Flax sculptor Chris George and his partner Kaye Blaker live a simple life in a converted shed tucked up in the hills of the Bay of Plenty, growing their own food and making unique flax creatures for galleries and markets, and on Felt as The Caretaker.
What do you make?
New Zealand native creatures made from harakeke (New Zealand flax).
How did you get into your craft?
We were travelling around the South Island in our bus and had become stranded by a slip on the West Coast. We wanted to make a gift for some locals who helped us out. My partner Kaye showed me how to make harakeke flowers and we made a big bunch for them – the minute I started working with flax I knew it was the next medium I wanted to explore.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I have always been interested in design and the structure of things. Skeletons and internal framing of buildings fascinate me. So I designed these as a natural progression.
I love taking raw materials through different stages into a final product that I am happy with. I have milled timber to make furniture and have made many things from stone. I like to use materials that would otherwise be wasted and also like the creative process of using raw materials in my own style. I was never going to be a harakeke weaver, but using flax to create a three dimensional sculpture is very much my style. After 17 years I have still not seen anyone else use this process.
I am self taught and it took me two years to perfect them to the point where I am happy to offer them to the public. The family’s houses are loaded up with early prototypes! Some look like road kill but it is useful to see the progress over the years, to the product we produce now.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
My tool kit fits into a shoe box. My favourite tool is my brain which is constantly lurching from one idea to the next, keeping me amused and inspired. My tools are my hands, a pair of pliers and a sharp steel point that I use to strip the flax, one leaf at a time. All parts of the plant are used – the backbone, flower stalks, as well as the leaf. Sometimes I make jigs to ensure consistent sizing but I can never guarantee that. They have a mind of their own.
The public like finding a piece that resonates with them, in amongst a display that at first glance all look the same. Collecting suitable flax is probably my favourite process. Swamps are one of my favourite places – they buzz with life and consequently, ideas for me. I follow correct protocol when harvesting, and show respect to the precious taonga it is.
Tell us about some of the the techniques involved in producing one of your sculptures
I make a wire frame similar to a skeleton for each creature, so they are structurally sound. I strip the flax in different gauges, keeping in mind the base layers and finer top layers. Then the frame is wrapped using different fishing knots to join the flax. I always have to be mindful of proportions as it only takes another layer to take it out of scale – legs too fat, head too big etc. I try to stay as anatomically correct as possible. The owl however, has some added features – a bit of fun.
What inspires you?
The challenge of producing an image that actually looks like the creature I’m planning. The weta skeleton is complicated and birds’ legs bend backwards – some of these take some serious brain power to work it out and I have to spend lots of time examining and observing the peculiarities of each creature in its natural form. I love that.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Yes! It falls in line with our personal philosophy of keeping a small footprint, creating minimal pollution and making do with whatever is lying around. Using natural resources as much as possible and continually finding clever ways to use them creatively. Sustaining an existence for the two of us from nothing is very satisfying. Although not lucrative, it enables us to walk our talk of living simply and with respect for the environment. We also really like the fact we can spend time on the road regularly, travelling in our wee house truck and meeting some of our customers.
Sustaining an existence for the two of us from nothing is very satisfying. Although not lucrative, it enables us to walk our talk of living simply and with respect for the environment.
Describe your creative process:
I have to stay relaxed so that I still enjoy the process of making six days a week. So maintaining the creativity is important. I have enough stages to the process so I can move from one to another and back again as I feel the love although I sometimes need discipline to complete an order. Sometimes just the thought “I wonder what a snail would look like made from flax?” is enough to set me going. I make them for myself, and if anyone else shows an interest, I make more. It takes quite a lot of physical energy to make them – the flax is wrapped tightly. Interestingly I expected to have RSI years ago but have had no sign of it. We think it is the oil from the flax protecting my hands.
Describe your workspace:
It could be a chair beside a river. It could be the floor – cross-legged on a meditation cushion. I use about a square metre so when we travel in the truck, I work on the bed. Currently I have the luxury of a metre square platform at the end of our bed, with a view of our lovely garden. I also spill over onto the kitchen table, and into the garden to dry in the sun or on a rack over the fire. We live in 72sqm so there are very few spaces not used in some way.
Five words that describe your mind:
Observant, easily amazed and inspired, practical, tenacious.
Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“You’re a freakin’ genius!” That had me laughing for a while.
What are you currently listening to?
Anything and everything. I have an eclectic taste. Saturday night requests on RNZ is a favourite for us both.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
Chris: Surface Tension by James Blish. I’ve loved Sci Fi since about age ten. I was always amazed by what people came up with.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Any person who has triumphed over adversity. We all do amazing things even if no one knows.
A favourite quote: “Not all who wander are lost.”
Tell us about your pets:
We have well-loved hens, mainly Orpingtons, that provide eggs and entertainment and a recently rescued ten year old tabby called Archie who was given away because of his difficult behaviour. We absolutely love his character and quirkiness and wouldn’t be without him now. He has caught seven rabbits this week so he earns his keep too.
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
My superpower would be to enable people to see a bigger picture than their own perspective. Hopefully that would generate more tolerance and compassion in the world.
What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Make sure you have a passion for the thing you are making. Don’t be concerned about what other people think of your work – you will freeze your creative process. Make it for yourself. Don’t be afraid to try something different. Enjoy yourself.
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
A vessel made out of bull kelp, dried and shaped and sewn. The maker approached us at a fair in the deep south and we loved each others creations so we swapped some items. We were attracted by the simplicity and beauty of her work – we shared a creative philosophy.
What’s in store for the rest of 2017?
Around December we join the Extravaganza Fair and trade for about ten weeks from our house truck starting at Waihi Beach on New Years Eve. Until then we are busy making stock in preparation for that, and for the galleries that we supply around the country. There is only one of me so I work six days a week at my craft with several short breaks each day in the vege garden. I’m the designer and maker, Kaye is everything else. She does all the trimming, orders, posting and selling. The bits that bore me silly.
Chris and Kaye have kindly offered an awesome prize for one lucky Felt reader of one of their super-cute harakeke owl characters, valued at $40.00 (see above). These whimsical interpretations of one of their favourite birds are individually crafted so no two are exactly the same. The beaks are recycled rimu and each has a sturdy frame wrapped in flax. A bit of fun and very popular!
To be in to win, simply leave a comment telling us what you loved about Chris and Kaye’s story and their lovely hahakeke creations. The draw closes at 5pm on Friday 17 November and is open to New Zealand residents only.