Lost in the woods
Where most would see beach-combed detritus, Conor Jeory sees the faces of his ancestors.
From a quaint garden shed in Devonport comes a persistent tapping sound, amplified by the quiet of the sun-drenched street. Inside the weatherboard shed can be found Gisborne-based artist Conor Jeory, set up under a large window. “In the middle of winter it can be so cold, but as soon as you start working, everything else disappears,” says the full-time artist, setting down his chisel.
Commanding immediate attention is Jeory’s haunting collection of carved works assembled on a table at the entrance; from stylised waka to landscapes. The most arresting pieces are three life-size faces protruding from wood that he’s rescued from rot while beach-combing Gisborne’s coastline.
“Look what weather does to wood,” says Jeory pointing out the damages acquired over time on a partially carved, gnarled piece of wood. “There’s so much more of a story in using recycled wood. I’m working with an old post at the moment. You can almost hear the cicadas, and smell the sheep shit. And all the old rusty nails and staples and stuff, they’re like jewellery to me.”
Taught to carve as a teenager, Jeory says he gave up for a long time after facing such disappointment when the wood broke or crumbled.
“I’d spend a week bunking school, working on a carving down at the willow tree, and then to have it break, it was heartbreaking.”
Instead he ventured into other artistic mediums like papier mache as well as pursuing a career as a chef. But while visiting his sister in Devonport several years ago he picked up a piece of wood, created a carving and took it to a gallery where it sold instantly to an Italian buyer.
“I like that these crusty old bits of wood have people take them home and display them on their mantel piece and treasure them,” he says of his successful sales to both local and international buyers.
Since his reintroduction to carving, Jeory says he’s adopted a new outlook on the gamble of working with old wood.
“I let the wood lead me. It’s like eating into the wood to find the person in there, almost like pulling it away to reveal the flesh,” he says running his hands over the natural scars of his work. “And I got a bit older and calmer.”
Inspired by the stories from his childhood, Jeory’s landscapes tell the traditional tale of Papatuanuku and well-known phrases are etched in bold font around their base.
“My mother is Maori and my father English. We grew up with these myths and legends.”
A modern take on traditional Maori carvings, his stylised faces bear both European features and tribal tattoos, the latter he achieves by way of a magnifying glass held over his work in the midday sun.
“It’s just so definitive of this place,” he says of the merging of two cultures. “They have such presence. And this makes sense to me. There’s that juxtaposition of the primitive and the high order. They seem like the right thing to make.”
Below: Conor Jeory at work on his latest creation. Photos: Ted Baghurst.