“Wood is fragrant,” says John Ecuyer. “You can smell it when you walk in the door. It’s a very sensual, soft, smooth, beautiful material and I’m surprised more people don’t work with it.”
“In the late 80s I discovered lots of wood lying around the countryside – lots; just incredible. I was photographing pohutukawa trees at Wenderholm Park north of Auckland, entering competitions, and exhibiting regularly, and remember thinking what a waste it was, so I began to collect logs and chainsaw fallen branches and dragged it all home. I ended up with a lot of pohutukawa, and the Auckland Regional Council were pleased to see it removed. I’d always been a photographer. My grandfather was the photographer for a big engineering company in England, and Dad was a photographer too. He encouraged me in it.”
One creative pursuit spawned another, and as photographic formats changed to digital, Ecuyer began to work instead with the timber he’d collected. Today Ecuyer has an international reputation as a wood artist. His works are held at the Detroit Institute of Art, the Miaoli National Wood Sculpture Museum in Taiwan, the NZ Embassy in Tokyo, and many private collections. In New Zealand, works are held in the collections of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, Whangarei Art Museum, Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, and at Auckland’s Vero Centre. His influence is also apparent in the Fijian Kauri-clad inverted dome inside Auckland Museum’s atrium.
At school Ecuyer didn’t do well at art. “We weren’t taught pottery or sculpture – it was all painting and drawing. I didn’t realise sculpture existed, or that art could include made objects. I was into 3D, and photography which was landscape-based rather than artistic.”
Teaching himself wood-turning skills, Ecuyer became involved with a small, active group of wood artists in Whangarei, including Tom Capey, Graeme Priddle, Rupert Newbold and Alby Hall. “We were all headed along the same path and wood-gathered and attended a lot of seminars together. We invited international wood artists such as David Elsworth (USA) to visit, and he had a strong influence on us. This was all pre-internet, so contact with overseas people was by snail-mail. We approached Auckland galleries and set up group shows, and we met for discussions and ran slide shows. We invited Rolly Munro up from the Coromandel and he became another big influence. He’d come through Otago University’s art school and took a sculptural approach to woodcraft; that was a revelation. Alby Hall came through art school too, so he brought yet another style.
“As woodcraft moved into a decorative era, we began to look further afield, particularly to the United States. Americans impacted our work substantially; Wendell Castle, a furniture maker, and Knox Bennett for instance. The group worked co-operatively and we all learned together for a good couple of years, but slowly we drifted off and began to work independently.”
Turned wooden work was eminently collectible in the early 90s and New Zealand wood artists enjoyed a worldwide reputation. Their work appeared in books and magazines, and collectors contacted craftsmen directly, often purchasing for museums. American, Canadian, British and a few New Zealand collectors bought regularly and Ecuyer was fortunate to have a good patron in ex-prime minister, Helen Clark, who often bought his works through the Museum of New Zealand -Te Papa Tongarewa, when she sourced gifts for overseas embassies.
Though woodcraft is his primary interest, Ecuyer also works in glass and mixed-media. He says, “Many wood-turners disappeared during the 2008 recession and most are now only working wood as a hobby, whereas five or six years ago their income relied totally on woodcraft.”
Ecuyer was born in Whangarei in 1956. He is married to Anne and has two children, Trista (21) and Aaron (23). Currently, he works part-time as an art technician for NorthTec, enabling him to continue to work in wood. When the government introduced Performance Based Research Funding (PBRF) for technical institutes with degree courses in Applied Arts, staff were accorded ratings. An A rating for those with awards and international exhibitions behind them; B ratings for those struggling to achieve A ratings; and C ratings for staff such as Ecuyer, who had awards or regularly exhibited locally and internationally. Ecuyer’s rating meant he could apply for research grants from the Polytechnic Research Fund. These enabled him to travel to Auckland Museum, access their archives, and pay for the materials to produce a body of clay, and wooden piece work. “A real bonus,” he says.
Shields are a favourite form for Ecuyer, the concept coming out of research in Auckland Museum’s Pacific collection whilst he was there studying head-dress (Kali). “I was lucky to be able to study them first-hand instead of through a glass case. I also got the chance to study breast-shields made from shell and Sperm whale teeth. Environmental integrity began to inform my work. I loved the symbolism of a shield’s protection being ideologically connected to the environment.”
By incorporating patterns in his shields, Ecuyer delivers the human element; a statement that we are the only ones capable of creating these types of patterns, and, we are the only ones who can solve environmental problems.
“The environmental degradation we’ve allowed to occur interferes with the rights of creatures to evolve,” he says.
“Over the years I’ve incorporated copper in many of my mixed-media works, and became keen on copper spinning…which is how copper pots are made. I’d studied Celtic shields and wanted to introduce a bit of metal so began to spin copper onto the shields. Many western shields are metal, but I’m enjoying connecting Europe and the Pacific with a hybrid.”
Working occasionally with different media, mostly used as decorative additions, provides texture and variety and captures a range of aesthetic tastes. He says, “Wood has a certain aesthetic. So does metal, and if you do it right, the combination of the two materials creates a new aesthetic. It’s a challenge to combine materials well.”
Choosing hard woods because they are more durable and easier to work with, he is slightly embarrassed that his preferred oak, walnut, kwila, sapelle mahogany, ebony, lignum vitae from old bowling balls, and purple heart, are all exotics. “Most NZ trees are soft woods,” he says, “but I do like maire, kauri, and pohutukawa. Many decking timbers such as kwila are very hard woods and lend themselves well to the making of high value objects.”
Now based at Matakohe in Northland, much of Ecuyer’s spare time is spent with his family developing a small acreage they purchased a few years ago, and building a gallery. Gallery 28 is expected to open in November 2015.
His creative urge comes out of nature, out of seeing growth, but it can also come out of having managed to quieten his mind. “Those lovely moments when everything goes still – that’s when my creative side gets a boost, and makes me want to make.
“Creative craft keeps me real,” he says. “It’s hands-on, keeps me in touch with materials, and aware of where things come from. The recognition that nothing is easy, in that a tree, from a seed, grows for a long time. All these aspects of handcrafting keep me grounded. It’s good for the planet.”
“New subjects keep me inquisitive, observant, and up to date with what’s happening in the art world. Creative work, and the research required to engage in it well, keeps me alive intellectually and aesthetically. “
“I love art as it is expressed in today’s world,” he says. “Everyone is lumped in together now, including craft artists, and that opens up so many possibilities. The barriers created by specialists are gone and the degrees in art really don’t mean anything now, even though the institutions would say otherwise. The internet has opened everything up so that art is not run by institutions anymore. That’s exciting.”
Today John Ecuyer’s work is available through Piece Gallery in Matakana, his own website https://www.johnecuyer.com, Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, Kura Gallery (Auckland and Wellington), The Poi Room in Auckland’s Newmarket, Masterworks Gallery in Auckland, and Moko Artspace in Coromandel.