Hamish Horsley's stone sculptures are as grounded as he is. From his childhood in Whanganui to his travels in Europe and Southeast Asia, Claire O’Loughlin explores his holistic approach to life.
Nature, spirituality, and the interconnectedness of all things are themes that run through Hamish Horsley’s work. His large stone sculptures are firmly connected to the earth and the elements, reflecting his own deep groundedness in nature. A prolific artist, his work can be found all over the UK and Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
Speaking from his home in Whanganui, Hamish is vivacious, but with a gentle manner. He has lived a life of adventure, and I get the sense immediately that I’m talking to a seeker, a constant traveller.
“I've never not been an artist. And I feel that's the key to my life. I've always worked, no matter what. Photography and garden-making are part of the work. Or travelling and touring, and then coming back to the studio.”
Born in Whanganui in 1950, he spent his childhood playing with his siblings in rivers and foothills by the volcanic plains. He is the fifth of six children, including two sets of older brother twins. His father was a lawyer, and would have liked his son to follow in his footsteps, but Horsley took after his mother, preferring gardening and painting. His love of art began early, “because that’s what I was good at.”
When Horsley was a teenager the family moved to Pūtiki, a settlement just across the river from Whanganui, where he got to know the local iwi. But for all its deep connection to the whenua, Whanganui was small and stifling. And while home was a loving place, it was also a conservative Christian one.
“Growing up gay at that time, in the late ’60s, was profoundly difficult. My family was empathetic… but not to that. You had to make your own way, and I did.”
He moved to Christchurch to study art at Ilam School of Fine Arts. But he was restless, and left for Australia after his foundation year, where he met a Hindu monk who was also an eminent painter.
“He was the first to bring together this notion that you can be an artist, and be yourself, and have a spiritual view of life. It integrated a whole new holistic approach for me.”
LEFT: Hamish Horsley, Totem IV, Portland limestone/Macrocarpa 80 x 35 x 35cm, 2017. RIGHT: Hamish Horsley, Kami, Hornton limestone, 65 x 30 x 15 cm, 2017
After a year in the outback, Horsley came home “to rethink.” His interest in art, community, and Eastern religion culminated in Serenity, a festival he coordinated in Pūtiki in 1972. It was at the height of hippiedom in New Zealand, and 2,000 people attended over four days. Iconic bus-touring band BLERTA performed, as well as poets Sam Hunt and Hone Tūwhare, and many others. Thanks to his close childhood connection with Pūtiki Marae, the festival was held there, and mana whenua embraced it. It was a fusion of cultures that was unusual for the time. Such fusions have continued to fascinate Horsley throughout his career.
After Serenity, he continued his Eastern journeys, geographically and spiritually, making his way through Southeast Asia. He hitchhiked across Laos in the middle of the Laotian Civil War, arriving eventually at a monastery in Rishikesh, India.
“All the hippies were going on about India, and I thought, I'll go to the real heart of it, and do it properly. I’ll really study the Vedas and meditation.”
He was true to his word, and spent two and a half years studying Zen Buddhism and yoga.
“I was at the point of saying, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life’. But I had another journey waiting, another path to follow.”
He was drawn on by Europe’s historic buildings and Celtic stone monuments. London became his home for the next 38 years.
At City and Guilds of London Art School he completed his undergraduate studies in Fine Art, specialising in sculpture. There was a traditional stone yard attached to the school, and he took to stone immediately. Next came his MA at the Royal College of Art, where the professor of sculpture was renowned artist Phillip King. He was a huge influence on Horsley, and encouraged him to embrace working in the landscape, making landforms.
While still studying, he got his first significant commission, a large sculpture for a park in South London. He didn’t know fully what to expect, but in true Kiwi fashion, figured he’d learn on the job. Sun Stone was an abstract sundial, composed of seven large pieces circling each other, carved with patterns of sun rays and wind. These were the early days of public art in London, and the sculpture was vandalised while he was working on it. But he learnt a lot, and the commissions kept coming.
Listening to his story, at first I wonder if his heavy stone sculptures are a deliberate contrast to a life of restlessness. But then I realise that while they are grounding, they also embody the fluidity of nature, and of his life. He forms them in the flowing shapes of water and the elements, and the stone is elemental itself.
He works in mostly English limestone. It can be hard, he says, obviously. But if you’re in the right state of mind, it’s not. “You have to kind of push yourself into the stone, in a strange way.”
He enjoys the construction side, and uses tools ranging from hammer and chisel to percussion hammers and grinders: essentially the same tools stone sculptors have used for centuries.
“There is a real tradition of European sculptors who work in stone, obviously — you see it all around you. It’s been there for always: the menhirs and cultural monuments.”
He found himself becoming part of the wider tradition of British sculpture. While at the Royal College, he visited Henry Moore at his studio, which he describes as wonderful if “a bit of a factory”. Another big influence was Dame Elisabeth Frink, a “mega, wonderful sculptor” and leading exponent of figurative work. But while he was inspired by Frink, his own work veered away from figuration early on.
“The earth element seemed more significant than human shape to me. And work that was in harmony with the environment, things that had a relevance to the place.”
Public art commissions fostered the relationship between sculpture and environment, as he could propose whatever he liked for a particular site.
“It would always start with a site visit. I would wander around, look at it from all angles, and try to develop an idea. I would make pathways into the work, both visual and physical.”
One of his favourite projects is The Way, located on a hill overlooking the Durham Cathedral. When you stand in the centre of it, two outer pillars frame the cathedral. It’s a symbolic gateway to the cathedral, a modern connection to an ancient past. Like the cathedral, The Way is designed to be there for centuries.
His most prestigious work, and the one he is best known for, is an especially powerful fusion of his Eastern philosophies with the environment. Samten Kyil, the official title given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the project, means “Garden of Contemplation”. More commonly, it is known as the Tibetan Peace Garden. Set in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park in Southwark, London, it symbolises peace and unity by bringing together contemporary Western design with traditional Tibetan imagery.
In 1987 Horsley spent several months travelling in Tibet. The Chinese government banned entry to foreigners, and turned him away at the border. But with characteristic persistence, he tried one bus ride after another, eventually making it through. The breathtaking landscape gripped him, as did the people, living in spiritual harmony with their environment.
An accomplished photographer, he documented the trip extensively. Back in the UK, an exhibition of his drawings, photographs and small sculptures, titled Tibet — A Living Culture, provided insight into the isolated country and the plight of the Tibetan people. The Tibet Foundation invited him to produce a major sculptural work honouring Tibet for the millennium.
It was an enormous, multi-year project. He worked closely with a large team through the winter, finishing the work at 6am on 13 May 1999. At 11am the Dalai Lama arrived to open it. The garden is still there today. It is a London landmark and a site of significance.
Several more commissions and exhibitions followed, but Horsley felt the New Zealand landscape pulling him home. He returned in 2011, bringing a shipping container of stone with him. He is now focused on carving the final pieces, gardening, and gathering various works back around him, including a sculpture called Oracle that has been in Dunedin, and the appropriately-titled Transient Being, which has travelled across the world and now sits in the Library Gardens.
“For me, all roads lead back to New Zealand. And the road back to Whanganui was the biggest surprise. The town has changed — it's not the one I grew up with. But it is home.”
First published in Art Zone #94