Sally Blundell talks to Christchurch poet John Newton about the book he wrote for his friend, Llew Summers: Body and Soul.
Hutzpah. If there was one word missing from his book on the life and work of sculptor Llew Summers, says John Newton, it would be “hutzpah”.
“Llew and his early sculptures and the way he went about creating himself a reputation – Llew had hutzpah in spades.” The word applies to his work, his “huge, unruly body of sculpture”, and his personality. Writes Newton: “His frankness, his energy, his rip-shit-or-bust urgency, his daring, his sensuality, his cussedness, his warmth. Also, of course, his sense of fun. And his pride in being provocative. For implicit in the work’s generosity and openness is a challenge to the entrenched habits of discourse that envelop contemporary art.”
In concrete and clay, bronze, marble, wood and glass, Summers’ joyous, figurative forms have carved out a place in New Zealand’s urban landscapes and interior spaces. Even on a small scale, they are identifiably monumental. Heavy-footed women, muscular men, twisting wrestlers, runners, dancers and lovers; angels uncanny in their armlessness. Never anatomically precise, they have a naked dynamism in their rounded flesh and flourish, their energy, their promise of physical or emotional flight. “To float a monumental sculpture,” writes Newton, “to imbue it with both lift and movement, was a challenge that would occupy Llew throughout his career”.
That challenge is evident in his bronze work Butterfly (2004) in the Auckland Botanic Gardens, a large woman – head down, arms stretched back – as she steps into imminent flight. It is there in Heaven Sent (2015), a plummeting angel locked in embrace with an earth-bound kneeling figure currently stationed outside The Central art gallery in The Arts Centre in Christchurch as part of an exhibition of Summers’ work. It is there too in The Burden of Wings (2008), a crouching winged figure carved from Tākaka marble, “possibly his finest carving in stone,” says Newton; and again in Frisbee Thrower (1982), his tōtara torso doubled down, his limbs “cantilevered extravagantly”. The thrower is showing off, says Newton, “and so, too, is the sculptor.”
These large, simplified expressions of tenderness, joy and anarchic freedom run like a current through Summers’ work and life, from the large earth mothers in their “pachyderm-grey concrete” to the smaller, softer works in kauri and tōtara and the smaller-again luminescent glassworks – each a careful balance between monumentality and ephemerality, solidity and effervescence, within the naked human figure. As Summers said, “The figurative work is the work, in my mind”.
In 2018, that work came to a shuddering halt. Summers was diagnosed with scleroderma, a rare auto-immune disease. A year later, on a brittle-cold August afternoon in 2019, he was carried down the steps of his garden in a coffin made of swamp kauri and lined with tapa cloth. That evening, as the sun fell below the Alps, he was cremated in a kiln built by his son Daniel on his farm in the Canterbury foothills. The funeral, writes Newton, “was vintage Llew”.
Summers was a humanist, an activist, a lover of poetry, a vaguely Anglican Christian (he insisted on grace before dinner), a self-taught figurative artist who found commercial success outside the accepted and increasingly expected art school-dealer gallery route.
Newton, this year’s Robert Burns fellow, is an academic, a poet, and author of the widely acclaimed Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908–1945. A “nuggety little ripper,” wrote critic Andrew Paul Wood, “that gets straight to the heart of New Zealand’s modernist literature.” His first novel, Escape Path Lighting, a satiric verse novel set on a version of Waiheke Island, published by Victoria University Press, is due out in October.
The pair met in 2018 at the annual Writers’ Tea Party in Amberley where Newton, then writer in residence at the University of Canterbury, was a guest speaker. A couple of weeks later they caught up again at the launch of Hard Frost. In his address, Newton let slip he was working on his first novel but was “time rich and cash poor”. A few days later he received a message on his phone. Would he like to live in the small cottage Summers had built on his Christchurch property as an artist (or writer) residency? For six months? For free?
The invitation was snapped up, a friendship was forged. For a year Newton lived at the bottom of the unsealed road in Christchurch’s McCormacks Bay in a tiny gatehouse, otherwise known as the Noodle Box, nestled into the bush. At the top of the unsealed road, in a romantic tower of a house, Summers lived with his partner Robyn Webster, an accomplished artist skilled in the art of rāranga (weaving) and the creative possibilities of harakeke. With its roof of recycled tiles, its elegant arched windows and clamorous garden, the house, says Newton, “was a DIY masterpiece”, a place of art, books, music, family gatherings and legendary parties.
By the time Summers became ill – then desperately ill – Newton found himself “the right person at this incredibly wrong time”. No longer able to work, Summers bent his energy into his legacy. At a loss to know how to help, Newton began what would be a series of interviews conducted in the hospital ward, then in the small snug in the McCormacks Bay home, “so if someone was to write this book, at least the interviews would be done”. Shortly after, at the request of his now dying friend, he agreed to write the book itself.
“I decided to look at the work with fresh eyes, to try and understand where it came from and how it developed – to see it on its own terms. Until that point I tended to look at his work through the perceived modernish lens where value equates to scarcity. Looking at it in its own terms, you understand it is part of a life, part of a larger artist’s practice and part of a different audience who don’t buy into that modernist economy of taste – an audience Llew pretty much created himself. In those terms you begin to appreciate not only the skill and the craft and the labour, but also the vitality.”
The resulting book, he says, is not a biography, nor a critique of his art. “I am not an art critic,” Newton insists. Rather, he says, it is written something like an annotated slide show, a description of Summers’ art as shaped by his life.
“And Llew wanted it warts and all. He didn’t want to be brushed up and polished.”
Llew Summers was born on 21 July 1947, the third of Connie and John Summers’ seven children. Connie was a strict Methodist and active pacifist – in 1941 she became the first and only woman in New Zealand to be imprisoned for her opposition to the Second World War. John was a poet, a bookseller, a reviewer, a tireless supporter of the arts, especially through the John Summers Bookshop (he was one of the first in Christchurch to champion the young Colin McCahon). He was a man of middling faith, deep literary appreciation and at-times forceful temper. But, like many cultured men of his generation, writes Newton, he was deeply suspicious of academic learning and had little understanding of where contemporary literature was going: “He wasn’t drinking from the stream of twentieth-century poetry.” But it is from John, argues Newton, that Summers developed his career-long preoccupation with sex and spirituality, body and soul. So yes, the younger Summers was self-taught and self-educated – the closest he got to art school was nailing shutters and pouring concrete for the new arts block at the University of Canterbury – “but to a large degree he was educated by John.”
He also had the support of other artists, beginning with that of Tony Fomison. It was to Fomison he showed his first sculpture, a head carved with hammer and chisel from a block of Ōamaru stone on a farm in Waikuku. Fomison encouraged him; later he would use his considerable reputation to help him get a foot into local galleries. Summers would later say he owed his career to Fomison’s support, “but I don’t think there ever was an intellectual influence in Llew’s life to rival John,” says Newton. “He read a lot but to a very large extent it seemed to me he filtered what he read through John’s way of seeing things. He used to say he wasn’t academically very able and couldn’t have gone to university if he had wanted to –I used to resist that, but he didn’t have a choice because of the mindset he inherited from John.”
Newton tracks Summers’ art and life against a social backdrop of Bohemian hippiedom, 70s activism, second-wave feminism and a rapidly changing art scene: his first marriage, their separation, his years as a solo father looking after two young children, the violence (he did not blame his father for this – as he told Newton, “You have to deal with your own shit”), and the punishing commitment to his work. “Sculpting was a nine-to-five gig, with no allowance for absenteeism.”
In working that gig Summers moved increasingly away from the exclusivity of the dealer gallery circuit. His large works – at times manoeuvred into public spaces without authorisation – attracted attention on their own. They were photogenic, they were newsworthy, they were often controversial. For some, the naked figures were too big, too explicit, just too out there (a photograph in the book shows Summers standing, bemused, behind a group of protestors demonstrating against his naked Christ in his Stations of the Cross series). For others, their transgression was their traditionalism and apparent naivete.
Summers showed his work widely – small works in galleries and larger works in temporary outdoor exhibitions. He had a loyal following, he was making enough money to support his family through his art, he had an extraordinary home and he was a keen supporter of other artists. But the more commercially successful Summers became, the more he was overlooked by critics, curators, public institutions (in his home town the Christchurch Art Gallery owns only two works by Summers, both from before 1983) and “top-flight dealers”.
“Did he always want to be a commercial sculptor? Yes, I guess he did,” says Newton. “Did he understand initially that being commercially successful in the way he was determined to be would shut him out of certain rewards? I don’t think he did initially – he came to understand it later but never really accepted it.”
But his increasing sales and growing status outside the institutional art hierarchy did give him an impish pleasure.
“I think he did the enjoy the game and there was an element of up-you but at that stage I don’t think he quite understood that in enjoying the game he would get himself marginalised. Did he care? Yes and no. It didn’t stop him working and it didn’t slow him down and it didn’t preoccupy him.”
Newton likens Summers to poet Sam Hunt. Both, he says, are romantics, larger-than-life characters, “in certain respects, Kiwi blokes”. Both carved out a path independent of any cultural establishment. Both won a loyal following through talent, hard work, persistence and a fruitful relationship with the media. Both are formally conservative, both are “maverick traditionalists”. Both, he says, are artists deserving of our attention.
“Rare independents like Hunt and Summers remind us of how much is always being excluded, cast into shadow by whatever creative protocols are currently in favour. To engage with Llew’s sculpture on its chosen ground is to enter into a different way of being around art, where spiritual values are more important than critical ones, beauty more important than rigour, involvement more important than cool, and feeling more important than intellect.”
Newton is now working on volume two of his trilogy on the development of New Zealand’s literary modernism, picking up where he left off when he first turned his attention to the life and art of his dying friend.
“And really the book is an act of friendship. It was for Llew.”