Thinking Out Loud
Nov 29 2022
Daegan Wells lives at the bottom of the South Island. The enquiries and tangents that have shaped his practice since moving there in 2018 share an engagement with the sedimented histories of the area—a part of the country very few of us have stepped foot in. Far from a re-tread of rural romances of the far south, Wells’ research-based practice represents a sustained and compassionate understanding of place—one that is now also his place.
Wells contributed new work to the Projects exhibition at the 2022 Aotearoa Art Fair. A series of textile works, Local Makers has its origins in a conversation. Wells heard the stories of a clothing factory in nearby Riverton, operating from the 1940s through to the 1980s. A homage to the factory and its workers, Local Makers also offered Wells a chance to consider the nature of rural labour, and of creativity in isolation. Informed and inspired by conversations with former employees, Wells’ works ‘remember, recognise and comment on the changing face of New Zealand’s primary industry and the communities which serviced it.’
Daegan Wells talked to ArtNow Essays on the occasion of Local Makers’ exhibition at the 2022 Aotearoa Art Fair.
ArtNow: This project started with a clothing factory, so let’s start there too. How did you hear about this place and how did that lead into producing Local Makers?
Daegan Wells: I first learned of the factory at lunch one day with local weaver, Isobel Bates. I've been meeting with Isobel regularly since moving to rural Southland five years ago—she's been a constant mentor and supporter of my practice, spending many hours teaching me the basics of weaving and wool craft. At this particular lunch, she invited her friend, Benita Dudfield, who had been employed at the Riverton factory as a machinist in the early 1980s. Benita is one of those unique people who are genuinely great storytellers—a real keeper of local knowledge who is happy to share it with anyone. She told me stories about the factory, including one about a part of the corrugated iron roof coming loose in a storm. Benita borrowed a ladder and climbed onto the roof to secure the flapping iron. This was just one of many experiences she shared with me that afternoon.
AN: The presentation at the Art Fair included what looked like off-cuts and scrap material, though you also made traditional garments. What was the purpose behind having both as tangible outputs of the project?
DW: The factory mainly manufactured utility clothing and uniforms for the local market. The fabric was woven at Milton, near Dunedin, from local wool. I learned that the ladies at the factory would take offcuts of the fabric home to construct garments like hats and other clothing for their families. I decided to borrow this idea for Local Makers and constructed a series of hats from handwoven fabric. The work displayed at the Fair was offcuts from the hats.
AN: The materials you use are really specific and an important part of your practice—both in your work as an artist and your relationship to the location you live in. Can you tell us about the materials that went into Local Makers and their significance?
DW: The fabric I've woven for Local Makers acts as a sort of documentation of this place, and each element has been sourced or given to me. The wool is hand spun and comes from my pet sheep, the linen was given to me by Isobel and dyed using walnut husks from a tree on the farm, and the muka came from local harakeke.
When carrying out a new project, I like to use material specific to that location—it helps me to better understand and engage with the local environment.
AN: The cultural image of rural labour in Te Waipounamu is predominantly one of farming—especially dairy. How did this project help you think about the ways rural labour has changed in Aotearoa, both in practical terms and in the ways we imagine it?
DW: Meeting and talking with Benita coincided with a recent conversation with my partner about getting a 'real/full-time job' and moving away from the arts towards something more financially stable. This was frustrating on many levels, primarily because of the lack of employment options within small-town Aotearoa. Talking to Benita and Isobel, who are both in their eighties, it became clear that Riverton, like most small towns throughout Aotearoa, once had many different types of industries that manufactured and produced various products for the local and international markets. However, this decreased in the 1980s with a shift towards overseas manufacturing and cheaper imported products.
AN: Rural Aotearoa, especially in the far south, often carries these cultural connotations of a lonely and isolating existence. As someone making art in this context, does that image ring true for you? If so, how does it affect the way you think about making art?
DW: When I first moved here, in early 2018, I was confronted with the social challenges of being a maker within a rural environment and the importance of developing a support structure for social and creative nourishment. I’m reminded of a letter I came across in the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu archive while undertaking the Olivia Spencer Bower residency in 2017. The letter was addressed to Spencer Bower from an artist friend living and working on a rural New Zealand farm. I can't recall the sender's name or location, but I do remember it describes the writer's art practice, what she had been working on, and the struggles of making in isolation. The letter goes on to discuss the sender's family, the monotony of farm chores, and everyday rural life.
Now, in 2022, I relate to this letter in a way that would've been unimaginable to me back in early 2017. I am struck by the writer's depiction of agricultural life, the similarities to my relationship with rural Aotearoa, and the challenges of being an artist and making work outside the main centres. The letter still acts as a way for me to contextualise my current position as a rural art maker. I think location informs your practice, whether it be the subjects you explore or the materials you choose. These elements have become important to me and have helped me to understand the places where I live.
Daegan Wells graduated with a MFA from Ilam School of Fine Arts, University of Canterbury in 2015. In 2017, he was the recipient of the Olivia Spencer Bower residency award, Christchurch. Through his archival and sculptural practice, Wells uses narrative to address political, environmental, social and cultural events from recent history. Recent exhibitions include World made of Steel, made of Stone, (group, curated by Abby Cunnane), The Physics Room, Ōtautahi Christchurch, (2021); Caught; slack and taut, Laree Payne Gallery, Kirikiriroa Hamilton (2021); Bush Coat, Enjoy Contemporary Art Space, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington (2020); Start with a Vase (group, curated by Sebastian Clarke), Hastings City Art Gallery, Heretaunga Hastings (2019); andCatch (group, curated by Becky Richards), Tinning Street Presents, Naarm Melbourne (2019); Hut for a Sensuous Gold Miner (with Sophie Bannan), MEANWHILE, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, (2018); A Gathering Distrust, Ilam Campus Gallery, Ōtautahi Christchurch, (2018).
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