What makes Kaikoura rock? Sculp­tor Ben Foster for one

ON THE CAR RA­DIO, the mu­sic jerks in and out of fre­quency on a hiss of static. Above there is a wa­tery sun; in the val­leys be­low, the ten­drils of a morn­ing mist. In be­tween, the road winds down to the coast, down to an icy, baby blue sea. There are scarred hill­sides, fallen boul­ders, and trees with snapped branches hang­ing by their roots. The road­ing gangs are al­ready at work; the traf­fic man­age­ment crews flip their signs back and forth – stop/go, stop/go, stop/go – and blow on their icy fingers. There is a slalom of traf­fic cones, a nar­row, hewn tun­nel that would have larger ve­hi­cles suck­ing in their en­gines, some cracked and sunken cor­ners and fi­nally the lit­tle town­ship of Kaikoura, now shunted over a me­tre fur­ther north since New Zealand’s largest (but one) recorded earth­quake.

Kaikoura is linked ten­u­ously to the rest of the coun­try by a sin­gle road – ar­riv­ing at one end of town and de­part­ing from the other – but its sto­ries could sup­port a high­way. This par­tic­u­lar tale is about be­ing lost and found, be­ing res­cued and be­ing the res­cuer, of ad­ven­ture and serendip­ity.

Ben Foster’s tale starts not that far from Kaikoura as the tara­punga – the seag­ull – flies. A touch­down at Pour­erere Beach and then in­land to Waipuku­rau, the big­gest lit­tle town in Cen­tral Hawke’s Bay.

Sabrina Luecht’s story, how­ever, starts three seas and two oceans away (per­haps even three oceans, if you take the long way round) in Ber­lin, Ger­many’s cap­i­tal.

Sabrina’s mother taught her daugh­ters com­pas­sion from an early age. She would take them off to the Ham­burg meat mar­ket to buy live rab­bits and ducks wait­ing to be sold for the pot, and then hop on the train home to Ber­lin. Their apart­ment was ad­justed to house all sorts of crea­tures, and the ducks were set free in Tier­garten, one of the big­gest and most beau­ti­ful pub­lic gar­dens in Ger­many.

And then one day Mama gath­ered up Sabrina and Anja, and they flew away, right across the world to find their own garden in New Zealand, in tiny Hok­i­tika. It was green, wild, and re­mote on that farflung west coast and it shaped the rest of Sabrina’s life. She did a BSc in zo­ol­ogy and set off to save crea­tures in need – do­mes­tic an­i­mals and wildlife, but par­tic­u­larly threat­ened birds.

Af­ter post­pon­ing her MSc, Sabrina worked for the For­est Re­search In­sti­tute and En­vi­ron­ment Can­ter­bury and then went to the North Western Hawai­ian Is­lands as a seabird tech­ni­cian in charge of al­ba­tross band­ing for the US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice. She had an in­ter­lude at the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion be­fore nav­i­gat­ing her way through the re­mote and wa­ter­logged low­land forests of Mis­souri us­ing var­i­ous bird species as in­di­ca­tors for frag­mented habi­tat types. She prowled the windswept shores of Tas­ma­nia mon­i­tor­ing shore­birds that are in se­ri­ous de­cline; took an­other in­ter­lude at the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion; mon­i­tored the rare ab­bots booby and many other seabirds in se­vere de­cline on Christ­mas Is­land; and then made it closer back to New Zealand’s own shore­line, work­ing on Stephen­son/Riri­wha Is­land off North­land.

At last, she was back on her home turf for good, again at the Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion, and also at the Hut­ton’s Shear­wa­ter Char­i­ta­ble Trust and En­dan­gered Species Foun­da­tion of New Zealand. She was all set to work in the sub­antarc­tic is­lands and Antarc­tica with Her­itage Ex­pe­di­tions when she was of­fered a per­ma­nent po­si­tion spe­cial­iz­ing in en­dan­gered species at the Isaac Con­ser­va­tion and Wildlife Trust, a cap­tive breed­ing unit that rears some of New Zealand’s rarest birds and rep­tiles for re­lease into the wild.

As for Ben, at 16 he left home to do a diploma in vis­ual arts at the Eastern In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Napier. It wasn’t the first time he’d left his home town. When he was five his par­ents packed him up along with his brother Shane and took them on the road in a house truck their fa­ther had built.

They did their lessons via cor­re­spon­dence school with the oc­ca­sional foray into a lo­cal pri­mary school along the way, and their seam­stress mother and wood­work­ing fa­ther sup­ported them sell­ing hand­crafted silk cloth­ing and bowls made from drift­wood.

A few years into that no­madic ex­is­tence his fa­ther had to make a new truck, a big­ger one be­cause Ben’s lit­tle sis­ter Chloe put in an ap­pear­ance. It was an en­vi­able child­hood and only ended when it was time for Shane to at­tend high school. So no, it wasn’t the first time Ben had left home, but this time he was on his own.

He spent one year be­ing as­sid­u­ous in his stud­ies and wide-eyed in his leisure, and then he com­mit­ted him­self to the sort of dis­so­lute life­style that is al­most a rite of pas­sage among young men. De­spite him­self, he con­tin­ued to do well with re­spectable grades but his tu­tors thought he needed some life ex­pe­ri­ence to in­ject more dis­ci­pline into his work. So he an­swered an ad in the news­pa­per look­ing for ap­pren­tice fur­ni­ture-mak­ers, and as Ben’s artis­tic lean was to­wards sculp­ture and other three-di­men­sional ex­pres­sion, he could hardly have cho­sen bet­ter. He didn’t yet know it, but that trade ex­pe­ri­ence was to be­come in­valu­able in his fu­ture.

He had fun, he had ad­ven­tures, not least be­cause he was asked to help re­fit lux­ury boats, which took him to ex­otic ports. He didn’t know one end of a yacht from an­other at the be­gin­ning, but his cre­ative tal­ents lent them­selves well to the world of cus­tom-fits, and cus­tom-fits led him back to his ini­tial and in­trin­sic love of sculp­ture. He gained the con­fi­dence to re­turn to his stud­ies, this time at Christchurch Polytech­nic In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, where his tu­tors en­cour­aged him to reach out be­yond his per­ceived ca­pa­bil­i­ties and as­sured him that fine art could be a le­git­i­mate ca­reer and not just a dream.

Armed with his vis­ual arts diploma, he set off again across the world, try­ing to find… what? He didn’t al­ways know ex­actly what he was search­ing for, al­though some­times he thought he saw it out of the cor­ner of his eye, but when he turned to look full on, it al­ways slid away. He came back to New Zealand for a three-week hol­i­day to stay with friends in Kaikoura, a place he had hol­i­dayed in be­fore with his fam­ily, and here it was – the place for which he had been search­ing. It had been there all the time in his back­yard. There were the moun­tains he loved, run­ning to the sea that he loved. Be­tween the two were space and com­mu­nity.

Ben found him­self a work­shop where he could con­tinue to make fur­ni­ture to sup­port him­self and build an art port­fo­lio to es­tab­lish him­self. He al­lowed five years for this to hap­pen, but he didn’t even crack 12 months be­fore he had enough com­mis­sioned sculp­tural work to al­low him to hang up his ham­mer.

He asked around about gal­leries to rep­re­sent him and set­tled for San­der­son Con­tem­po­rary Art in Auck­land, but al­ready 80 per cent of his work was go­ing to in­ter­na­tional clients. He was se­lected by an ex-pat-driven gallery in Hong Kong, which ex­posed his work in Asia and also to the home coun­tries of the gal­leries’ in­vestors.

So far, so very, very good, but he had not reck­oned with the power of Pa­p­atūānuku, who paid a sec­ond shock­ing visit to Christchurch in 2011. Ben had a three-sculp­ture com­mis­sion for a casino in Ma­cau ready to be poured at a foundry in the stricken city, and now the busi­ness was to close. But as has been proven time and time again, South­ern­ers are stub­born and re­silient and some­how the foundry op­er­a­tor, with the help of two other foundries in the re­gion, got the job done be­fore the foundry closed its doors. It changed things for Ben, how­ever, be­cause he now had to look in other cre­ative di­rec­tions as there was no longer a foundry ca­pa­ble of ful­fill­ing his artis­tic needs in the South Is­land.

It was a near thing, the po­ten­tial loss of that com­mis­sion, and made Ben re­al­ize he had to have more con­trol over his work. He couldn’t pour hot metal him­self, but maybe he could bend it. He bought a whole pile of sheet alu­minium and an equally big pile of card­board. He made pat­terns with the card­board, bend­ing it this way and that, find­ing its lim­its; find­ing its chi, per­haps, that en­ergy that gives life and force. And then, he won­dered, he hoped – could he trans­fer the re­sult onto alu­minium?

He was due to put a piece into a gallery for an ex­hi­bi­tion named Lo­cale and chose as his first sub­ject one of Kaikoura’s fa­mous seals, faceted in the way of the snowy Seaward Kaikoura moun­tains. The gallery scoffed, think­ing a seal was not so­phis­ti­cated enough a sub­ject and too sig­nif­i­cant a change from his orig­i­nal works.

But Ben did it any­way. The seal piece sold be­fore the ex­hi­bi­tion even opened, and more new doors have since opened, with Ben still pri­mar­ily fo­cus­ing on faceted geo­met­ric works, which have taken him to a new realm of cre­ativ­ity. Right now he is work­ing on a large-scale bear and bal­le­rina com­po­si­tion for a client in Switzer­land.

One ret­ro­spec­tively fate­ful evening, Ben got chat­ted up by a woman at a lo­cal res­tau­rant. She was lovely; he did noth­ing. The en­counter, how­ever, made him re­al­ize how short life was and sev­eral weeks later he spot­ted the mystery woman com­ment­ing on a friend’s Face­book page. He pon­dered deeply – and be­fore he lost his nerve, he sent a mes­sage en­quir­ing whether she had in fact been the woman at the res­tau­rant. That short en­quiry soon turned into an an­swer on his screen.

“No,” typed Sabrina Luecht from her lap­top in Hok­i­tika, “it cer­tainly wasn’t me, but good on you for ask­ing, you have to take risks in life. I hope you find your mystery woman.” The two even­tu­ally got chat­ting reg­u­larly and found mu­tual chem­istry. Luck­ily for Ben, Sabrina is al­ways up for ad­ven­ture.

When Pa­p­atūānuku paid an­other visit, this time to Kaikoura and this time more vi­o­lently than be­fore, she chucked Ben right out of bed. His house bounced off its foun­da­tions and cracked around the edges; his sun­room parted com­pany from the rest of the house, and out­side there were cracks in the ground ev­ery­where. En­ter Sabrina: Sabrina who knows the power of flight, Sabrina who can en­gi­neer an es­cape. She char­tered what was one of the few air­craft avail­able and flew Ben and his dog, Archie, to safety on the West Coast.

And even­tu­ally, of course, they all came back to­gether. To the lit­tle shaken house; to the place where the moun­tains run down to the sea, to the place they made a home.

The move­ment in the bal­le­rina (above, be­hind Ben) is ex­tra­or­di­nary. While the dancer looks vul­ner­a­ble with her throat so ex­posed to the bear’s jaws, the ac­tion ac­tu­ally im­plies trust, says Ben. De­spite the faceted, an­gu­lar con­struc­tion, Ben’s pieces...

Ben Foster needed a home – and he found it in Kaikoura. Archie ( 2) also needed a home – he found it with Ben.

Mill Road was the most shaken of all Kaikoura’s streets in the earth­quake but that hasn’t taken away Ben and Sabrina’s feel­ings of sanc­tu­ary and good for­tune. Kaikoura was the first lo­cal au­thor­ity in the South­ern Hemi­sphere to achieve recog­ni­tion by...

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