WOW At home with the cre­ator of Wear­ableArt

NZ Life & Leisure - - Front Page - WORDS EMMA RAW­SON


DAME SUZIE MON­CRIEFF couldn’t just have a nor­mal ev­ery­day sheep. In­stead of a stan­dard fluffy white rom­ney, she has Edith, a gotland that thinks it’s a horse and is in­fat­u­ated with Reg­gie the age­ing geld­ing. Cue Edith and Reg­gie gal­lop­ing around the hills of Suzie’s Ruby Bay life­style block in a Benny Hill-es­que chase; Reg­gie is charg­ing at the neigh­bour’s flock with Edith, in a sort of sheepy can­ter, try­ing her darn­d­est to keep up.

Suzie, in her bil­low­ing thes­pian blacks, watches on, be­mused. Her daugh­ter Emma and grand­daugh­ter Daisy (a great horse rider and ac­tress – some­times in com­bi­na­tion) and farm-lov­ing pa­pil­lons, Mar­garet and Sam­mie, join her and now it’s a real party. The an­i­mals, with their hu­man names, could be for­given for as­sum­ing airs and graces, how­ever Suzie, who has the for­mal ti­tle ‘Dame Suzie’, doesn’t stand on cer­e­mony and quickly puts her guests at ease (she was made a Dame of the Or­der of New Zealand in 2011 for her ser­vices to the arts, for which she had pre­vi­ously been hon­oured in 1998). While she has re­spect for the hon­our, she is a coun­try girl, raised in the ru­ral vil­lage of Hope, and isn’t one to just sit qui­etly and drink cups of tea star­ing at her view of the hills of Nel­son and Nel­son Lakes.

Her house, where the phone rings and rings and rings, is the cre­ative epi­cen­tre of the World of Wear­able Art (WOW), the artis­tic com­pe­ti­tion and mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar stage spec­tac­u­lar now held in Welling­ton, that is cel­e­brat­ing its 30th year. The highly chore­ographed the­atri­cal show fea­tures art pieces worn on the hu­man body and at­tracts 60,000 view­ers each year over a three-week sea­son.

It’s been a long time since Suzie founded the show in 1987 in the Wil­liam Hig­gins gallery, a his­tor­i­cal cob cot­tage out­side of Wake­field. These days the ex­trav­a­ganza is renowned in the global art scene and at­tracts weird and won­der­ful works of wear­able art: last year there were regis­tra­tions from de­sign­ers from more than 40 coun­tries.

The plan­ning and sto­ry­board­ing of the show’s cre­ative (with its cast of hun­dreds), usu­ally starts at Suzie’s din­ing room ta­ble. Suzie bought the Ruby Bay block in the early 1990s when the newly es­tab­lished New Zealand Wear­able Art Awards were still in Nel­son. She had enough money (she and Emma were on a tight bud­get liv­ing on a re­stricted in­come) to buy the bare land of a for­mer ap­ple or­chard. “Where are you go­ing to live?” asked her brothers, farm­ers in Wake­field. “I don’t know, in a tent or a car­a­van maybe.”

Suzie called a house-re­moval com­pany and they found her a 1910s house which, as luck would have it, was a child­hood favourite that her fam­ily had of­ten ad­mired when driv­ing past.

The house, cut into three and popped on the back of the truck, was inched through the wind­ing hills to the prop­erty. The join mark where it was fused is still vis­i­ble in the hall­way floor un­der the che­quered pat­tern painted by Suzie and Emma. “Some­one pointed out to me the pat­tern is not straight, but I don’t re­ally care.”

Although it was a tum­ble­down do-up, it did not faze this arty mother-and-daugh­ter duo. Both dab hands with the hot glue gun, they be­came equally as ef­fec­tive with tubes of No More Cracks. For­tu­nately Suzie had al­ways had a thing about doors. For many years she had pack-rat­ted away win­dows and “doors to nowhere” which she res­cued from churches and derelict vil­las. It so hap­pened she had the per­fect amount stashed in her shed for re­plac­ing the out-of-place 1960s ones. She’s also re­silient to the neg­a­tive pow­ers of doors: even when a door slams in her face, there’s usu­ally a trail of glit­ter left be­hind.

Fundrais­ing for the show was dif­fi­cult at the be­gin­ning. One year, clutch­ing her sparkle-en­crusted port­fo­lio and look­ing for prize money and venue fees, she met with the Nel­son mayor in his of­fice. The mayor snapped shut her pro­posal with such vigour, an erup­tion of sil­ver flecks flew across the room. “Well girlie, the best ad­vice I can give you is to leave town – you need to go to a big­ger city,” he said look­ing at the glit­ter scat­tered across the may­oral car­pet.

“I didn’t let it get to me; I never had any doubt the event would suc­ceed. I could see the show as it is today – on the scale and as spec­tac­u­lar as it is now in its 30th year.”

Then there was the man at the DPB of­fice who, un­be­known to him, al­most gut­ted the fes­ti­val by sign­ing up Suzie to a job in fish pro­cess­ing. “Wear­able art? I don’t see much call for that; I’ll put you down for fish fil­let­ing.” In­stead, Suzie re­turned to work on the show. “Thank­fully, they were a lit­tle looser about job place­ment then.”

Asked if she had any govern­ment help to start up WOW, she gives a wry smile. “I say, ‘Yes, in the early days the govern­ment did help – I was on the DPB, and I’m very grate­ful.’”

Ev­ery room in Suzie’s house is filled with works of art, many of which are props from for­mer WOW shows – a taxi­der­mal bear here, a Hierony­mus Bosch-in­spired Cupid there.

There are pieces from artists who have ap­peared in the show such as Sally Bur­ton who was in­volved in the first year and a strik­ing piece from Ker­rie Hughes who was a judge last year.

Hard as it is to imag­ine, in this art-filled house along­side the cre­ative spirit of WOW, art was ab­sent in Suzie’s life from her late teens to her early 30s.

At school, she was in the coun­try’s top three for School Cer­tifi­cate art so she was al­lowed to skip her Univer­sity En­trance year and en­rolled for the pres­ti­gious Fine Arts Pre­lim­i­nary exam. “My marks came back, and I’d passed in English and failed in art. My world crashed around me as all I had wanted to do, since I was a very tiny child, was to be an artist.”

A sec­ond let­down came at teach­ers’ col­lege after artist Quentin Mac­Far­lane en­cour­aged her to en­roll at art school. She failed again on the ad­min­is­tra­tive tech­ni­cal­ity that she had not com­pleted Univer­sity En­trance and was not old enough to gain en­trance on age alone.

“That re­ally set me on a bit of an emo­tional tan­gent. I packed away all my paint­ing brushes and any­thing to do with art into a box.”

Part of her run­ning-away pe­riod was spent in Western Aus­tralia rais­ing Emma. It was here she met a Catholic priest who came from China and was an artist. “His land­scapes were beau­ti­ful and it was through my friend­ship with him that my con­fi­dence in my­self as an artist was rekin­dled.” She be­gan sculpt­ing again.

“I’m re­ally grate­ful for that early dis­ap­point­ment be­cause if I had gone to art school, I would prob­a­bly have had a lovely quiet life and WOW would never have hap­pened.”

This year Suzie is back script­ing the show after a few years off, work­ing with artis­tic di­rec­tor Malia John­ston and the rest of the cre­ative team. Malia worked on WOW from 2001 to 2014 firstly as as­sis­tant to the chore­og­ra­pher, then as prin­ci­pal chore­og­ra­pher and fi­nally artis­tic di­rec­tor.

Suzie is ex­cited that WOW is mov­ing into the global arena with an in­ter­na­tional tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, de­vel­oped in part­ner­ship with the govern­ment, which has vis­ited five venues so far in­clud­ing the Mu­seum of Pop Cul­ture in Seat­tle, the Pe­abody Es­sex Mu­seum in Salem Mas­sachusetts, and will tour St Peters­burg later this year. Suzie says WOW’s fu­ture could be as a tour­ing show sim­i­lar to Cirque du Soleil. She has al­ways had in­ter­na­tional as­pi­ra­tions for the show. In the early days Suzie tried to get the show to visit Paris tak­ing the French Em­bassy by storm with models wear­ing out­ra­geous cos­tumes in a pub­lic­ity stunt that made the TV news.

In hind­sight Suzie doesn’t be­lieve WOW suf­fered from not be­ing able to go global ear­lier: “I didn’t travel un­til I was older; when I did, I was a bit dis­ap­pointed. I’d imag­ined the world so much big­ger and more colour­ful. Maybe that’s why we need WOW – to bring that colour.”


In the sit­ting room of Dame Suzie Mon­crieff’s home with its view of the Nel­son hills is a taxi­dermy tur­tle and rooster, once stars of WOW pro­duc­tions. OP­PO­SITE: The din­ing ta­ble of­ten be­comes the scriptwriter’s base where, through the door­way, is an...

The Ruby Bay prop­erty is a for­mer ap­ple or­chard, and Suzie’s house is joined to her daugh­ter Emma’s by a garage. Suzie bought the neigh­bour­ing land to save it from de­vel­op­ers. She has one sheep and a horse, but the neigh­bour’s flock grazes her land.

Stained- glass win­dows and trop­i­cal plants (in­clud­ing a quirky pineap­ple chan­de­lier) are a fea­ture of Suzie’s guest room, of­fice and bath­room.

FROM TOP: When the weather is fine, Suzie scripts her WOW show on the out­side ta­ble which is home to one of her sculp­tures; although Emma is fo­cused on paint­ing, she’s also a 3D artist and sculpted the un­usual blue birds; the cir­cus fig­ure is by artist...

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