What do wool, stones and steel have in common? When brought together by prolific artist Daegan Wells, they all tell stories of Southland’s political and social history.
Originally based in Christchurch, Wells, who has been featured in galleries across New Zealand and Melbourne, came to Southland after his Olivia Spencer Bower residency in 2017.
During the residency, he explored New Zealand’s protest culture, which led him to Manapouri Power Station and then to his Southland-based partner Scott.
“I came here to do this little project and that’s how I met my partner. I was supposed to move to Auckland after that but, you know, four years later, and I’m still here.
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As a contemporary artist, Wells believes her work is more about the ideas and politics they convey using alternative media as opposed to finished work.
For example, the Protest Culture Project used clay collected by Wells from the foreshore of the Manapouri Power Station to convey an environmental position for change.
Now located on the Scott family’s fourth-generation dairy farm in Waipango, Wells uses fleece from their sheep for exhibits to depict the social and political history of wool.
“I’ve always been very interested in the things around me and how they were made, so here it is the old wool sheds and old equipment used in sheep farming,” he said.
“But now it’s mostly dairy farming in Southland, so I’m really interested in exploring that. [switch to dairying] and the way to do that was to hang out with Isobel and explore how you deal with fleece and work with materials…it’s an interesting place in terms of, there’s a conversation here.
The Isobel he is talking about is 82-year-old Colac Bay weaver Isobel Bates.
Over the course of many “cuppas”, Bates imparted to Wells his knowledge of weaving wool using a loom, including the arduous process of preparing fleeces.
“My grandma was really good friends with her…so the second day of being here I rode my bike to Isobel’s studio to say ‘hi’ and the first thing she said to me. ‘said was ‘I remember you, you’re the naughty kid,'” he laughed.
Her work using wool was featured for the first time in the exhibition bush coatresult of her Enjoy 2020 summer residency at the summer cottage of iconic New Zealand artist Rita Angus.
“This residency meant that I spent a lot of time in Parliament, going through archives and exploring the politics of wool and carpets in Parliament, which are actually made in Australia from New Zealand wool,” he said. -he declares.
Last year he was able to take this research a step further after receiving a grant from Creative New Zealand to explore textiles made in Southland.
The research focused primarily on wool and woolen products, but also explored linen weaving and the history of textiles in building communities.
“It is primarily about wool crafts and an examination of how crafts and wool are used in New Zealand homes. So [for example]this idea of knitting a blanket that will be passed down from generation to generation.
“I interviewed this woman who apprenticed in a garment factory in Riverton in the 1950s, there are all these interesting stories about how wool, cloth and textiles all played a part in the community,” he said.
Wells also began creating beads using steel and stone collected from Colac Bay, a seaside town about 10 minutes from his home which has lost its main coastal road due to erosion, to be attached to its wool-based pieces.
“I started collecting stones from where the water came in. I guess it’s really thinking about those materials and objects and how they tell the story of a particular place. “
Wells was due to show her textile pieces in a group show at Melbourne’s Cave Gallery this year, alongside an Auckland-based exhibition on queer identity and history, but Covid-19 caused both to be postponed.
As an alternative, Wells plans to show several of the plays in Southland.
“I received so much from so many people in terms of equipment, wool and knowledge. It would be so nice to show the community what I’ve been working on.
Despite some challenges, including difficulty fitting into Southland’s small art scene and the isolation of the farm, Wells doesn’t regret the move.
“Sometimes I’m still surprised that I’m still here. I really thought I was coming for the summer. My friends all think I’m crazy, but I love animals and I love the farm.