Dubbed the ‘Iron Man of Australasia’ Kiwi Jeff Thomson’s career as a sculptor came about in a rather ‘who’d have thought kind of a way’. When a failed hitchhiking attempt got him hooked on hiking and carving sculptors for people’s mailboxes, Jeff ‘s plan to become a painter went out the window. But it was when he discovered the nuances of corrugated iron and was commissioned to make giant animals for someone’s giant garden that he was smitten. And so, too, was everyone else.
He now has an extensive body of work upcycling and re-purposing reclaimed corrugated iron in all manner of ways, in all manner of forms. He really has perfected the art of working with the material and it seems no object is too hard to transform, no idea too impossible. In fact, he recently won the open section of the World of Wearable Art competition in NZ with this amazing number made from plasma-cut and screen-printed aluminium …
Here, Jeff talks about how he started and how he works.
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into sculpting
I was born in 1957 in Castor Bay, Auckland, New Zealand. By the age of seven my mother correctly diagnosed me as being dyslexic and was much better and more interested in drawing and painting. Fortunately my parents and teachers encouraged me in my love of art. I completed a BFA at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland in 1981 where I majored in painting and printmaking. I did a year at Auckland’s College of Secondary Education and then spent three years high school teaching. Since 1986, I’ve been working as a full-time sculptor, moving and living in various parts of New Zealand with the odd stints in Australia, Germany and France.
Early on and as a poor student, much of my travelling was done through hitchhiking. Once, on the West Coast of the South Island, I enjoyed a four-hour walk due to a lack of rides. I carried on walking for the next four days, sleeping wherever I ended up each night. Then, I started walking all over New Zealand and put letters into mail boxes along the way offering my services to make something that said something about the property, its inhabitants, their interests or hobbies. For those who responded I made a series of small wooden cut-out shapes that were attached to mailboxes and seen by the occupants of cars as they drove past.
One day I picked up a sheet of red, rusty corrugated iron and, using tin snips, cut out the shape of a Friesian cow which I riveted to a mailbox. Some months later, a couple driving past, stopped, went into the farmhouse to ask about the cow and not long after they became my first clients. They commissioned some wildlife animals out of corrugated iron for their bush-clad property in Wellington. I made a penguin, a tiger and an elephant.
Did you ever think when you studied art that you would end up specialising in corrugated iron?
When I started at art school, I had no thoughts about being a sculptor, let alone working with such a tough, stubborn, unforgiving material. I always wanted to be a painter! Since that first commission I have worked predominantly with corrugated iron as a sculptural material. I’ve curved it, cut holes in it to create lace, shaped and layered it, screen-printed upon its surface, cut it into strips, knitted it and used it to make moulds in which I baked cakes, bread, cast concrete and even used it to make ice sculptures.
Where do you source the corrugated iron from?
Usually people phone or email me to say: “Just taken a roof off, do you want it?” Mostly it’s people I don’t know who’ve tracked me down. I also find and collect it from recycling yards and roadside inorganic rubbish collections. I have two to three thousand sheets of corrugated iron at any given time in several racks at the studio. I arrange them in colours and call it my library as I pick and choose sheets as needed.
Have you had to learn new techniques or crafts along the way?
In terms of what I do, all the techniques are self-taught. I’ve built up a collection of machinery and equipment that’s suggestive of a sheet metal workshop. I’ve had to learn to braze, weld, sandblast and all the other methods required to work with metal.
Explain your creative process from start to finish …
Eighty per cent of my time is spent doing commissions and the majority of these would be birds and animals. With this type of commission, I research the type of animal, explore it via Google, take photographs, look at books, visit the zoo or visit the client to meet their pet in order to familiarise myself with size, shape, personality etc.
Whether it is these or other things I make for exhibitions and clients, I generally go through the same design process. It starts with drawings and watercolour studies and I often make models, especially for public sculpture.
I have a wide variety of working methods and huge resources in machinery and equipment. Depending on the commission I decide on which methods and machinery I need to use. For instance, when curving corrugated iron, I use a hundred-year-old roll former and can create almost any curve required. I have several of these rollers in different parts of the world which means I have instant studios wherever I go.
How much does the environment in which you live influence your work?
Living and working in an old warehouse means work and living become one. I love this situation, where walking through a door leads from one world to another.
Have you had any different, interesting or unusual commissions?
Currently one of my projects is working on a lawyer’s wig. Other unusual commissions have been a yellow Rolls Royce, a petrol bowser, a gigantic gumboot, two mortar boards and a King Kong to name a few. Back in 2000, I set up a roofing company and worked on over 40 buildings, replacing many of the roofs with screen-printed patterns on new roofing iron, down pipes and gutters.
What’s your inspiration?
Inspiration comes from everything around me. I’m continually interested in finding new ways of working with my chosen material and have recently been looking at domesticating the corrugated iron by weaving, French knitting and braiding.
What would be your dream project/commission? Or have you already made it? Explain.
My dream project to date was the roofing, as it took art into the community in a practical way. It felt very important to me.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
One of these moments was sitting on a stage at the Berlin Zoo with our Prime Minister Helen Clark, who unveiled a giant tin kiwi made to commemorate the coming down of the Berlin wall. (This was 14 years after the event). It was a gift from the people of New Zealand to the people of Berlin.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on 15 different projects, one of which is three extra-large kangaroos for Canberra Airport. Earlier this month I shipped off four sculptures made with the new Colorbond colours for Bluescope Steel. I’ve just had a 25-year retrospective exhibition in Tauranga which is travelling to the Waikato Art Museum in Hamilton, and then on to the Sargeant Art Gallery in Whanganui.
Huge thanks to Jeff for taking the time to share his story! To see more of Jeff’s work, you can find him here.