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Fragments of opportunity

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

When his clay creations leave the studio Sam Duckor-Jones describes it as sending out small stories into the world. Catharina van Bohemen talks to the artist and finds his tales captivating.

Sam Duckor-Jones’s house is old, half hidden behind dark trees in a quiet street in Featherston. A path between longish grass leads to an open door, and as you peer into the dimness, you sense profusion – a row of scarves and beanies, the faded intricacy of a rug, books, pictures, drawings tacked to a wall, a cello on its side, a photograph above a piano. You feel that this is not really your business but you want to look everywhere – everything has to do with work, possibility, and solitude.

Sam Duckor-Jones, 'Men alone with themselves'

Sam comes. He leads you past a room where a tangle of attenuated figures perch on chairs and tables. Something about their sepulchral intensity chills you – you must wait before asking about them. You pass through the house to the back lawn where two of his graffiti-ed Bad Kids companionably investigate an apple tree.

'Damaged during their installation,' he says. He smiles and points at a heap of bodily clay fragments piled against a wall.

At a recent residency at Wellesley College in Eastbourne, he told the boys about a conversation at King Street Artworks in Masterton where he works as a tutor. A student there had said she wanted to see all the mistakes an artist made before the work was finally completed.

'I told the boys that fragments are an opportunity – the story needs to change.'

After you’ve settled yourselves at the kitchen table piled with pads, pencils, poetry books and a cluster of unfired mugs (a tumbling of interests, taste, intentions), you tell him you’re struck by the beauty of his titles:

Strong Men Point Their Toes/Always Bring a Poem to a Fistfight/Naked in a Flowerbed is When a Poem will be Read/Men Alone with Themselves/Everybody Just Kiss

Sam Duckor-Jones, 'Naked in a flower bed is when a poem will be read'

What comes first you ask. Work or words?

He pauses before answering, each word considered.

'I’ve thought about that a lot. Somewhere deep inside I’m probably not a sculptor, I’m probably a writer or musician. I had music lessons, but I’m not good at being a student – going to lessons and doing what the teacher says so that fell away when I was about 20. I’ve always loved writing so much. I think maybe the making is an excuse for the writing… [Before] I haven’t been brave enough to write something by itself and just put it out into the world, but I’ve got into a good habit of making sculptures and putting them out… and [now] I want to share more.

'I do [my work] because it’s an obsession. I spend a lot of time by myself. I’m interested in sexuality and vulnerability – that’s the main thing; I’ve always had a turbulent relationship with sexuality – where do you put yourself? These guys I make, the strong men who point their toes, do things I’m not always brave enough to do myself. They have the honest life. They are who they are whether they’re in the gallery or in people’s houses.'

He talks about being 'in tandem' with the absconding Bad Kids, not like the upside down Strong Men.

Regarding Bad Kids

when I ran fast across the field,

J____ said hey bro you’re fast

they’d laugh, they weren’t mean

they had a lot of friends,

but all the same, S____

put his fist through a window one day

we’d cross paths in the park - everyone escaping

we’d cross paths in detention - everyone caught

they were the bad kids;

I wasn’t very bad

but a boy can’t help his crushes

This was the start of knowing that these 'charismatic and wild' boys were getting girlfriends and he was beginning to know he wouldn’t. On a trip to Sydney when he was sixteen, he 'wore a cowboy hat on Bondi Beach and a beautiful man turned and looked back at me. Such loneliness hovers here at the edge of depravity, at the edge of joy.' Sam wrote these words for his previous show at Bowen Galleries in Wellington, First Trip to the Big City: studies of naked black men with delicate hands holding black lace fans, and pink faces and penises often illuminated by a torch.

'That show was about sex and adulthood. Strong men can be loving and graceful and exuberant.'

Say more about the upside-down men.

'I inherited headstands from Dad who still does them.

'When I was younger, I’d stay upside-down for a long time feeling important! Once I did a headstand on the Desert Road with Ngauruhoe between my legs. Being upside-down is unexpected. You see the world in a different way. Things should be toppled – looked at from different perspectives.'

The men in that room. They’re all on chairs.

'I’m having so much fun with those guys. They’re for my next show at Bowen in September; they’re not clay but old-fashioned papier mâché. I’m wanting to break away from clay. With papier mâché you get unexpected dents – things jutting out and in. The guys are not perfect but they’re rippling with movement. In my previous show the men were in isolation, but this next show is going to be a big tangled mess – that’s the honest situation. I haven’t decided whether to paint them but I’m liking their whiteness… (But I [also] like pink because it ties back into the idea of strong men being in touch with their feminine side). The dogs will definitely be painted though.'

The dogs. You hadn’t noticed the dogs.

We walk back to the room and see the men standing or kneeling on their chairs and stools peering down at a swirling throng of dogs.

'Everyone keeps telling me to get a dog but I don’t want to get a dog because I’m fighting this suburban life.'

In the summer I moved to the suburbs but I will not be suburban,

so let’s call it the countryside,

that’s what I do.

It was an accident, I swear to new friends at parties in the city.

Or at truthful intervals:

that I required space. And then shrug, like, so there we go.

If I let the grass grow long,

the house becomes a rough sketch, bearded and mysterious –

I would have the grass grow long all year round, I tell old friends at dinner in the city,

but for the problem of the dog’s shitting:

I have to keep the grass low

in order to see where the shit has fallen.

You both talk about music and 'the sound of things' and how that’s important for words too. 'We always had music and books in the house; there was always paper, and pencils.'

He’s playing the cello – is working on the Bach cello suites – because a childhood friend and musician died suddenly, and playing is a way of staying closer to him. 'I’m braver,' Sam says. 'I play out more.'

He talks about poetry and the perfection of the short story: the 'whole parcel so you really get to know a person or an event, and can hold it.'

Your eyes track the white men, the cello, the piano, the photograph above the piano. You remember the graveyard in the garden, the paper and pencils on the table, poetry. All are fragments of possibility, of the story that’s changing.

What’s your favourite poem you ask.

'That’s easy,' he says. He closes his eyes and the words come.

I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too, don’t I? I’m just like a pile of leaves.

from Meditations in an Emergency – Frank O’Hara.

First published ArtZone #65


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