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Work in progress . . . Waikari artist, author and conservationist, Sam Mahon with part of his unfinished new sculpture of Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment. PHOTO: Shelley Topp

By Shelley Topp

Waikari artist, author and environmentalist Sam Mahon’s latest sculpture of Environment Minister Nick Smith is a personal project.

It is a work in progress “commissioned by the hearts of the people who I intuitively read, like John Key”, he says.

When the sculpture is completed it will show a larger than life-size minister with his trousers down around his ankles squatting over a glass of water. The sculpture is a response to Mahon’s concern about the impact of corporate dairy farming and associated large-scale irrigation on New Zealand’s environment.

“Ever since I was at school I have been confronting authority with art,” he says.

“If I want to fight back against anything I can’t go and punch someone.

“That is not allowed. So what do you do?

“You use the tools you have. My tools are art and writing.”

At university his charismatic art teacher the late Bill Sutton once cautioned him about “making enemies” with his art, but also told him that his job as an artist was to “ask questions and challenge”.

His latest work is the second time he has taken aim at the Environment Minister. In 2009 he created a bust of Smith made with cow dung.

A few days after the work was made public Mahon met the minister who told him he wasn’t offended by the work. Mahon hopes his new work will make people laugh but also make them think about what has happened to New Zealand’s environment under Smith’s watch and his election-year “target”, announced in February, to have 90 per cent of New Zealand’s lakes and rivers swimmable by 2040.

“My father used to say: ‘if you want to tell people about the failing economy, don’t show them the GDP (gross domestic product) figures, give them an image. Tell them the economy is a polar bear on roller skates on a steep slope’. Then you get it. We are in trouble,” Mahon said.

“If you want to change the public’s mind, give them a drawing, give them a metaphor.”

The new sculpture is on schedule to be completed by August when Mahon will take it to Wellington and install it on the parliamentary lawn for a day with support from friends including Mike Joy, a senior lecturer in ecology and environmental science at Massey University.

“We will have a laugh and a cup of tea,” he said.

Then it will be back to Christchurch where the sculpture will be installed on private land with a public view, “preferably having him slowly rotating”.

Mahon’s idea to make the sculpture larger-than-life came from Te Papa’s stunning “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War” exhibition in Wellington where Weta Workshop has brought the soldier sculptures to life at 2.4 times human size.

The Nick Smith sculpture will be 2.2 times life size, “just a tad smaller” than the Te Papa soldiers.

“Anything larger would not fit on my trailer,” he said.

Work on the sculpture began with originals carved in plaster.

Then moulds are made of the pieces, such as hands and face, and recast in finely ground horse dung mixed with epoxy resin, painted in flesh tones and finished with a coating of beeswax. To date Mr Smith’s head and two hands have been finished in plaster. Mahon is now working on the body armature.

Mahon is also working on a new book. It is a satirical look at the Christchurch art scene which he hopes will be completed by the end of this year.