words: Joanne Taylor. images: Andrew Spencer and Ben Foster
With the dramatic vistas of the Kaikoura coast as the backdrop for your workshop - inspiration on a grand scale is sure to emerge. And emerge it does for sculptor Ben Foster whose work depicts the very form of the land and the water that surrounds him.
Ben's sculptures stand tall, shimmering in the sunlight and sensual to the touch. Strong lines and curves along with kinectic movement ensure these works make an impression. His large-scale aluminium pieces take inspiration from the collusion between the natural and man-made elements of the environment. Each piece is mounted on a bearing system which enables them to move gently with the breeze. Ben has been fascinated by industrial components and the natural world since childhood and this is reflected in his art. “I think it is important to be in a place that gives you inspiration, and you can see from my work that it is slowly starting to influence the pieces I am creating." He and partner, Ljana, went to Kaikoura on their return from travelling overseas, and loved it so much that within months had bought their own lifestyle block on the outskirts of town. "We have all the trappings of the lifestyle block now," said Ben. "We are working on the garden and our long-term goal is to create a sculpture garden here.”
Ben has always had talent as an artist. At high school he was an A-grade art student but didn't think it would become his career so opted for trade training, which at least satisfied his passion for wood working. With a background as a certified cabinet maker, Ben began a different career path when he moved to Christchurch from his home in Hawke’s Bay and met Ljana who encouraged him to make art his full-time career and who "gave me the push I needed to get into art school." A year at the Christchurch Polytechnic under the tutelage of Bing Dawe, one of New Zealand's most prominent sculptors, followed by two years at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, saw Ben graduate with his Bachelor of Visual Arts in 2006. Awards along the way have generated interest in his work from the wider art world, including winning the Toss Woollaston Art Award in 2005 and the Barbara Wood Memorial Foundation Trust Scholarship in 2006.
Ben's tradesman skills certainly play a role in the process of his cast metal works today. He usually starts with timber moulds, which are then used to create fibreglass moulds. From here a sand cast is created into which molten metal can be poured. It is an intensely physical process and one where both the inside and outside of the artwork becomes intimately known by its creator. Ben works from a workshop and has a studio next door for the drawing and concept stage. Both look towards the Inland Kaikoura mountain range. For large castings he uses a foundry in Christchurch. Often there are hundreds of kilograms of molten aluminium involved in one artwork so the extra manpower is required. Constructing each piece can take months and is an extremely technical process. The aluminium starts in the form of ingots and must be heated to 600C to get to the molten stage where it can be poured into a mould. "It is the best job to do in winter," Ben said, laughing. "I will quite often invite some mates around to help as it’s the warmest place in Kaikoura to be."
Ben's passion for his work is reflected in the highly polished finish of every piece - a result of hours and hours of grinding and sanding. "I love the high finish which can only be achieved with hours of labour," says Ben. "It really is a labour of love." "I love pushing the materials to the limits of their physical boundaries - to see what will happen and what I can create with it," says Ben. Introducing colour, through paint, to his works is a new area of exploration for the emerging artist. Ben has exhibited widely over the past three years as his practice gains momentum. His solo exhibition at the Sanderson Contemporary Art Gallery in Auckland this year was well received with many pieces finding new homes. "I have works scattered throughout New Zealand, Australia and the UK, it is really exciting to have clients that will enjoy them for years to come."
Internationally Ben has had several large aluminium pieces commissioned by Koru Contemporary Art in Hong Kong which is an exciting highlight for one so new to the art world. He is currently preparing for a major group exhibition, “Laisee” in Hong Kong in December as well as getting ready for the ‘Locale’ exhibition at Sanderson Contemporary Art this month. On top of this Ben is preparing pieces for ‘Art in a Garden’ and the ‘Sculpture on the Peninsula’ exhibition, both in Canterbury this spring. Ben enjoys ‘Art in a Garden’ and has been part of this event for the last four years. His natural flowing pieces work beautifully in the garden surrounds and this year will see him submit the stunning work, entitled ‘Windswept’, a red painted aluminium sculpture. It will be the first time for him to exhibit at ‘Sculpture on the Peninsula’ where he will be showing a Kaikoura inspired piece called “Kekeno.” It is quite a departure from his prevous work but indicates a new direction for the sculptor. “It’s a style I’ve wanted to work in for a long time, what I really like about Kekeno is that is a direct representation of my surroundings.”
Text by Joanne Taylor, Latitude Magazine, Issue 19 October/November 2011