SVD: While you are very well known as a sculptor today, you originally studied at Elam School of fine arts as a print maker. What made you decide to move into making sculpture, and does printmaking inform your practice today?
ET: At art school I enjoyed being inventive with printmaking, both photographically and sculpturally –seeking out ways of working that would suit what I wanted to say.
From my first year I worked at a foundry, where I gained a huge amount of experience with tools and fine working. In 1988 I was invited to exhibit with photographers, Fiona Partington and Marie Shannon in Extension of the Photograph at Gregory Flint Gallery, Wellington. I asked Gregory if he would mind if I did a sculptural work as an extension of my photo-etchings. I modelled wax figures based on the climbers in my Fantham’s Peak print (1987) and cast them in bronze -the white wall became the mountain face with the climbers (fixed to the wall) diminishing in scale from the floor right up to the ceiling. Forced perspective and the potential of the white wall was a great discovery.
I work in a very printmaking kind of way –my work is still related to surface, texture and topography. Printmaking methods also reflect in the materials, machinery and processes I use. It taught me to research and find commercial people to work with. As a result, I feel quite liberated with materials. I love finding out about things, making connections with people and learning from them.
SVD: You don’t only make moths, but also plant specimens as well as working with images of supersized microscopic organisms and the cellular patterns which form with them. How did your interest in biological specimens begin?
ET: At Titirangi Primary School in the Waitakere Ranges, school projects involved sourcing botanical specimens. Living in the bush meant we could collect a range of material, and my mother being a science teacher, encouraged me to identify, store and catalogue specimens in my exercise books. She also taught me biology and chemistry at Opunake High School. Her hands on approach to teaching meant we did a lot of experiments - recording and drawing our findings.
My early studies of moths, beetles and botanical forms for sculptural installations involved research at Auckland Museum and Te Papa, examining, drawing and photographing specimens. Entomologists gave me access to microscopes and it is viewing those tiny details which I found intriguing. With the removal of scale and reference, small sections become worlds in themselves. This sparked my interest in electron microscopy and the resulting images of strange, beautiful abstractions.
SVD: How did the idea for this installation come about?
ET: I had several ideas in mind for this project, and while the gallery with its high stud and natural light was beautiful, I wasn’t sure how any of the preconceived ideas would work. I put my drawings away and stood in the project room, letting go of any predetermined notions. The gallery dimensions are similar in scale to my studio, so I wanted to make a work that could inhabit the space - immersive but discreet; white on white. I wanted to create a similar sensation to my Kermadec experience in 2011, floating in the blue void 10,000 metres deep.
SVD: Explain briefly the process you undergo to create your moths.
ET: I start by spending time drawing and photographing moths - looking at wings and patterning. For this project, I sculpted about 20 prototypes in wax and took silicon rubber moulds from the wings and bodies. Hot wax is injected into the moulds, and the wings and bodies assembled. Eyes are rolled out of wax and inserted into sockets, and antennae and legs attached. The moths are carefully packed and freighted to Auckland to cast then returned to the studio for finishing.
An angle grinder is used to cut off large sprues (the channel for molten bronze in the casting process) on the undersides of the moths removed. The wings are ground to make them appear thinner and missing antennae and legs are made and welded on. Each moth is cleaned, etch-primed and flocked. With this project the subtle patterning requires varied shades of flock being applied at different stages. Each moth is a one-off and has its own character.
SVD: Can you tell us about the title for the show, about the important of the words in the title of this installation Substantive and Transitive to you?
ET: The first part of the title -Invitation to Openness is taken from an album by jazz pianist Les McCann recorded in the late 70s - the style is inventive and nocturnal, atmospheric jazz fusion.I always liked the title. To appreciate the music you have to be prepared to let go and allow the music wash over you.
Substantive is of place, the physical. Transitive relates to being conscious of something beyond the physical. The sensation involves a shift from the physical experience of immersion to a psychological feeling of liberation and detachment which equates to transitioning to a higher order of consciousness.
The white moths have a ghostly presence - tangible but elusive, quiet and contemplative. I liken this installation to an awakening or a blessing. Hopefully, people will be able to relax into it and enjoy its detail and openness.
This interview was recorded for The Friends of The Dowse Newsletter, on the occassion of the exhibition Invitation to Openness—Substantive and Transitive States at The Dowse Art Museum in 2014.