In the garden – and with the PM – with artist John Ward Knox

In a photo essay by Justin Spiers and interview with Spinoff art editor Mark Amery, artist John Ward Knox introduces his Karitāne home and garden, and various projects – bees, pond, a portrait on silk of the prime minister from a live sitting. Ward Knox also answers one of this year’s biggest mysteries: the origins of the flame paint job on the wall behind David Parker in his lockdown Zoom meetings. 

Where are you, John?

Karitāne, about half an hour drive north of Dunedin. It’s a little fishing village, a really lovely place. I’m very lucky. The house I’m in my mum [sculptor and community activist Barbara Ward] bought and I’m renting it off her until I can afford to buy it.

There is just a paper road between my property and the estuary – three metres of grass, a bank and then you’re in there, it’s really magical. I do a bit of floundering down there to add some protein to the diet.

You grew up in Grey Lynn, went to Elam Art School in Auckland and your art dealers are in Sydney, Auckland and Wellington. So why now Dunedin?

There’s a whole lot I’m still unravelling about why I’ve stayed here. I arrived as the 2015 Frances Hodgkins Fellow through the university and I was more in a professional art mode then. Going to everything and on the classic art school trajectory of just stepping up the ladder in terms of opportunities.

In Dunedin I was forced to reevaluate a lot of where I was coming from, because I realised a lot of my intention was inherited through art school tuition. Due to the small size of the place, my friend bubble expanded to encompass a lot more breadth of class and age than it had in Auckland. New interactions started a really healthy cavalcade of realisations that are about giving myself new foundations, built from a series of choices rather than inherited paths. That might sound a bit abstract, but Dunedin has allowed me a lot more space and to slow down considerably. The chasing of opportunities led to an internal burnout. I never really crashed and burned per se, but I started to realise there was something I needed to address in my own practice, which I’ve slowly started to do.

You’ve still got three art dealers – that’s a blessing, but it’s not a small number to satisfy!

Good point. When people have invested in your practice – like the dealers and people who have bought my art – they all have a vested interest in the continuation of the trajectory you’re on. But I think I’m finding a way to build those new foundations while keeping the superstructure I’m already invested in stable.

Speaking of building, I see you’ve been building a garden.

I’ve become much more interested in ecologies, and straight away that means I’m working on my garden. It starts from the ground up. When I inherited it it was just a flat section of grass. As well as growing food I’m trying to turn this patch into an ecologically healthy zone for all of the invertebrates that I can, from the bottom of the food chain moving up. I’ve reappraised the place of the lawn; how you can increase the breadth of health of insect life and therefore the whole strata of life within your own patch. That means allowing decay, essentially. I put a sign out on my front yard saying “green waste wanted” and people started trucking in all sorts of crap, to be honest. I’ve been chopping it up and laying it around this pond that I’ve built, letting it decompose and turn into soil over time.

I’ve been learning on the go. I’ve seen this huge growth in insects and birds, and with the pond I’ve got frogs now. I really liked the idea of reading in bed with the window open listening to them. That’s become really important to me – regrounding myself in an ecological rather than economic mindset. I did some gardening as a child but I never thought of building the soil or the soil as a repository of health, like essentially a battery for your future energy as a consumer of what comes out of it.

Has it changed the art you make? Where does that fit in?

I’ve really struggled with reconciling that ecological methodology with that economic reality. But in a lot of my works I was always trying to create a very delicate sense of balance and beauty; almost a suspension of belief, where things seem incredibly poised while at the same time being completely concrete. I can still do that but with a more ecological mindset. I’m more conscious of the production chain and where the materials are coming from. Most of my art is now coming from recycled or reused materials.

Your work has always been distinctive to me in its quiet awareness of surface, detail and material, in a way that’s treating the ideas with a gentleness.  The chess set – is that your studio set-up?

That’s my garage, that’s where I do my dirty works. Where I can make lots of dust and whatnot. The chess set was something I was doing over lockdown. Objectspace in Auckland [a public gallery] contacted me as part of their Maker series, where they wanted to give people the opportunity to learn how to do things with stuff they had lying around.

The wood is all from the legs of an old table and the pieces are fishing sinkers, old tool bits, and some fake pearls I had lying around. Upcycling, I guess, creating something really beautiful that will last a lifetime.

I think I’ve moved away from sculpture with “dangerous tactile poise” towards a more hands-on appreciation of touch and warmth. Objects that are imbued with time and patience. I really want to make sculptures that are rewarding to touch, and have the warmth of the maker in. I’ve always wanted to make magic with my work, which is not a sleight-of-hand trickery, but to show the magic that exists in objects naturally. To be able to transpose the beauty I see in something into an object.

Which brings us to bees. I interviewed the artist Anne Noble recently, a fellow beekeeper. She credits that practice with having a closer participatory involvement with and attention to nature.

That came out of economic hardship. I had a van that blew up. A friend of mine in Auckland who has a beekeeping operation got in touch saying, “come work with me and my bees, I have an old car I’ll throw your way”. It turned out to be an amazing experience. I enjoyed the labour but also that bees produce an excess, you’re not harming them at all. He threw in a trailer and a couple of hives for me.

I don’t think of them so much as a resource. I do take a little bit of honey but not really very much; it’s more one more ecological tier in the garden, a healthy thing to have around. The neighbours appreciate them and they are just a fantastic thing to have around and care for. And the honey’s delicious.

You’ve got a fairly active Instagram account, posting short video and images you’ve taken of nature around you close up, studying their movement and texture. I’ve seen great video work of yours in a similar vein at Robert Heald Gallery before. Is this all one and the same?

It’s got its own stream going, its own frame. Like the video works like a snapshot or little chunk of time, but giving it to people in quite an intimate setting, because people are really quite connected to their phones. In the same way a book has access to a person’s imagination. Except there’s a lot of visual chatter on a phone. Every day or so I’ll post a short video of a slow moment of something I’ve come across. A moment of poise, or an appreciation of touch or texture; something that’s good to give to people and a reminder, in a soft way, of the tactility of the world outside the device they’re encountering it on. It’s often very textural.

What are you working on at the moment? 

The paper title for a show at Darren Knight Gallery (Sydney, in July) is Surface Tension. Paintings and sculpture. I had lined up to go to Castlemaine in April to do some bronze casting, with the backbone of my show some very small bronzes. The methodology came from a work I showed at Ivan Anthony’s in Auckland, which was a small wooden sculpture I’d done a yakisugi treatment on. That’s a Japanese technique of burning the wood to preserve it, which gives a beautiful patina. It was a sculptural section of somebody’s neck, which shares with my painting the idea that I just show a cropped segment of information which leaves out the primary narrative elements in the scene so, as a viewer, you come to it with less direction and more freedom. So hopefully you have a more intimate and personal connection. I’ve got this idea to make three-dimensional versions of those paintings, wooden sculptural snapshots. Something that has all the texture and life of a narrative scene without the didactic elements. I’m planning to show those and paintings.

Next year with Robert Heald in Wellington I’m going to have the biggest painting show I’ve ever done, somewhere in the region of 40 dual-layer paintings. I paint on silk, which is transparent, and with a black oil paint. That allows you to see through the material most clearly where I have painted, as the pigment absorbs the light. You see through the shadows to the screen behind. I suspend one painting in front of another. A visual shift happens.

The exhibition will feature a short text describing a sound. Each of the works will consist of two paintings, depicting a person’s hands as they sign the word or words of some of the text. It will be a show that caters to the deaf community, but one that will not be limited to this community. I want to describe something fleeting and something easy to take for granted. I will need to liaise with a representative from Deaf Aotearoa Otago to ensure that my intention is not misguided or ill thought through.

That’s my little painting studio setup. What I’ve got going on is an entry into the Archibald [a prestigious annual Australian portrait award], with a triple-layer silk work of the prime minister. I was lucky enough to meet up with her in February or March, and take some photographs in her home in preparation – because you have to have a live sitting for this award. Unfortunately I’m not very good at multitasking: I was drawing quite poorly and making quite poor conversation as well, turning up in my Dunedin clothes hot and bothered and sweaty. So hopefully this will turn out beautifully and I will be vindicated or redeemed!

Which brings us to a chance to solve a media mystery – the location of an image that has amused people over lockdown. It’s of minister David Parker’s Zoom room with a painted hot flame frieze running up the wall. Funnily, The Spinoff piece speculated that it was “very Dunedin”. But in fact it’s Grey Lynn in Auckland, yes?

That’s my childhood bedroom he’s sitting in. [David Parker is John’s mother’s partner.] I must have been 10 or something and my parents allowed both my sister and I to choose the colours of our rooms. I chose orange and red with flames in the corners. My father [artist and musician Chris Knox] diligently painted that for me.

Before that it had been a dinosaur mural I’d painted on the wall myself. A little part of me is sad that it wasn’t a swamp scene behind David Parker in those meetings. I think if you’d asked me at the time whether country-altering decisions were going to be made in that room I would have said, “why yes, they will!”

John Ward Knox shows at Sydney’s Darren Knight Gallery from July 25. The Archibald Prize is held annually at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and has been delayed until later this year, dates to be announced.



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