[As published in September/October BayBuzz magazine.]
Every artist dreams of being able to turn their passion into a viable career. Creative practice is typically motivated by love, not money.
The few artists who do attain the ability to support themselves with their work put in years of hard slog, side hustles and straight jobs. Along the way they may be tempted to compromise creative integrity for commercial success – to produce work that appeals to an affluent audience rather than that which authentically reflects their artistic heart.
To combat this problem local philanthropists and art aficionados, Jenn Kight, Bry Mossman, Mary Stewart and Lyn Williams, founded the ARA Charitable Trust with the goal of Assisting Regional Artists in Heretaunga and Tairawhiti. They solicited (tax deductible) donations of $1,500 apiece from twenty art lovers, to crowd fund a living wage of $30,000 awarded to a single local mid-career contemporary artist annually, to alleviate financial and time pressures and allow them to create freely.
Donors form a club of sorts, meeting regularly to engage in events of artistic appreciation. They are invited to visit the artist’s studio, to a lecture event, and are given a private preview of the body of work created in the year of residency with first rights of purchase.
The Trust took nominations from galleries, with final selection by independent curator and former director of Porirua’s Pātaka Art + Museum, Helen Kegley. Her choice for the inaugural award was Napier-based sculptor, Ben Pearce.
Pearce creates compulsively and vociferously having maintained a consistent exhibiting schedule in the twenty years since he graduated from Whanganui Quay School of Fine Arts. His work is in constant evolution, his practice and its product changing and developing as he grows both as a person and as an artist.
The unifying factor running throughout is the strange unsettling sense each piece leaves with the perceiver. They act less as discrete artworks in the service of beauty than inner mirrors, depicting the odd landscapes of the mind. Pearce plays with perception, memory and emotion, almost daring his audience to leave the safe spaces of that which they know to be true in favour of an imagined world of possibilities.
Pearce is an artist who refuses to be confined by scale, material or genre. His graduate project, Boris Bing, was a wearable performance piece, the costume a conglomerate of beloved stuffed animals and road kill, part adorable, part terrifying.
His installation, Life Will Go On Long After Money, recreated at 75% scale the ramshackle dwelling constructed in Nelson, which Pearce ended up claiming as an artwork, though it began as an honest attempt to opt out of an increasingly unliveable society. As part of its tour, the piece was installed in the Holt at Hastings City Art Gallery, accompanied by a poignant looping video, further immersing the viewer in the experience.
The ARA grant is by no means the first time Pearce been awarded. He was shortlisted for a Wallace award, and won one of their People’s Choice Awards for the first of his Caverns series — small wooden works, fierce on the outside, inviting on the inside. Great Grandfather Clock, an improbably proportioned piece acquired for MTG’s permanent collection, won the 2009 Waikato Youth Award. Mergar, a composite of blackboard, acrylic and walnut, speaking to transformation, won the Molly Morpeth Canaday prize in 2014. Stone Age Eight Gauge, a series of imagined relics, won the Number 8 Wire Award in 2016, recognising works made from this most colloquial of materials. Acclaimed collector Warwick Brown included Pearce in his list of 100 New Zealand artists to watch, Seen this Century, testament that his work will only increase in value.
Last year his work was chosen by Wellington Sculpture Trust to fill the four plinths on the waterfront outside Te Papa. The series, #Paper Pals Aotearoa – oversized colourful origami animals rendered in metal – display a playful childlike wonder, while simultaneously posing environmental questions.
All this Pearce achieved while working Monday to Thursday at David Trubridge’s Whakatū workshop, leaving only Fridays during the school day to focus on his own artwork. “It was a really stressful state to be in,” he remembers, “I had all these opportunities ahead but I couldn’t really take them up … I was just starting to get a more consistent showing. Works were just starting to sell but not enough to have more than a day off.”
The direction Pearce’s practice has taken of late – working primarily in metal, cutting and welding together pieces of corten steel – exacerbated the problem. A large scale piece could take half a year of careful saving to invest in materials, and the acetylene gas required to weld them together. For a solo show, the investment could be close to $30,000 on materials alone – the total sum of the ARA grant. Add to this rent on his Omahu Road studio space, insurance, freight – around $1,000 to ship a single piece to the South Island – and the ever growing cost of raising a young family. As talented and recognised as he was, Pearce simply needed the job with Trubridge to stay afloat.
The day the first instalment of the ARA grant landed in his bank account Pearce handed in his notice with Trubridge, not without regret. He credits the seventeen years spent working there as “a big part of evolving my brain”. Yet he was mindful to make the most of the opportunity the grant gave him. “I hit the ground running the day I left,” he recalls.
He already had a backlog of five commissioned works to get started on. Some clients had been waiting a year for their pieces. A megalith in corten, reminiscent of a futuristic Stonehenge, is partially assembled on his studio’s covered deck, waiting to take its place in a private residence. Creating site specific pieces is a process Pearce enjoys, working with clients to make something that speaks to their space. He is sometimes approached by art consultants, who source or commission works for galleries or homes. The often arduous and nail biting installation process has allowed him to be inspired by the homes of those who own his work.
Galleries are his other major clients. Pearce is represented in Hawke’s Bay by Hastings’ Parlour Projects, alas temporarily without a bricks and mortar space. The gallery’s keen-eyed curator, Sophie Wallace, nominated him for the ARA grant, and has cast a watchful eye over his transition to full-time artistry, advising and analysing.
For the last five years, Dunedin’s Milford Gallery has shown Pearce’s work. It’s a connection he values, appreciating the care and attention with which they represent him. He feels the sparseness of the South Island environment suits his style. “Big sculptures work against a rugged landscape,” he professes. Before the grant, though the gallery was supportive of his work, they were mindful of over promoting it because of the limits time and financial pressures put on his productivity. Once they knew he was fully committed to his craft he advanced in prominence. Several pieces feature in a group show there in September, and he has a solo show at the gallery in early 2025.
As part of the ARA residency, Pearce has produced works for a solo show here in Hawke’s Bay. Future Ancients runs for the first week in September at Black Barn’s Olive Shed. ARA gave Pearce full creative rein, asking only that their members be the first to see the new works. Relieving the pressure to create for sale has given his practice greater freedom, allowing him space to play.
Pearce has “been really pushing. There’s a lot of tension and balance in my work. Some angles feel off-putting, but together they work. I’m pushing those boundaries more. I’m playing with the inner engineering side of things where there’s hidden solid steel that makes real odd angles work.”
There’s a new boldness to these pieces, a grounded confidence. At the same time they display the ambiguities that characterise Pearce as an artist – their solidity contrasting with the seeming impossibility of their structure. The finish too breathes life into what could be inert. It’s an alchemical process for Pearce, who says, “The works go through this cycle where they’re quite fabricated but then at the last minute once it’s all done I treat them and patina them – which takes quite a while – so they undergo a metamorphosis at the finish where it suddenly comes to life … It changes it.”
For Pearce, the ARA grant presented the opportunity to further his career and his practice in a way that, once the year is done, will make his work self-sustainable. His sales figures have doubled since going full-time and his trajectory is exponential. It’s a leap that many find daunting but the grant took some fear out of the process, leaving Pearce free to expand on his dreams.
Of the change he asks himself, “What do I want to be doing with my life eventually? I want to be making stuff.”