Sam Duckor-Jones, who sculpts his whimsical world in words and clay, has a busy year in prospect.
Duckor-Jones has a love-hate relationship with these 2m, pointy-nosed clay characters. He says he’s “charmed by them one minute and frustrated the next. It’s really important to keep work out of the house. You grow impatient with them.’’
For more than a decade, the artist has been making playful male figures from clay and he’s not quite sure why.
“The current theory,” he says, raising an eyebrow and looking out a cafe window at surfers in Lyall Bay, Wellington, “is that it’s probably an investigation of my own sexuality and masculinity. It’s taken a long while to figure that out, but it’s not really conscious.’’
The figures he moulds are loud and bold – big, playful men, often colourful, some camp. Duckor-Jones is the opposite. When we meet, he wears a plain, dark top and a beanie covers his shaven head. He drops his eyes, talking quietly as though he’s not quite sure of himself.
In previous interviews, he’s talked about how he is much braver with written words and clay. He sculpts the whimsical men as a form of expression, in the same way he sculpts words into poems to “make noise”.
He also said: “I’m a loner by default, bit blue, bit obsessive, and ’cos I’m not rich enough for a therapist, I will continue to work things out on the page and in print.’’
Son of the award-winning author Lloyd Jones, Duckor-Jones published his first book of poetry, People from the Pit Stand Up, last July. Some of his poems are about sculpting, focusing on his men. Blood Work explores the way men are shaped from clay: “Sometimes you look in the mirror & ask how many clay men does one man need? Probably not many & maybe I’d like a man who can sing …’’.
Duckor-Jones’ eight “sharp-nosed husbands’’ (as he calls his men in Blood Work) will be positioned in the lobby of a new Wellington Airport hotel which is opening soon.
Black, but speckled with bright colours, as though standing beneath stained-glass windows, each one is unique in the way the sculptor has played with its facial expressions and the arrangement of its hands. “When you’re making ceramics at this scale, you’re left with only a few places where you can play with movement.’’
He turns quiet. “I hope people touch them. I hope people put their arms around them. I think they’re quite affectionate,’’ he says softly.
Their departure will give the artist the space he needs to prepare for a busy 2019: a two-month residency at Rayner Brothers Gallery in Whanganui from next month, where he will “relearn’’ to make small sculptures in a smaller kiln; he hopes to write another book of poems; his solo show of a series of 40 pink vases at Auckland’s TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre (the Pah Homestead) will be unveiled next month to coincide with the Auckland Pride Festival.
He also hopes to return to the capital, which is where his heart lies. He describes himself as an artist in exile – forced out of his hometown to Featherston because he couldn’t afford the rent for a city house and garage that would allow him to create big sculptures.
The entire three-bedroom villa he rents has become his studio: one bedroom is for painting, one for clay; in the lounge, he photographs things, and the kitchen is full of papers and office stuff; the kiln – and the men – are in the garage.
A five-year plan to live in Featherston has rolled into six. “Wairarapa in the winter gets grim. I love Wellington, and I miss it. I couldn’t have the kind of working life that I really wanted in Wellington.’’
His book of poetry touched on this, conveying his sense of isolation. It also conveys the area’s quirks: its birds, the rugged Ngawi coast near Cape Palliser, lawnmowers. “Husbands lean on mowers and consider their good fortune. People do live here and have full and active lives,’’ he writes.
He says: “It’s not very well disguised. It’s about how one particular person manages that isolation. I guess it’s about searching for some kind of community connection and attempting to find it in art.
“If you squint your eyes, it’s romantic to be making art in a house in the country, but it’s not emotionally sustainable to be doing that by yourself.’’
Duckor-Jones’ sense of isolation started when he was a shy, young gay man in his senior years at Hutt Valley High School. He was in his late teens when he came out, and in his early twenties when he told the members of his family, which he describes as “really close”.
His brother, Avi, 34, published his first book, Swim, this year. His younger sister, Sophia, is a journalist. Otherwise he won’t talk about his personal life. He says he doesn’t want to be known as “Lloyd Jones’ son’’ and won’t talk about his father or any influence.
He will, however, talk about his childhood and teenage years. Books were a big part of his world. Family members read to each other, their own writings and others’. “Creativity was valued.’’
He was 11 when he wrote his first collection of poems, about animals. “You know there’s that thing about shy kids? I had friends but I relied heavily on the imaginary world.’’
At primary school, he showed signs of being a future potter. His school desk was filled with junk and sticks from the playground. He took bark chips and made them into pots. He made small clay men.
When he left Hutt Valley High, he says, he drifted. “I probably should have done something, learnt how to be an electrician or a carpenter. Instead, I was kind of hopeless. I got fired by cafes.
“But all that time I was still making stuff. I didn’t quite know how to be a grown-up. The rooms in my flats were filled with these little sculptures.’’
In 2006, still drifting and unsure what to do with his life, Duckor-Jones took a handful of small sculptures into Bowen Gallery, in Wellington. The gallery directors, Jenny Neligan and Penney Moir, liked his modelling-clay creations and commissioned him to produce his first show, Old Men Playing, which sold well. They were smaller, more cartoon-like figures than those he makes today. “I owe a lot to them,’’ he smiles.
Says Neligan: “For a young artist, Sam is so brave working with materials he hasn’t used before – he nailed clay. Sam confronts issues that crop up, finds solutions and develops his own way to make work. There’s no manual. A wisdom beyond his years permeates his work.’’
Like others who know his work, the gallery directors talk about Duckor-Jones’ talents across media – writing, drawing and sculpture. Essayist and editor Ashleigh Young, who edited his book, says he is one of her favourite poets. She sees a connection between his poems and his clay men.
“Most poets are all about the looking at things, but Sam’s poems are especially about the looking at things. The person in these poems is always looking and always making something of what he sees. All of this looking engenders a lushness and an incredible specificity in his work.
“Sam’s sculptures are in his poems, too, but he creates something completely new again out of that work. It’s never, ‘Look at me, I am not only a poet but I also make these 10-foot-tall men of clay!’ It’s more, ‘Come and have a look at this twisted imaginative space that has opened up in this room.’’’
Duckor-Jones scrolls through his phone to show photographs of his bold, pink fluorescent vases which will be showing at his Auckland exhibition. Why a series of empty vases? “Pink I just love, especially fluorescent pink. That came out of spending more time with poetry and getting more comfortable with abstraction: not having to put a face on everything.
“I want to get away from the figurative form. I can still linger around ideas of sexuality and queerness without just having to make a naked man, which seems a bit basic.’’
He pulls out a battered leather notebook containing his drawings and poems. While his sculptures make him money to live – at times he gets sick of clay, then returns to it weeks later – he scribbles poems all the time.
His poetry and sculpture speak to each other. He says: “I’m engaging in both forms for exactly the same reasons.’’ However, he feels he can be freer in his poems, allowing the gestural quirks he must “fix’’ in his sculptures.
“It’s about making a bit of noise in my very quiet life. If I can fill up the day with words and objects, it means there has been chatter and action. It makes the shy life bearable.
“That’s one of the reasons why I want to step away from this man [his recurring design] because I think I lean on him a little bit. I need to lean on real people.’’
The exhibition “First I Lay With Adam” is at the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre, Auckland, February 12-March 31.
This article was first published in the January 19, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.