to get something out of. You kind of evolve with different materials."

The only down-side now to working with those materials today is the declining artisan industries that support it, he says. Each of Jones’ large metal sculptures require the skilled craftsmen working in foundries and associated businesses to bring them to life.

"It was really unfortunate when Giltech closed. I’m not aware of any other sand-casting business that can handle what I do. There is possibly one in Christchurch but there’s freight costs and you can’t just go for a drive to have a yarn and see how things are going. When that happened it was devastating really. The skill level that was there was huge."

Dunedin had a "real circle" of professional people who were highly skilled in the area.

"When we did the dolphin, I thought ‘wow, this is unique. We could do anything’.

"Then, of course, it fractures and falls apart."

He already has to send his moulds for the lost wax work to Auckland as there is no-one down here that does that sort of work. That foundry is run by two sculptors who are brilliant at their work, he says.

So an alternative to that is his sculptures made of fibreglass like his figure of "Mum", the sea lion at St Clair. He cuts the figures out of polyurethane and then covers them in fibreglass.

Bryn Jones' latest work, Waiting on a friend. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Bryn Jones' latest work, Waiting on a friend. Photo: Peter McIntosh
"They last, will last, for over 100 years easily. And its considerably cheaper, a 10th of the price."

However, after the Hillary work was unveiled and with a young family, Jones’ attention was more focused on them and his teaching job, until about eight to 10 years ago.

"I discovered it keeps you really interested in what you are doing as far as teaching goes.

"Where I teach they are really supportive of you and the boys love it, seeing what you are doing.

"You couldn’t have a better marriage between your passion and interests and your work really."

Jones thinks he could probably get bored if he did not have both in his life.

He has even created a bronze sculpture for the school, donating his time for the project and the school’s old boys paying for the foundry costs.

"That was a really cool thing to do. That will be there forever."

At nights and weekends, Jones heads out to the workshop to put some time into his latest project.

"It’s like anything, if you don’t get out and mow the lawns they’re not going to get cut are they."

He did not find getting a person’s features right was too intimidating.

"You just have to work at it to get it right. It’s got to look like the person or else what’s the point? It’s just one of the things you can do or you can’t."

One of Jones’ sculptures. Photo: Peter McIntosh
One of Jones’ sculptures. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Getting an emotional reaction to a work is really satisfying, although the unveiling of a figure could be nerve-racking.

"It’s the ultimate test really. At the unveiling of Sir Edmund it only occurred to me just as he was to be unveiled, he might be horrified. Fortunately that wasn’t the case."

The life of an artist was not an unknown for Jones, whose father is also a sculptor. About to turn 90 this year, Morgan Jones also exhibited at the Bondi event the same year as his son, although it was his fourth time exhibiting.

"He’s still working, still making sculpture. It’s completely different, couldn’t be more different. He’s an abstract sculptor and has been making since before I was born."

While he grew up with art, books and sculpture all around him it was not until Jones was 23 that becoming an artist "kicked in" when he attended art school.

Before that he worked in all sorts of different jobs.

"I was a late developer. I had no real direction. Eventually we all find out what we can do.

"Some times I think you don’t want to follow down that same path but in other ways you can’t help yourself."

So not only does Jones make art and teach art, his wife, Philippa Wilson, is also a sculptor, his son is an industrial design engineer and his daughter, while a scientist, paints in her spare time.

"It’s definitely in the blood."


Bryn Jones Lure Knox garden until May