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Max Patte, the sculptor behind Solace in the Wind (right), hard at work in his studio. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Max Patte, the sculptor behind Solace in the Wind (right), hard at work in his studio. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)

SocietyFebruary 26, 2022

The man behind the old man

Max Patte, the sculptor behind Solace in the Wind (right), hard at work in his studio. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)
Max Patte, the sculptor behind Solace in the Wind (right), hard at work in his studio. (Photos: Supplied, Image Design: Archi Banal)

Max Patte is one of New Zealand’s most prominent sculptors and the creator of one of our most beloved pieces of public art. Now, after more than a decade in this country, he’s leaving to start a new life in Europe.

If you’ve been around the Wellington waterfront, chances are you’ve seen a naked old man, his back arched and his arms thrown back, as if in defiance of the worst of the weather the capital city can throw at him. Installed in 2008, Solace in the Wind – the old man’s official name – has become one of the city’s most recognisable attractions. He has been photographed countless times, awarded just a bit less than that, and vandalised at least once.

As public art tends to do, the sculpture no longer feels like the property of the man who made it, but that of the community who has claimed it. But what about the man behind the old man, though?

The sculptor who made Solace in the Wind is named Max Patte, he’s 44 and he currently calls Wellington home. Patte has been an artist for over three decades, and each one of his credits feels like its own story. He studied at the Wimbledon School of Art in London and was elected as an associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 2008. He made the Batman suit worn by Christan Bale in Batman Begins. Ian McKellen lent him his house for an exhibition. Richard Taylor, of Weta, is credited as his first and greatest patron. His sculptures sit in the collections of Charles Saatchi, Michael Hill and countless other people with titles before their first name and capital letters after their last.

They’re the kind of credits that might suggest you’re dealing with the stereotype of a famous artist. A rockstar, an eccentric, maybe a bit of a dick.

Max Patte couldn’t be further from that cliche. He’s mild-mannered, and deeply, refreshingly normal. He has a keen understanding of the business, and a chill, healthy relationship to his art, which spans sculpture, painting and light art. When we talk in a Ponsonby cafe, his voice barely makes itself heard over the music, even as he talks excitedly about his future plans.

Max Patte, with his wife Amy and their two kids. (Photo: Supplied)

After spending well over a decade here, Patte has decided to leave New Zealand, where he has a thriving studio and a strong commercial base. It’s a decision that, like many he makes, is partly personal and partly commercial. “I set myself a goal many years ago of living and owning a property in the Mediterranean somewhere by the time I was 40. We’re four years late,” he says. “Just as Covid hit I was literally a week away from getting on the plane to go back to Ibiza to look for some land.”

Patte and his wife have two young kids, five and three, and they had to make the decision to stay in New Zealand and settle in, or up the stakes and move. They’ve settled on the island of Mallorca, off Spain’s east coast. What both he and his wife wanted was to be closer to family – Patte is originally from London, his wife from Ireland – and to be closer to a bigger market for his work.

That combination of the personal and the practical is typical of Patte, it seems. As we talk he switches seamlessly between discussions of business and his personal life. The business of making and selling art can seem bafflingly opaque to outsiders, but Patte makes it seem second nature. He credits being around Richard Taylor for much of his commercial acumen. “I picked up a lot of how to run a business and sell a product purely by osmosis of being around those kinds of people.”

Before that, “I never really realised that I had a business head on me. They certainly never teach you anything like that at art school.”

He definitely thinks it should be, though. Patte has not taken the traditional artist’s route – building up a portfolio, going through galleries for exhibitions, and relying on those dealers for growth and promotion. Instead, until very recently, Patte self-promoted and sold directly from his own studio.

The collegial ease of doing business like that is something that Patte’s going to miss when he leaves New Zealand. The stark difference between operating here and in England was made clear on his first day in this country, when he went to open a bank account and the bank manager asked him if he wanted a cup of tea and a chat. “In Britain, they basically want your DNA sample.”

The smallness of New Zealand has been vital to Patte’s business growth – it means he often has a personal relationship with his clients. “I definitely like to, where possible, get to know and meet my clients and actually see where the works are going to hang,” he says. “The advantage of having a studio where people can come visit you is they form that personal connection and they get to see how the works are created.” 

In fact, the purpose of his trip to Auckland is to visit a few clients, including one just down the road from where we’re sitting, in Herne Bay. Patte tells me he can’t imagine any other country in the world that has such a concentrated group of collectors willing to support and patronise his kind of work.

Max Patte at work alongside one of his works. (Photo: Supplied)

He brings up one client, an older woman, who met him at a primary school where he was giving a talk. She came to meet him at his studio the following day, and bought one of his works – a big investment, as Patte’s works can run from mid-five to six figures. “She just loved it so much and burst into tears in my studio, saying ‘Oh, I can’t believe you’re letting me own one of your works’,” he says. “Like I was some kind of guardian.

“A lot of my works are very expensive and anybody would consider them heavy financial investments, but to a lot of my collectors, you know, they’re either very wealthy and it’s all relative. To her, it was this really big thing.” 

What about Solace in the Wind, though? For Patte, the Wellington waterfront icon was a turning point in his career, probably his biggest professional moment after joining Weta Workshop. He never expected the sculpture to take off the way that it did, and even now, many years after its installation, people continue to send him photos of it. “It still blows me away, and I almost have trouble associating with it, because it doesn’t really feel quite real. Even stylistically, when I look at it now, if I were to do it again, I would do it very differently.”

Patte and his family visited the sculpture a few weeks ago. They went around the waterfront on the now ubiquitous, slightly cringe, four-seater bikes (“we’ve got this finite time in New Zealand and we’re doing all the tourist things”) and stopped by Solace. His wife took a photo of him with it, and he peered around to see how it had weathered.

“He’s gone on to live this separate life, and he obviously keeps giving back,” says Patte of the nameless man he made. “I get all these nice messages about him, and we get sales of the maquettes, which is obviously brilliant.”

A big difference between Solace in the Wind and his other work is that Solace is something that Patte gets to see regularly. A lot of his other work, which goes into collections, might never be seen by him again. “There’s obviously a lot of time and emotional energy when you create a piece, then you may only live with it for a few days because it gets boxed up and goes out to a gallery and goes to a collector. It’s like waving your kid off to boarding school.

“I just try to always think about the next thing and get on and make the next work.”

Max Patte hard at work in his studio. (Photo: Supplied)

So what is next for Patte? Well, the house and studio in Mallorca. He’s also got a gallery in Sydney, set up during the pandemic. He expects that he’ll return to New Zealand once a year, to maintain relationships with clients and suppliers. 

But for the first time, he’s making work for himself. “It’s quite a selfish career. You’re doing something that you want to do and you obviously have to hope that other people like and want to own it so that you can go on and do the next thing. But I’ve never deliberately set out to make works that will hang in my own home.

“Partially, because we don’t have a house big enough where I could hang much of my own work, but now I actually want to own one piece of every series that I’ve done, just sort of for my own personal gratification.” But there’s a business element to this too: he doesn’t just want to show people sculptures on his iPad, it’s deeply helpful to actually have pieces he can show potential clients in the studio.

He finishes our interview by casually mentioning that in a few months’ time he’s off to Isola Santa, a Tuscan village which has the highest concentration of sculptors and artists in the world, to oversee two sculptures that will be carved in marble, a new form for him. They’re based on a 1977 George Tooker painting called “Voice”, a quietly distressing painting of two men on either side of a door, each aware of each other’s presence.

The way he tells this story is Max Patte all over. Great art, delivered matter-of-factly, with no nonsense or drama. Sort of like how you might come across Solace in the Wind on a midday waterfront stroll.

Keep going!