It is with immense sadness that Te Papa marks the passing of John Edgar ONZM.
Stone carver, sculptor and environmentalist, John Edgar has been a central figure in stone carving since the early 1980s. Here, Curator Decorative Art and Design Justine Olsen reflects on Edgar’s rich practice and influence on Aotearoa New Zealand’s stone carving and sculpting.
From a background as a research scientist in chemistry, John moved into stone carving, setting up his workshop in Auckland in 1978. His practice followed the earlier generation of pākehā stone carvers including Peter Hughson and Theo Schoon and inspired today’s generation including Joe Sheehan.
John’s scientific background perhaps informed his desire to create precise, abstract stone sculptures, both large and small. In the 1984 exhibition catalogue, Kahurangi: treasures from New Zealand, he wrote about his sense of responsibility towards objects of stone: ‘I hope they all last… and the pieces will be as significant to the future as they are to the present.’
From the early 1980s, his work was quickly identified for its formal and minimalist qualities. Truth to materials prevailed, he was not interested in embellishment, wanting stone to be seen for its intrinsic materiality.
John was part of the new generation of makers whose craft identified with Aotearoa New Zealand. His work helped proclaim a new craft movement – it was included in national and international exhibitions during the 1980s and 90s. These included Kahurangi: treasures from New Zealand developed for New Zealand’s presentation to the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 and Treasures from the land: crafts from New Zealand in 1985, developed for a tour in the USA through the Smithsonian Institution.
Three years later, he worked as curator and contributor to the seminal exhibition, Bone Stone Shell: new jewellery New Zealand in 1988. The touring exhibition, which was developed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade with the Crafts Council of New Zealand, helped to reshape a new identity in jewellery, away from western views towards New Zealand and the South Pacific.
As he wrote in the foreword, ‘These materials and the objects made from them are our homage to the past, our amulets in the present and our treasures for the future.’
John’s work for Bone Stone Shell was purchased by Te Papa in 1993, along with work by the 11 other jewellers and makers. In 2007, he generously donated his exhibition archives to Te Papa.
As curator, he had compiled a number of papers including the artists’ submissions and Craft Council correspondence. These records have ensured a legacy for the future while helping us understand the shaping of such a seminal exhibition, a significant period in New Zealand’s jewellery history.
In 2013, Te Papa’s survey exhibition Bone Stone Shell: 25 years on celebrated the exhibition and its legacy. For the opening weekend, John came down from Auckland to lead the Sunday discussions.
At the time, Te Papa developed a series of artist interviews which included John in his workshop discussing his commitment to his work and his role as a ‘stone engineer’. You can view his interview in the short film below.
In recent years, John moved into larger projects and installations, some of which included public seating in Queen Street, Auckland, and sculpture in the Auckland Domain.
In 2009, he developed the exhibition Ballast: bringing the stones home for the Scottish National Museum. The same year he was awarded ONZM for art, in particular sculpture.
Alongside this work, John’s dedication to his local environment was equally committed. I was so interested to hear recently that over the last 30 years, he chaired the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society, ensuring the preservation of the region’s natural environment. Conservationist, stone carver, and maker of amulets.
Our thoughts go out to John’s family, including his parents and Ann Robinson. I want to finish with John’s words from the 1988 catalogue for Bone Stone Shell: New Jewellery New Zealand:
I am an engineer.
To the best of my knowledge
I am commissioned
To make parts of the Great Machine
In whose flux
We all align