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Sculptor Josh Olley on shaping Central Otago's rock of ages

Sculptor Josh Olley.

Sue Harper ponders the powerful forces of nature and a journey through time after a chance find on a Central Otago station.

The glaciated landscape of Central Otago stretches out on both sides of State Highway 8A. Tors, the arthritic knuckles left from thousands of years of erosion, poke from the crests of hills. I’m meeting an artist, a farmer and a retired geologist, and together we’re going to look at a rock that’s been sitting in the farmer’s field for about 400,000 years.

Two weeks earlier, I’d met sculptor Josh Olley at his Luggate home, near Wanaka. In his front yard, a huge sculpture of a worker’s hand holding a delicate bronze flower was waiting to be shipped to an exhibition in Auckland. He’d called it “The Gentleman”.

The wind whistled across the Luggate flats, whipping the words from our mouths, but I couldn’t take my eyes off his work. It was almost my height: 163cm. Veins of pink, magenta and white streaked the surface; striations folded back on themselves in sinuous lines. I ran my hands over its smooth curves. Where the sun had touched the sculpture, the surface was warm; in the shadows, cool. 

Olley hadn’t carved piemontite schist before, and large intact pieces are hard to come by. During an early glacial advance, chunks of rock were knocked off an outcropping in the mountains and trapped in a moving glacier. When the glacier receded, the boulders were left far from where they started, in a place they didn’t belong. They’re called “glacial erratics” – fitting, since the Latin root, errare, means “to wander”.

After a farmer on the Alpha Burn Station outside Wanaka helped Olley retrieve his first boulder, it sat for three years in his yard before he found a form that fitted its shape. “There’s an element of magic,” he says about sculpting these giants. “The best way to put it is the stone and I collaborate.”

His work attracted the attention of local geologist Ian Turnbull who, through the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS), had contributed to the revised geological mapping of the Wakatipu area. A mutual friend thought Turnbull would be interested in the variety of rocks Olley was using. Turnbull had never seen a sculpture created from such “a great big goolie”. 

Inside, out of the wind, Olley sat forward on his chair and told me about a second boulder he’d found. After finishing “The Gentleman”, he got permission from local farmer Alastair Rutherford to hunt deer on his station near Tarras. The only meat Olley’s family eats is what he hunts, and they were running low on venison.

From the top of a hill, he spotted a small herd grazing below and took a shot. The deer ran, then disappeared into a gully. When Olley hiked down to look for it, he spotted the grained contour of a large boulder. The deer lay just beyond it. “It was like the rock found me.”

When he told the farmer where he’d discovered the boulder, Rutherford knew exactly which rock he was referring to. They agreed Olley could have the boulder in exchange for a small sculpture from another rock Rutherford had in mind.

Olley talks about the way people “know” rocks. Sculptors know how a rock feels, how to work with its shape, how to bring it to life. Farmers know how rocks interfere with cultivation, change a watercourse, affect irrigation, crops and livestock. Geologists understand a rock’s history, its composition, how it has formed and transformed over time.

I wanted to meet this new find, but I was eager to see it through the eyes of those who know rocks in different ways: the farmer, the geologist and the sculptor.

Left: An offcut of piemontite. Right: Olley’s sculpture “The Gentleman”, in the front yard of his home in Luggate.  “Before I start, I’ve already spent time with the stone,” he says. “The stone will work with me and I will work with it.”

On the drive to the station with Olley and Turnbull, I get a brief geology lesson about how glaciation and erosion have formed the craggy outcroppings I see in the distance.

We wait a few minutes in the farm lane before Rutherford arrives. It’s not easy for farmers to simply take a morning off, and I hope he is as enthusiastic about this meeting of minds as I am.

During the introductions, I discover Rutherford grew up loving rocks. In the late 50s, his uncle, Guyon Warren, was a geologist on Edmund Hillary’s team in the Antarctic. “Guyon Warren introduced me to the art of making geological maps,” Turnbull says, with an almost reverential tone.

After a drive across the treeless landscape of the station, we stop in a field of stubbled grass where Rutherford first discovered the boulder 25 or 30 years ago. “You didn’t see it, but you’d hear it on the harrow,” he says. “That was the annoying thing.”

He’d pulled out many rocks in his time, but nothing compared to this one. It was like an iceberg. As he started to dig, the rock kept getting bigger until, finally, he had to get a front-end loader to pick up the boulder and roll it into the gully down to our left – where it has lain ever since.

Olley walks down to the rock. He caresses it, traces the bands of purple with his fingers. Turnbull folds his arms across his chest, spreads his feet apart. “That’s a spectacular boulder you’ve got there.” 

When I ask Turnbull why the rock ended up here, he pulls a book from under his arm. In it is a geological map of the Wakatipu area. He points to little yellow areas representing the limit of the Northburn Glacial Advance and moves his hand across the map, showing us the route of the ice from the Hawea, Wanaka and Matukituki glaciers that flowed through a narrow gap at Queensbury, and inched down to Rutherford’s station.

Geologist Ian Turnbull (right) explains the powerful forces of nature that have shaped the rock’s journey.

It’s difficult to envisage time stretching back to an ice age. As Turnbull says, “You can remember your great-grandfather, but something that happened hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago is just so old you can’t comprehend it.” But he’s going to help us try. He shows us a photo of a band of pink piemontite beside the Bonar Glacier, so we can visualise what the rock looked like before it was brought down by an avalanche or knocked off by the ice. 

Although he can’t know this rock’s history for certain, he posits one scenario, enabling us to imagine its journey. His voice is low and measured, and I find myself holding my breath.

After rolling down onto the glacier from its source, possibly in the Matukituki Valley, the boulder may have travelled for a thousand years in the ice, grinding against other rocks as it went. When the ice receded, it sat there for at least 10,000 years, until another ice advance carried it further down the valley – perhaps dropping it to the bottom of the Clutha River, where it was smoothed by water and pummelled by passing rocks for a further 10,000 years.

But its journey still wasn’t over. Caught up and moved by a third ice advance, it ended up buried in a moraine on what is now Rutherford’s station. Another 400,000 years or so passed before erosion brought the rock close enough to the surface for the farmer’s cultivator to hit it.

It’s time to meet this traveller. We join Olley, gathering around the boulder as if it’s a sacred object and we are its pilgrims. The exterior is rough, and while the pink and white folds of manganese and quartz are obvious, the surface is scabbed with lichens and moss. Unlike quarried stone, this rock is almost spherical. “It takes a long time to knock all the corners off something this hard,” says Turnbull. “You’ve got to roll it down a few riverbeds and bash it against a lot of rocks.”

We’re on our knees examining the boulder, trying to predict what the hidden parts will look like. Rutherford points out what he believes are marks left by his harrow. I pull my fingertips along the contorted grain, mentally comparing it to the silky finish of Olley’s sculpted hand.

I ask Turnbull how he feels about Olley taking it out of nature and into his studio. Left where it is, he explains, the rock would eventually become sand. “I see it as epic recycling.”

This spectacular stone might have remained in the gully ignored, untouched, for another few thousand years. In its presence, we feel the brevity of our time on this planet. Yet seeing the rock and hearing its ancient history has enriched the lives of four people in a moment of synchronicity, as we imagine the next stage of its journey where human hands will complete the sculpture shaped by nature. 

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.