Comments at the launch of the book Tanya Ashken, Jeweller, Silversmith, Sculptor
Unity Books, Wellington, 16 June 2016

It is a privilege to speak tonight. We are more than launching a book, magnificent publication that it is, we can and must celebrate the life work and art achievements of a wonderful Wellingtonian and New Zealander.

Tanya Ashken has enriched our lives, our homes and our landscape with her artwork in a manner that will surely endure and grow, and we thank her for that. Her output and recognition is reflected in intimate and beautiful works in numerous private collections, in widespread holdings in institutions including universities, embassies and Te Papa, and in major works of public art.

Cameron’s stunning book carefully documents Tanya’s achievements across her three fields of jewellery, silversmithing and sculpture. When searching for a common underpinning I was intrigued to read in Damien Skinner’s essay, references to “primeval” and “primitive” and “elemental.” Those descriptors hadn’t obviously come to mind in viewing her art. But Lesleigh Salanger’s essay affirms this, describing how Tanya made a visit to the Olduvai site of earliest human habitation in the Rift Valley of Africa.

Well, if I may say, Tanya’s works are the most sophisticated and elegant representations of primitivism that I have ever seen. I think the word or concept of “organic” may be the bridge between that starting point and the gorgeous end products. Of course the works have other influences the authors discuss much better than I can, ranging from the seabirds of Island Bay to the Modernist period of recent art.

These writers have captured other elements of Tanya’s practice – her heightened sense of the visual and tactile, her feel for art, her sense of total commitment to her art, her technical skill and craftsmanship, all apparent in her works of all kinds.

Tanya’s most prominent public art is of course Albatross by the lagoon on the waterfront. It has great artistic merit so carefully captured in the photographs and words of the book, a wonderful play of flowing shapes and flowing water. It has acquired virtually iconic status, and features endlessly in brochures and books about Wellington.

The sculpture and its maker also have a special place in Wellington’s public sculpture generally, because it was the team of Henry Lang, Ian Prior and others that Tanya brought together to fundraise for Albatross that led to the formation of the Wellington Sculpture Trust and all that followed from that, with its nearly 30 major commissions around the city in the 30 years since Albatross was installed in 1986. That work made influential Wellingtonians realise what good public art could do for the city, and that we needed more.

Another of her major sculptures, Lament of the Albatross, is not strictly public art because it is on the private property of those wonderful arts patrons who commissioned it, Ian Fraser and Suzanne Snively. But we can treat that as a technicality: it is on such a visible site on the corner of Talavera Terrace that we can all revel in it. It continues the organic theme relating perhaps to the seabirds of Island Bay as embedded in Albatross.

And another point about Albatross: it inspired a wonderful poem by Hone Tuwhare, almost as widely cited as the artwork itself, reflecting a memorable cross-disciplinary collaboration. I can recall only one other instance of this, Jenny Bornholdt’s poem celebrating the wind sculpture Pacific Grass at the far end of Cobham Drive.

Hone wrote of the piece as “...whitening, licked clean by sun and air and water.” These days it is actually kept whitening more prosaically by the Wellington City Council’s maintenance programme. But while we can thank them for that, far more I want to end by again thanking Tanya for her marvellous contribution, and Cameron and his writers and photographers for this marvellous book.

Neil Plimmer