Many contemporary New Zealand artists, designers and architects have found corrugated iron a fascinating and uniquely New Zealand material to work with.
No New Zealand artist is as well-known for what he can do with corrugated iron than sculptor Jeff Thomson. Thomson, who confesses to a love hate relationship with the material, has made a number of different objects, both two and three-dimensional, out of corrugated iron, perhaps the best-known being his amazing animals.
Thomson first started making animals after walking many miles along New Zealand country roads in the North and South Islands, which he did after leaving Elam School of Fine Arts in 1981. 'He would go off for a couple of weeks at a time looking at roadmarkers or the variety, distribution and, not least, the shapes of squashed animals. Three dimensions become two dimensions!' (1).
During these walks Thomson would offer to decorate the mailboxes of certain country residents, with items specific to their trade. The most popular item requested was the cow, as most residents were dairy farmers, so Thomson started to make cut-out cows, mainly out of tempered hardboard, which were painted to resemble certain breeds. They were then attached to the tops of the letter-boxes with rivets.
For one of these letter-box cows, Thomson created his first corrugated iron animal - a small cow cut from red-painted corrugated iron. Thomson included this small cow in an exhibition of his mailboxes entitled Roadside Farms, which was held at the Bowen Gallery in Wellington in 1984. As a result of this exhibition, Thomson was commissioned to create a corrugated iron penguin, which was his first three-dimensional work.
In 1985 Thomson released a herd of thirteen corrugated iron elephants into Auckland's Albert Park. He organised the display himself and stood guard over the elephants during the night. The event caused a sensation, and Thomson gained a national profile.
'The public, most of whom seemed more inclined to accept Albert Park as an annex not of the City Art Gallery but the Auckland Zoo, loved the life-sized iron elephants' (2). In 1986, a herd of Thomson's corrugated iron elephants appeared in Wellington's Civic Square, outside the library, and were also massively popular. 'Wellington had elephantitis' (3).
In spite of the popularity of Thomson's elephants, his cows remained a firm favourite with many New Zealanders. In 1987 on Waitangi Day, New Zealand's national day, Thomson unveiled a small herd of corrugated iron cows on the lawns of the New Zealand High Commission in Canberra, Australia, where they became something of a tourist attraction until a subsequent High Commissioner had them removed.
In 1989, while participating in the Painted Zoo exhibition at the National Art Gallery's Shed 11, Thomson took over Shed 12 next door and conducted public workshops in the manufacture of animals from galvanised iron. During this time he acquired a corrugating machine and was able to develop further the three- dimensional aspect of his sculptures, the machine enabling him to bend and model the material in a variety of ways.
Although Thomson has gone on to explore new imagery and techniques for working with corrugated iron, for instance his HQ Holden, a car clad in corrugated iron panels from an old hotel, it is his animals that remain his most recognisable, and perhaps his best-loved, sculptures.
(1) Rowe, Neil. (1992). Jeff Thomson: 10 years (ir)on in Brimer, Richard. editor. Jeff Thomson: any old iron. Auckland: Icon Publishing. np. (2) Barr, Jim and Barr, Mary. Jeff Thomson: cutting a fine figure in Brimer, Richard. editor. Jeff Thomson: any old iron. Auckland: Icon Publishing. np. (3) Rowe, Neil. (1992). Jeff Thomson: 10 years (ir)on in Brimer, Richard. editor. Jeff Thomson: any old iron. Auckland: Icon Publishing. np.
Corrugated iron cows 1993 photographed by Richard Brimer Courtesy of Pacificwave
When Thomson walked around New Zealand country roads and spotted a letter-box he was interested in decorating, he would drop off a letter to the owner of the letter-box, starting with 'Dear.... I am a student at Auckland Teachers College having just completed a Diploma of Fine Arts at Auckland University. Over the last year I have been interested in the New Zealand Mailbox; an interest developed through a series of walks I have completed'.
Then later in the letter - 'I would like to put forward a proposal that I return at a later date and alter your mailbox, in the form of an addition representing your primary occupation .... I must stress here that this will be completed by me at no cost to yourself'.
Replies included the following comments: 'Thank you for taking an interest in the farmers around New Zealand,' 'Although I have a very ordinary mailbox, I can totally understand your interest in them. I am currently a fourth and final year student in the wondrous area of Alcoholism at Kaitoke University's School of Gutter Credibility. In this time I have slept covered with newspapers outside most great New Zealand Universities', and 'Your idea is absolutely fascinating. I just have this feeling I'm having my leg pulled'.