Lisa Patterson is a Lyttelton-based artist whose handcrafted objects invest simple motifs with a sense of mystery and power. In her upcoming exhibition In Defence, she investigates neighbourly relationships and events through militaristic icons and materials sourced from her home. Patterson spoke with City Art Depot Exhibition Manager Cameron Ralston in her home ahead of the show. In Defence opens 5.30pm Tuesday 10th October and runs through to the 30th of October 2023.
Shiver/Shield/Shutter, spalted oak, cotton string, 1300x600x130mm, 2023
Cameron Ralston: Can you tell me about the materials used in your works?
Lisa Patterson: The source material for a lot of these works is oak from a lovely tree on my property. The tree was very close to the boundary, so I came to the difficult decision to have it cut down as it was potentially going to cause issues with the neighbouring properties. I did this with the intent to try to make good use of the wood though, which eased my conscience slightly!
I have a bit of history in letting oak trees grow bigger than some people like, and they seem to grow very fast here… Some people think they block the view, but I like them framing a more intimate view. And they also block people from looking in, which I don’t mind either.
This piece, ‘The Shiver’, is like a shield. Now the tree is gone, I’m imagining carrying it around to stop the neighbours seeing what I’m up to. It also sounds really nice when it’s moving. It kind of reminds me of a sniper’s camouflage ghillie suit. But a useless noisy one! My section has seven properties bordering it, so it’s quite a funny place for someone like me to live, surrounded by neighbours when I’m so antisocial.
The lead comes from various sources. Different bits of flashing I’ve had lying around for ages, some bits people have given to me as they know I covet it. I even had to visit a scrap yard recently as my stockpile was nearly exhausted. I’ve always liked casting lead since I worked as a leadlighter. I love the process of melting down messy bits of scrap and seeing the clean metal appear. Then with the brass, I like the military, bullet casing aspect of it. I also have the toy soldier thing going on. This other piece is a weapon – using cast walnuts to shape the head. I’ve used walnuts for years in my work because there’s a massive walnut tree here at the bottom of the garden. I like that idea of the shield, made from the oak tree which used to block the neighbours, and the stick also made from the tree. It’s almost like playing soldiers – I used to do that as a kid. The oak becomes a source for almost everything. Originally, I was going to call the show ‘Oak’, with the idea of that tree being the source of all the materials and of the (mostly) imagined problems and issues which led to the work. But the first works I came up with were all made of lead, so I wasn’t sure it was going to be an appropriate name for the show.
Do works reference specific things, or problems faced living here?
There’re seven main pieces in the show. Sort of one for each neighbour/border. They don’t really reference specific neighbours. I’m not wanting to bludgeon anyone with the cudgel, for instance! Some of them do refer to particular incidents though. In my head though, the works are arranged visually as my neighbours are placed in relation to my home.
The bookends are scale model of the old steps that used to come down from the street before the earthquakes, the only physical entry point from the wider world. There are no driveways around here. They were actually really nice steps. Old and uneven, like a buttress holding part of the wall up. Then after the earthquakes an engineering company replaced them with awfully designed and executed new steps.
This chandelier work references a drum fire I had here. It caused great consternation amongst certain people! It was a very small, well contained and controlled fire. I’ll admit it was quite smoky though. One of my neighbours saw the smoke and called the fire brigade. Another neighbour’s cat and I were having a great time with the fire. She seemed to thoroughly enjoy watching it. I’ve heard there used to be drum fires all the time burning things like old man’s beard and other weeds which are difficult to physically extract from Lyttelton gardens and dispose of. The fire brigade was pretty fine with it when they turned up though. I’d put it out when I heard the siren go off anyway. I did feel bad that they’d had to come out though. Funnily enough one of the firemen was my neighbour and it was the first time I’d met him. So that was amusing and nice. And I believe it was his cat. It’s very difficult to do certain things in a town where everyone literally overlooks everyone else. It makes me think of the necessity of certain countries to let everyone else know when they’re testing ballistic missiles… just in case someone gets the wrong idea! The work has this interior and exterior element where the drums and flames (which are very small) are hidden from the outside, but obviously perceived from the outside as being some sort of conflagration. Whereas actually, it was mostly very lush and green… but with a reasonable amount of smoke.
That little moat piece came from these moats I have on my kitchen table legs. Lyttelton has this ant problem, if you leave anything sugary not in the fridge or without a moat to isolate it you have ants through everything. I used to have a roasting dish filled with water to sit cake tins on top of. So, it’s kind of defending against these tiny invaders that have crossed the borders. Making an island of the whole table has made a massive improvement to my life! As long as nothing accidentally crosses the moats and creates a bridge… There have been no incursions so far which is very pleasing.
Missy and the Drum Fire/Chandelier , brass, paint, beeswax candles, 675x480x480mm, 2023
Has the military aspect in these pieces always been of interest to you?
I have always been very interested in the military and war for some reason. I grew up in Lake Takapō/Tekapo, and there is a military training camp there. So, we were quite exposed to the periodic presence of soldiers and convoys passing through the town. Live firing exercises were sometimes quite awe inspiring to hear and feel from the township. We also had field trips to the army camp at primary school to ride in armoured personnel carriers and watch mortar and machine gun firing. Which probably doesn’t occur these days! This is no doubt the reason I’m interested in these things… There is something so fundamental about conflict and war though which makes it a fascinating part of being human. A lot of people don’t like to even think about it, because it’s horrific and heartbreaking and such a waste. But for these reasons I think it’s very important to think about as it’s never going away. I listened to a very good history podcast with Stephen Fry, and he referred to the destruction of war as being both awesome and awful. And I think that captures it perfectly. By the way, I never want to experience a war, but I feel it’s very important to be informed about them. Since the beginning of the full scale invasion of Ukraine, my interest in wars has certainly been reawakened. In the face of so many current wars, the fact that this one is particularly well reported probably makes it an obvious one to be interested in. But it also has massive global implications that a lot of people pay little attention to. As well as general daily reporting, I’ve discovered there are quite a few in-depth specialist podcasts relating to military doctrine and training, social and political issues, global logistics, anything you can imagine. This has definitely influenced the way I think about a lot of things
Thinking about New Zealand being an island, it’s really nice not having direct neighbours, when you think about Covid and the war in Ukraine and how neighbours and their actions can cause a lot of trouble. It becomes a micro/macro thing. None of my neighbours are actually that bad, I’m blowing things way out of proportion there!
There’s an element of fun with the artworks though, despite it being a difficult subject matter to tackle.
Yes, it’s not meant to be serious, even though it’s influenced by some serious issues.
Moat 1, cast lead, water, 110x150x150mm, 2023
Where are you making the works?
I’m making them at work. Behind this door is a big room which is allegedly my studio, but you actually can’t move more than a metre in there because it has pottery wheels, shelving units and everything in there. I desperately have to sort it out so I can find my tools and use them! I have also made a terrible mess at work, and I must thank my boss, Neil, for being so patient despite the mass invasion of his workshop…which I’m aiming to tidy up very soon! I have all the equipment in the studio where I work, and I can find it, which is quite an advantage.
Are the toy soldiers cast from things you’ve had for a long time?
I bought these molds about 4 or 5 months ago. I generally do crude sandcasting, like with the moat part of ‘Moat 1’. But then I wanted to do something that was including stuff that I was always interested in. It’s funny, with America providing arms to the world, then I was ordering toy soldier molds from America as well.
I like that some of the things in the show are kind of domestic, like the light and bookends. Then it goes out to a bit more weapony. The scale changes from miniatures to real life objects.
There’s a nice relationship with the curtain rail as well being a household object.
It becomes like a screen. When I first moved in here there were no curtains here. I thought it was quite weird not having that barrier, but somehow we never seemed to need them back then.
The artworks have this worn quality to them that plays very well with the notion of items used for defence.
When you think about the ships in the English fleet, oak was probably the source and the reason they were able to sail and take over everything. I love oak, it’s so strong and has a special power within it. The oak I used is mostly unseasoned oak. I like how it’s splitting apart on the bookends – like how it happened on the steps.
These spiky things here are caltrops – what they used to throw in front of advancing horses and troops in ancient times. It’s a similar idea to the use of metal ‘hedgehogs’ and concrete ‘dragon’s teeth’ to defend against advancing tanks these days.
Keep Aways/Caltrops/Cluster 1, oak, stain, shellac, wax, 145x170x170mm, 2023
You’ve left a lot of the timber unfinished. Is that to keep it closer to the natural material?
I took some of the more shingley bits I made and stained them, like the book ends with Van Dyck crystal brown, a walnut based stain. It’s such beautiful wood, when you get a certain grain it doesn’t even look like oak. The staining brought too much of an interior element to it though, more like a shutter than a camouflage. I like how the rawness ages the oak with this oxidized surface. The things I’ve stained, I’ve also coated in beeswax. I like these basic materials.
Your works always have this great kind of tactility and mobility to them. You can really imagine them being used.
Walking around armed with a shield, mace and caltrops, haha. When I used to work at the museum and we were shifting all the pieces in the basement before they did earthquake strengthening, they had maces from Fiji. It was one of those things that when you pick them up they just feel so good, you want to whack someone with them. The weirdest thing that happened to me when I was at the museum was when I picked one up and then I felt this weird explosion in the back of my head. There’s all sort of amazing stuff in a museum but this simple club really affected me.
Was it a primal instinct?
Yeah, it was like there was a ghost in this thing. That is probably what it would feel like to have your head smashed in with the mace.
Have the ideas for this show been with you for a while?
I was looking at an old sketch book I had. I’m terrible, I write things down but don’t go back to look at them. I came back to ideas I had a while ago. Like before the stairs were demolished, I had measured them. I’d never be able to have an exhibition of paintings because I work in this annoying way where everything gets condensed and wrung out at the end, the paint would still be wet as anything.
Civil Unrest/Buttress Step/Bookends, unseasoned spalted oak, stain, shellac, beeswax, 120x350x98mm, 2023
Do you see the local issues you have playing out elsewhere? You’re having to defend what’s valuable to you?
With the small toy soldiers, and the scale they’re at, it’s like you can encompass the world in one place. You can see global issues just by looking at your garden and the people around you. The thing about the pandemic made me appreciate how good things were here in New Zealand. If you had bordering countries and they were doing something you don’t like, there’s not much you can actually do about that.
I experience this in Linwood too where I work. Houses being knocked down every week to make room for new developments. All that wastage makes me furious. Across from work was a villa that held a vet’s practice, which was demolished to make way for two storey apartments. They smashed the whole thing up and didn’t keep any part of it. That’s way worse than here in Lyttelton – you have no control there over what your neighbour could do and subject you to.