One woman’s love letter to an enduring feature of New Zealand front yards.
This story was first published on Ensemble.
There sits one, freshly painted, at the front door of a house in Titirangi. There’s one balancing a ball-shaped lamp, awkwardly placed above the cubicles in a public toilet in Whanganui. Another, with a jauntily placed ribbon tied around its neck, sits on a front porch in the Mount. And there’s another, paint flaking slightly, sitting next to an overgrown lawn; location unknown.
They are outdoor concrete sculptures in the form of seals; classic Kiwiana that pops up sporadically as you drive through New Zealand suburbia, sitting proudly on front lawns, decks, at entranceways.
They’re also the focus of “ornamental seal appreciation account” Kiss From a Seal (previously known as Concrete Dessert), a weird, delightful and extremely niche corner of Instagram that you should follow immediately.
Auckland-based Amy Wheeler started the Instagram back in 2015, as a sort of art school distraction-slash-social media study of Auckland’s suburbs. At first she was photographing and sharing her own seal discoveries; after hitting pause for a few years while living overseas, today she receives submissions that she happily reshares (yes, there has been a Guinness seal submission all the way from Dublin).
“I was halfway through my visual arts degree and I was mostly painting, but then I decided to do this on the side. It didn’t translate well into anything I was working on in the studio as it was more about the process,” says Wheeler. “I had mentioned it to people, and they thought it was cool and I wanted somewhere to be able to document my findings where people could engage with the work.”
Okay but, why seals?
“They are such a bizarre thing to have become socio-cultural suburban paraphernalia,” she explains. “The seal sculptures just seemed rare and fun. I don’t have any intense interest in actual seals.”
Growing up in Auckland’s Blockhouse Bay (deep West suburbia), Wheeler had noticed plenty of the ornamental seals in her neighbourhood: “An unexpected addition to the otherwise monotonous houses in my suburb”.
She cast the net wider – a combination of walking around and spending time on Google – and was surprised at how many she discovered.
“I started with the ones that I knew however I started to find more and more when I was actively looking for them. Once I knew which areas they were most prevalent in, I even spent time looking through streets on Google Maps. The areas I have found the most are Mount Roskill, Māngere, Onehunga and Te Atatu.”
But her original question remains unanswered: Why are, or were, they so popular? Where did they come from?
“Everybody is as puzzled as me,” says Wheeler. “I wrote letters to the people who owned the homes that I had found on Google maps a while ago; I wrote maybe 20 letters! I did get some replies – but the general response was that it was there when they bought or moved into the house and they didn’t know why it was there, but chose to keep it.”
There is something charmingly off-beat about them; a unique and kitschy suburban nostalgia.
Last year Hawke’s Bay Today shared the sad news of a seal statue being stolen from an elderly woman’s home in Napier.
“I am so distressed at the theft,” she said. “It is concrete and very heavy – it would have taken two men to shift it and a van to take it away.
“My deceased husband loved the statue – I remember when he had help to lift it into position. It’s sad these scumbags would trample on my memories.
“It lived in the front rose garden, not far from my bedroom window, and I hope this can help me to track it down.”
In 2015 community website Number 8 Network (“news for the rural greenness north-east of Hamilton”) spoke to Dr Ian Duggan (a senior lecturer at Waikato University who published the academic paper ‘The cultural history of the garden gnome in New Zealand’) about gnomes, where he shared what he knew of the history of the ornamental garden seals.
“They don’t appear in any of the garden catalogues I have up until 1946 – then there is a big gap. If their popularity was related to Marineland, that didn’t open until 1965. But that does match up to when I can start finding pictures of them. There was one stolen in Levin in 1991, and it had been on their lawn for 18 years. There was a concrete seal in a new playground in Auckland in 1969. The Flutey’s from the pāua house had a couple around their pond for a time, which started to be developed in the 1960s. But from what I can tell, 1960s… There did seem to be true ‘art deco’ seals which appeared earlier, but were for indoor decoration.”
Today you can sometimes find vintage options on sale on Trade Me, or buy a new, unpainted version for $120. In 2017, Colleen Hawkes wrote about garden art and its inherent uncoolness, while acknowledging the power of nostalgia and renewed interest in mid-century design – predicting that the ceramic seals would make a comeback.
That nostalgia is part of the appeal of Wheeler’s page, which sits within the wider trend for localised throwback accounts on social media, like Facebook’s NZ Old Skool.
“I didn’t think as many people would find it interesting because it’s so niche, but it hits a certain demographic,” says Wheeler. “I think it unlocks some memories for people, and then they enjoy following the journey to see how many still exist. But through this project, one thing that has stood out to me is that they are a marker for the gentrification happening in Auckland.
“With all of the new developments happening around Auckland, I have seen that some of the houses that had seals in their gardens are now a construction site for a duplex. That’s another seal gone and it’s a shame. I know it is only a small observation but I believe their suburban charm won’t last much longer.”
If you have any knowledge around the origins of these ornamental seals and what they represent, or have seen any you’d like to submit, get in touch with Amy at @kissfromaseal