Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich in the studio, and Selecting Wood, Claudia Kogachi, 2024.
Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich in the studio, and Selecting Wood, Claudia Kogachi, 2024.

SocietyApril 28, 2024

In the studio with artist power couple Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich

Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich in the studio, and Selecting Wood, Claudia Kogachi, 2024.
Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich in the studio, and Selecting Wood, Claudia Kogachi, 2024.

The pair opened their first fully collaborative exhibition, Nina for Flowers, last Saturday. Gabi Lardies visited their studio to find out who Nina is and what working together was like.

‘It didn’t start out like, ‘This is a show about Nina,’” says Josephine Jelicich, gripping a thermos of peppermint tea. Next to her on a little vintage chair, Claudia Kogachi agrees. The idea that sparked the exhibition was “creating a domesticated space in real life, in the gallery”, they say.

We’re at The Warren on Auckland’s Cross Street, a workshop Jelicich shares with a handful of other woodworkers. It’s long and narrow, packed with workbenches, electric saws, drills and pieces of wood poking out everywhere. In the weeks leading up to the Nina for Flowers opening, the pair say they took over almost the entire space, their work spilling out of Jelicich’s designated area.

Now, the work is on the walls and floor of Laree Payne Gallery in Kirikiriroa Hamilton until May 11. The pieces are rugs set into cabinets, portraits of horses with hand-carved wooden combs, detailed wooden stools and a glass-topped, heart-shaped table. They’re a perfect marriage of the two artists’ practices. Kogachi began making pictorial rugs in 2020, two years after graduating from University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts. She switches between her tufting gun and paintbrushes, but always produces stylised images full of detail, colour and energy. 

Kogachi’s not yet 30, and one of just a small number of artists in New Zealand making a living from their practice. 

Jelicich studied fine arts at Massey University in Wellington, then spent a year at Nelson’s Centre for Fine Woodworking before returning to Auckland in 2019. Her considered furniture sits both in the art and woodworking worlds, as she works on commissioned projects and exhibits in contemporary art galleries.

Claudia Kogachi (left) and Josephine Jelicich (right) working on Nina for Flowers (Photos: Supplied)

In the combination of furniture, imagery and materials, Nina for Flowers forms a romanticised living room. The tufted rugs are soft and many feature flowers. The stools, though beautiful, are to be sat on, and it isn’t hard to imagine placing a honey-sweetened tea on the heart table. Then there’s the namesake of the show, a tufted Nina, with grey hair, holding a bunch of flowers, with her horses at her sides, smiling. It’s a portrait of Jelicich’s mum, who is a florist.

The pair came to Nina for her flowers. When thinking about the domesticated space they wanted to create, they knew they wanted Kogachi to paint (or tuft) still lifes. “We were like, ‘Oh, we should do flowers, that would be so cute,’” says Jelicich. “And then, ‘Oh! Let’s use mums.'”

Nina began sending Kogachi photos of flowers. “Mum takes photos of random flowers in the bucket on the floor – you know, not just pretty Instagram photos,” says Jelicich. They looked back through years of photos of flowers, as Jelicich would also “take photos of weird flower arrangements that were in the corner” when visiting. The flowers Kogachi and Jelicich were interested in weren’t the perfect bouquets, but instead ones with a more casual, homely and accidental beauty. 

Photo of a rug depicting a lady holding flowers
Claudia Kogachi’s Nina Arranging Flowers with Olympia and Duchess, 2023. Wool with cotton backing, framed by Josephine Jelicich in cherry, ebonised carved cherry comb (Photo: Laree Payne Gallery)

For Kogachi, family is never far from her mind. Early paintings depict her in sports competitions or domestic settings with her mum, their skin coloured a bright blue. Kogachi was born in Japan, but her grandparents live in Hawai‘i, having moved there to work in pineapple plantations. Her obachan (grandmother) has featured in her work, most notably in a series of rugs picturing her at home. While they aren’t pictured in Nina for Flowers, they weren’t far. “My obachan flew over from Hawai‘i to be here for the show,” says Kogachi. “She’s a huge part of my life, but she’s not overly fond of the gay paintings.” 

Part of the imagined audience of the exhibition was that 91-year-old grandma. “Some flowers and horses and your mom and the domestic scenes: those were things my grandmother was gonna really love,” Kogachi says. It hasn’t stopped the “gay paintings” of course, but they were sent to London, “where she would never go”, says Kogachi, as both artists laugh.

That series of paintings, titled Labour of Love, picture Kogachi and Jelicich working together in a kind of meta-narrative.They look over plans, pick out wood and Kogachi “helps” Jelicich by hugging her from behind. Finally, they kiss. “The method of working together so closely within the relationship doesn’t come new,” says Kogachi. Previously, Kogachi hired Jelicich to make custom frames for her paintings and rugs. The frames are artworks in their own right, hand carved and unlike any other frames I’d ever seen before. “I guess your name wouldn’t technically have been on the works – but we always do write Jo’s name on the back.” What’s different about the works in Nina for Flowers is the artists worked together from the conception of the exhibition.

Selecting Wood, Claudia Kogachi, 2024. Acrylic on canvas, carved walnut frame by Josephine Jelicich

I’ve caught the couple a few days after the show opened, and they’re relaxed and open. You get the feeling they’re taking a moment after being under the pump. They say two weeks ago they were frazzled, different people, under the influence of too much caffeine. Both wear hoodies and loose pants with plenty of pockets. Jelicich hasn’t yet tidied up her workspace: it’s covered in hand tools, small offcuts of wood and scrawled notes. Kogachi has come from her studio in Epson, where she’s returned after spending a few weeks working here at The Warren. There’s still a to-do list with her name on it taped to the wall.

“It was quite special to work on a show within a partnership. I don’t think it really happens much,” says Kogachi. “You can see how much love goes into the work as well. And there’s a lot of affection in the work without it being, necessarily, directly about that.” They’re themes that fold nicely into Nina for Flowers. “There’s so much care that’s gone into every tiny little drawer, every little handle that Josephine’s carved,” says Kogachi. “If I worked with anyone else, they just wouldn’t care as much.”

Claudia Kogachi, Water Lilies, 2024 (Photo: Laree Payne Gallery). Right: reference photo from Nina.

Something else happens when you invest so much care into your art. “It’s hard to say goodbye to the works,” says Jelicich, “ which I think is a good sign … It’s kind of like when you get a present for someone – I find if I don’t want to give it away that means it’s a good present.” 

“I just love the heart table so much,” Kogachi adds. “I’m secretly hoping it won’t sell.”

With the works gone from their studios, both artists are looking towards the rest of their year. “I have my commission work to get back to now, which is nice,” says Jelicich. She feels like she’s only just starting her career. “Being a woodworker is a really long-term commitment. The best woodworkers I know are like 70, and they’ve been doing it since they were 30.” By comparison, Jelicich is “just a baby”.

Left: heart table in progress (Photo: Josephine Jelicich). Right: Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich, Heart Table with Poppy Anemone Rug, 2024 (Photo: Laree Payne Gallery)

Jelicich has an exhibition with about 25 other fine woodworkers at the end of the year, put together by the Nelson woodworking school. “I think I’m gonna make a cabinet that’s just got, like, heaps of drawers in it and it’s just something really beautiful and timeless,” she says. Making more of her own designs is something she’d like to work towards. 

For Kogachi, the next few months will be spent working towards a group show at Season Gallery and a solo show at Jhana Millers Gallery in November. For her solo show, she’s setting aside time to read and research deeper into her family history, especially on the migration journey of her ojiichan (great-grandfather). He was from Okinawa Island, a place she wants to visit soon. 

“It’s a funny experience being an artist,” Kogachi muses. “I think what’s most important to me when I’m making is having fun.” Sometimes, when she’s alone in her studio, in a big, dark, old building that leaks, she thinks about how weird and silly it is that she spends her days painting while other people are in offices. “I have to be having fun,” she adds, “because this is such a strange, lucky and privileged position to be in.”

Nina for Flowers, an exhibition by Claudia Kogachi and Josephine Jelicich, is running until May 11 at Laree Payne Gallery in Kirikiriroa Hamilton.

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