Kip Chap­man, direc­tor of this year’s WOW event, lives in Auck­land.

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Cover Story -

Kip Chap­man sounds like a wee kid let loose in a candy store. His ex­cite­ment crack­les down the line as he con­tem­plates di­rect­ing his first ever World Of Wear­ableart show this month.

“I can’t be­lieve it! The scale of WOW is mind­blow­ing. Last year, I di­rected a punk-rock mu­si­cal about Kate Shep­pard, which played each night to around 700 peo­ple. It was a big pro­duc­tion, but even so, we had to de­bate whether we could af­ford to have an aerial artist in that show be­cause it’s so ex­pen­sive.”

With WOW, an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ques­tion pre­sented it­self.

“It was more a case of – how many aerial artists do we want? Sud­denly, you have to de­liver at a mas­sive scale, and there’s the bud­get to do it. You’re play­ing each night to nearly 4000 peo­ple, on a stage that thrusts out into the au­di­ence. Your sets need to be im­pres­sive from ev­ery an­gle, and you’re creating a unique, wild world for each gar­ment cat­e­gory.”

Chap­man is some­thing of a golden boy of lo­cal theatre, with a string of hit shows to his name as both ac­tor and direc­tor. Even so, he was “in­tim­i­dat­ingly im­pressed” when he watched a pre­vi­ous year’s WOW show with a view to tak­ing it on him­self. The lo­gis­ti­cal com­plex­ity is ridicu­lous, he says.

“You’re try­ing to show how art can be en­livened by the hu­man spirit. You’re tak­ing a static thing then adding mu­sic and move­ment and theatre and con­text, im­bu­ing each gar­ment with a tan­gi­ble spirit, then am­pli­fy­ing that to 4000 peo­ple. But for­tu­nately, WOW has tech­ni­cal teams who’ve been do­ing this for 29 years now.

“I can say to them, ‘I need this gar­ment right here on the stage at pre­cisely this time.’ And they’ll say, ‘Can’t do it. The model wear­ing that stain­less steel out­fit needs to be cov­ered in tal­cum pow­der, and it takes 76 sec­onds to dress them. You need to give us another 8 sec­onds.’”

Back­stage, reck­ons Chap­man, is men­tal. While ev­ery­thing looks el­e­gantly seam­less out the front, there’s a hive of mad ac­tion be­hind the scenes, with ev­ery gar­ment change at­tended by an army of hair, make-up and dress­ing ex­perts and timed with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion.

“It’s like a car pit-stop in a For­mula 1 race, where ev­ery sec­ond counts. Of course, any­thing with that much com­plex­ity has a high po­ten­tial for cock-ups, but that’s live theatre. You have an in­flex­i­ble dead­line and enor­mous pres­sure, and you just have to make it work. Like Tina Fey said when she was head writer on Satur­day Night Live, ‘The show doesn’t go on be­cause it’s ready; the show goes on be­cause it’s eight o’clock.’ It’s the same with WOW. Once that mu­sic starts, you’re on.” Dar­ren Wise builds dairy fac­to­ries for a liv­ing. A welder by trade, he pieces to­gether gi­gan­tic gleam­ing con­struc­tions of stain­less steel pipes, lad­ders and tanks.

“I’ve spent 27 years in the dairy in­dus­try. I built lots of fac­to­ries, and there’s good money in it, but I also had all these ideas in my head of other things I could make with stain­less steel.”

Five years ago, he started “tin­ker­ing in the shed”, mak­ing sculp­tural works in­spired by his Maori heritage. Af­ter a few fail­ures, he started get­ting good.

“I went into this gallery with some­thing I made and said, ‘I’m try­ing to learn to be an artist.’ The cu­ra­tor grabbed my col­lar and pulled me in close and said, ‘Dar­ren, for f…’s sake, you al­ready ARE an artist!’ I started to think about my­self dif­fer­ently af­ter that.”

Even so, when he got a call from WOW sug­gest­ing he submit an en­try, Wise won­dered if it was “some weird joke”.

“I didn’t re­ply for three weeks, but in that time, I had all these amaz­ing ideas of things I could make. But I de­cided it was just too hard. I was gonna flag it, eh. Then my un­cle turned up, and said, ‘You have to do it; it’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity.’ We had a cup of tea in my lit­tle gallery and worked out how it might be pos­si­ble.”

Wise’s en­try made the fi­nals: a stain­less steel piece in­spired by the story of Maui fishing up in the North Island.

“Mate, I can’t wait to see it run­ning around the stage. I mean, I’m a trades­man, right? A welder. A lot of peo­ple I know would look at WOW and think it was just a bunch of weirdos pranc­ing around in silly cos­tumes, you know? But I had a look at some videos from past years, and there were other trades­men in­volved – peo­ple who worked with wood and fi­bre­glass. I thought, ‘I want to be part of that!’

A fam­ily man with two kids, Wise is a re­cov­er­ing alcoholic, now 13 years sober. He has had a few tri­als

and tribu­la­tions to over­come in his life, but WOW has lifted him up into a place he never imag­ined he could go, he says.

“Some of the top de­sign­ers from around the world put en­tries into this thing, and here’s lit­tle old me, a trades­man who sits in a dairy fac­tory nine months of the year, be­ing told what to do by grumpy old men.

“That work pays well, but mak­ing money is easy; mak­ing good art is the hard part. It con­nects me closer to my Maori cul­ture, too. I have an­ces­tors who guide me, spir­i­tu­ally. I lis­ten to them, and when they push me in a cer­tain di­rec­tion, I go there. That spirit keeps building in­side of me and it comes out in the work, or that’s the way it feels to me, any­way. I hope that peo­ple who look at my work in this show will feel that, too.” Fifi Col­ston’s first en­try was way back in 1995, when WOW was still based in Nel­son. It sounds dis­tinctly un­com­fort­able, un­less your idea of a good time is a bra wo­ven from twisted wil­low.

“I made it with friends and it got into the Bizarre Bras sec­tion,” says the Welling­ton artist. “That bra wouldn’t make it into the show now, be­cause the stan­dards are so much higher, but it set me on my way.”

The fol­low­ing year, Col­ston en­tered a solo piece in the Man Un­leashed sec­tion.

“It was called The Se­cret Gar­den. By day, this guy was a grim-faced busi­ness­man in a grey suit, with glasses. But by night, he threw open the suit to re­veal a sort of Robert Map­plethorpe in­te­rior, with gilded ev­ery­thing and flow­ers ga­lore, and his face-mask flipped up to show this joy­ous boy that lurked within that bleak grey ex­te­rior. I did a plas­ter cast of my hus­band’s chest to build the in­te­rior, so it was oddly per­sonal as well…”

WOW it­self has be­come oddly per­sonal for Col­ston, who is now what you might call a lifer. This year’s show will fea­ture her 24th suc­cess­ful fi­nal­ist en­try since 1995, and she has pre­vi­ously won seven awards.

“Like a lot of long-term Wowsers, it’s part of my an­nual cal­en­dar now. It can be heart­break­ing if you spend months on some­thing and it doesn’t make it into the show, but it’s an es­sen­tial part of my life. My mother was say­ing, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you do it!’ But then I thought about peo­ple who run marathons. Why do they do it? Be­cause they love it, be­cause they’re chal­lenged by it, and be­cause there’s great sat­is­fac­tion in mak­ing it to the fin­ish line, even if you don’t win the race. WOW is a cre­ative marathon for me, and I learn some­thing ev­ery time I take part: a new tech­nique, how to use new ma­te­ri­als, how to tell a new story, or what­ever.”

This year’s story, she warns, is a tad grue­some. “I didn’t show it to the grannies, just in case they thought I’d lost my mind. It’s in the Sci­ence Fic­tion sec­tion, and imag­ines a time when or­gan-har­vest­ing cy­borgs rule the world, and they’re strug­gling to see the point of us hu­mans.

“It’s pretty macabre, made out of thermo-plas­tics and fab­ric and casts I took off a real hu­man skele­ton I bor­rowed off a friend. There’s also a cou­ple of hun­dred 1980s shoul­der pads in there that I cov­ered in vel­vet, and a lot of foam hacked from in­side a friend’s old couch.”

Be­tween events, Col­ston’s as­so­ci­a­tion with WOW has led on to a lot of other work.

“I’ve writ­ten chil­dren’s books about cos­tum­ing, I get prop com­mis­sions, I teach wear­able art work­shops with schools.

“It’s a huge part of my cre­ative life and I’d be lost with­out it. If I didn’t do it, I’d miss the Wear­able Art com­mu­nity here in Welling­ton, I’d miss mak­ing my en­try, and I’d miss the thrill of see­ing it up there on stage. You know, my son told me re­cently he can’t re­mem­ber a time when I wasn’t do­ing WOW. And he’s 26!” With a crack and a heave and a rum­ble, her world fell apart.

“When the Can­ter­bury earth­quake ripped through, we lost ev­ery­thing,” says Natasha English.

“I was in a building that col­lapsed, and that changes your think­ing pro­foundly. You look at things very dif­fer­ently af­ter that.”

English re­alised that de­spite the dev­as­ta­tion, the most im­por­tant things in her life re­mained in­tact.

“I’d lost my home and my busi­ness, but my fam­ily was OK and I wasn’t go­ing to any fu­ner­als. When you’ve es­caped death, you re­alise the im­por­tance of mak­ing time for things that feed your spirit. WOW is one of those things for me.”

English and her sis­ter Tatyanna Me­harry started mak­ing WOW en­tries to­gether.

“She’s a pot­ter and a ce­ram­ics tu­tor, and I stud­ied ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign and ran my own store sell­ing hand­made fur­ni­ture. We’re from a big, close fam­ily where every­body is quite straight up with one another, so we work quite well to­gether in cre­ative en­vi­ron­ments.”

Theirs was a par­tic­u­larly prac­ti­cal up­bring­ing, she says. “If you can’t make it, you can’t have it: that was our fam­ily motto. We made hand­bags, shoes, cloth­ing – you name it. I learned to do wall­pa­per­ing and lay floor­ing when I was about 12, and we both loved fashion and learned to sew at a very young age.”

This year’s piece is the sis­ters’ fourth joint en­try. They won the Supreme Award in 2013 for a piece about Te Tir­iti O Wai­tangi called The Ex­change, cov­ered in hand-made ce­ramic coins and feathers.

And last year’s en­try, Baroque Star, in­volved hun­dreds of hours mak­ing be­spoke vel­vet us­ing a flock­ing gun and end­less glue. It won them an in­tern­ship to­gether at Weta Work­shop in Welling­ton.

The pair have pre­vi­ously made gar­ments us­ing bill­board sheets and auto trim, glit­ter and pot­tery, ny­lon tags and metal. This year’s piece was painstak­ingly con­structed from 60,000 empty pill cap­sules.

“With WOW, they want you to push the bound­aries with your ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques. It can take thou­sands of hours and be ex­tremely la­bo­ri­ous, but that’s OK. It’s not some­thing Tatyanna and I do for

money, or to lift our public pro­file. We do it to spend some time to­gether as sis­ters. We take it on and we get in each other’s faces, and we al­most hate each other by the end of it and don’t see each other for months on end. Then it’s show time and we for­give each other. We see this wild thing we made up on stage and it’s all love be­tween us again.”

The Float­ing by Yan­jingt­ing Chen from China made it to the fi­nals of WOW in 2015. PHOTO: LIND­SAY ADLER

This is Kip Chap­man’s first WOW as Cre­ative Direc­tor.

(above) was Fifi Col­ston and Josiene van Maar­se­veen’s WOW en­try in the 2015 fi­nals.

Dar­ren Wise, 49, is a first-time fi­nal­ist in the Aotearoa sec­tion of WOW. He is a stain­less steel welder by trade. PHOTO: TOM LEE/STUFF

Fifi Col­ston work­ing in her Welling­ton stu­dio. Her en­try for WOW this year is un­der the Sci­ence Fic­tion cat­e­gory and tells the story of or­gan har­vest­ing cy­borgs in the fu­ture. PHOTO: ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

(above) won sis­ters Natasha English and Tatyanna Me­harry the Supreme Award at WOW in 2013.

Sis­ters Natasha English and Tatyanna Me­harry started creating WOW en­tries to­gether af­ter the 2011 Christchurch earth­quake.

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