On a hot, blustery day, I file into the lecture theatre at Christchurch Art Gallery, to a half- filled room. John Newton and Sally Blundell come and sit down in front of us. I am happy to be out of the heat. We are here to listen to Newton and Blundell talk about Newton’s new book: Llew Summers: Body and Soul.
Llewelyn Mark Summers (1947-2019) is mostly known for his sensual, provocative and warm figure works. They are recognizable in form and shape, often featuring squat, solid, cuddly female forms who are usually dancing, celebrating or in the throes of motherhood. Llew was clearly a sensualist who enjoyed the human form, playing with ideas about sexuality, the nature of nurturing, spirituality and joy. Llew was a woodcarver at heart, but is most recognised by his monumental bronze works, which are scattered around Christchurch and the South Island. A self-taught artist, he worked outside the hierarchies of the art world, stating that:
“the closest I got to university was building it.”
Llew was a builder in his younger years, but was a self employed artist for 40 out of his 50 active years as an artist.
My introduction to Llew Summers was through his kindness. Every year, Llew would reach out to the Canterbury University School of Fine Arts, and ask the Sculpture department to see if a student needed a free home for a year. The home was a three storey, hand built wee home (dubbed ‘The Noodle Box’ or ‘Gate House’) In the front of his property in McCormacks Bay. I had three friends who lived there.
John Newton was the only writer to ever have residence at the Noodle Box, but unfortunately his residency saw Llew through his last few months. Llew was suffering from a rare autoimmune disease called Scleroderma. Unable to help his friend, Newton set about creating what he calls:
“an interweaving of his life, art and development, this book isn’t a biography, nor is it a piece of art criticism.”
To Newton (and it seems, Llew’s family, who are all at the talk and lend bits of information), this was an endeavour into a healing process for Llew and his family, to process a 50 year long career, a friend and a father.
Sally and John are both adept talkers. John (who is also a poet) uses intelligent metaphors, comparisons and little nuggets of memories to illustrate his points. The subject often turns to how open Llew was about his struggles, a ‘show it all, tell it all’ type of human. We touch on a darker time in Llew’s life, a breaking of a domestic abuse cycle, a death of a loved one and the shadow of a very intelligent, but dark and brooding father.
Newton affectionately decides that Llew was a bit of a ‘Sam Hunt type’ maverick, a productive artist who used traditional art forms well. Llew was able to bypass the highbrow ‘snootiness’ of the art world, and created an audience of his own.
Llew was not only able to challenge his past, but was able to challenge the art world. Defying the idea that good art is complex, by celebrating the body, the form, the joy and celebration of living, Llew, it seems, was not only healing himself, but also encouraging others to join him.
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