John Summers responds to a book devoted to the sculptures of his uncle, Llew Summers
My father owned several of my Uncle Llew’s sculptures. On the verandah were two giant heads in concrete, busts of two men whose faces he thought were interesting. I put a hand on Norm Kirk’s brow for balance while I took off my gumboots, and nearby, Geraldo, a big band leader of the 30s, looked solemnly out across the lawn. Within his sight was a mother and her two children, also in concrete, beside the swimming pool (a curious fact: most of my family had swimming pools, which they dug and concreted themselves. I think they all shared the boxing). These were early works, simpler, less stylised than what he’d do later, yet still with qualities that could always be found in his art, the generous proportions that everyone notices first, but also his ability to make concrete move. Norm Kirk might wink, Geraldo could hum. Those two children had just run into their mother’s embrace.
His sculptures were at Dad’s, they were everywhere: outside Linwood High School, in the Botanic Gardens, on the university campus. My high school had one too. All were reminders of him, of what he did. They were also, for me, part of the aesthetic of my family. A consistent feature, like those swimming pools, at Dad’s house, at my aunts and uncles’, along with books and paintings from floor to ceiling, dark timber furniture and Morris print curtains. The original, the model, was my grandparents’ house down the road from Sunnyside Hospital, an Edwardian villa that Granddad filled with these same things, and painted the joinery chocolate, gold, white and green. I liked to run my hands over the furred surface of the flock wall paper he’d hung or, when he wasn’t looking, touch the thick paint on a metres-high Philip Trusttum painting of flowers in a brass vase. There were bookcases in almost every room – filled with the overflow from the bookshop they ran for decades – and paintings on every wall, works by McCahon, Tony Fomison, Toss Woollaston and Rita Angus.
It was its own rich world that home, and my grandparents had gone without to create it. They ate plainly, were not known to holiday. Granddad took out a loan so he could put in a parquet floor. For a time, they didn’t have a washing machine and yet Grandma owned a fur coat. Going to the toilet in that house meant passing all those paintings yes, but then stepping outside through the back door and walking to an ancient WC at the far end of the porch. It was a case of priority. Eventually someone would write a thesis about their art collection and title it with a line of granddad’s: “Art is an act of life.”
This was true of my uncle, and it seems inevitable that at least one artist would emerge from that world. Maybe this is why, I realise now with some shame, I took his achievement for granted over the years. It’s in reading John Newton’s book with all its beautiful images of Llew’s work that I truly begin to see the full extent of what he did, and just how his technique and craft improved year by year. Among his observations, Newton is exact in noticing what a fine woodcarver Llew was. The honey-tones and fine grain of Totara and Kauri hold life still in his carvings. It’s from this book too, that I learnt some of the tricks by which he made his name. His guerrilla exhibitions, for instance, bypassing official channels or commissions and instead trucking large works to public sites in dead of night so a surprised council could discover them in the morning. He worked hard on his sculpture, and then worked hard to get it in front of people, to live off his art with little recourse to the safety net of Creative New Zealand.
I wasn’t close to my uncle. I saw him only from time to time, beginning in childhood, when he was renovating an old butcher shop around the road in the same small town where Dad lived, and we visited him there. Occasionally he came to see us, and it was on one of these visits, that I recall him leaving, waving from his car as it crawled down the street in first gear. Suddenly a door flew open, and he popped out, stood on the roadside as the car continued its crawl. He waved and waved, clowning around before he turned and chased after the car, jumped back in and drove off, tooting like a fiend. There went Uncle Llew!
He was loud, talkative, unpredictable. I was amused. I was sometimes a little scared. I was a shy, quiet boy, unsure what to make of all this. It’s tempting now to think I saw something in that unpredictability that connected with the violence he’d been capable of in the years before he sought counselling. Decades later he spoke to me about this, and he had already spoken to a lot of people about it, the media included, and insisted it be a part of Newton’s book. But I suspect I am reading too much into that live-wire energy, his loud laugh, his unconcern for what others thought and the opinions about art, books and politics that were always voiced. “You won’t die wondering what he thinks,” someone told me after meeting him.
He was, in other words, a Summers – these qualities are well distributed among my relatives. So, of course, am I, but then, I’m not, too. My mother’s side, the Donagheys, are a more reserved people, who put more stock in not making a fuss. It was another quieter Llew I responded too more readily, the one who, when I was a teenager, asked me with interest about the book I was reading, seemed to genuinely want to know what I thought. He asked this question in every conversation we ever had. A necessary question, something like the way that people in China ask “have you eaten?” as greeting.
He was himself a prodigious reader. Books were everywhere in his home: art books, new New Zealand writing and literary fiction. We talked about these but I always had the feeling that our tastes ran in different directions. He was interested in big things: life, faith, love and beauty. I find myself drawn to small joys, to writing that makes quiet discoveries among the otherwise humdrum. I think he liked that I write myself, but I suspect my subjects might have puzzled him. His sculptures were of the human form, of dancing, moving, lifting bodies, or later, of hearts, of angels. Perhaps the most widely read thing I’ve ever written was about Arcoroc mugs. Again, I wonder if my dual inheritance was at play here. It was that Summers’ love of books that resulted in me picking up a pen but it was the life of my mother’s family, working class New Zealanders, that has dictated many of my subjects.
On occasion, though, these worlds could overlap. A common factor was that both were resolutely practical people. Few of either family spent much time in offices and tended instead to work with their hands. I always admired the combination among the Summers, of both being at home with practical matters whether it was building or growing things, and having what I would liken to a faith in the arts. My father was a school caretaker and a commercial flower grower. He could also recite from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner from memory, and had, like the rest of the family, a house full of books. Llew was both builder and sculptor. Newton notes that the closest he got to Canterbury University’s art school was when he helped build it. He built his own large house too, with its turrets and Marseille tiles, as well as the small building that he would offer to art students and writers rent free (its last occupant: one John Newton).
This way of life has always suggested to me the possibility of other paths into art, that it doesn’t always require a university education or money. Llew’s work famously needed neither. He aimed foremost for an emotional response, and his best work is free to see in public spaces: parks, even vacant lots. It’s rare to find one surrounded by the white walls of a gallery.
The last time I saw Llew, he and his partner Robyn, stopped by my home in what had once been a Japanese fire truck on which he built a wooden cabin. He was good company as always, talking about books again, but also tramping and the best placement for installing a vice on a workbench, and when I saw that red truck driving away, I began to think how much I valued the thought that he was out there, making his life from his art. And in writing this, although I intended to stick to the facts, I find myself needing to end in fiction: I still find that thought hard to shake. His illness had just emerged on that very trip, and in the months that followed I’d get updates from my Aunt Bronwen, explaining this strange affliction, scleroderma, which swelled his hands and feet and sucked his energy. The later was hard to believe. I never saw it myself and didn’t make back to Christchurch for his funeral.
I have the luxury of only knowing him as that energetic man, the guy jumping back into the moving car, of hooning off in his home-made house bus, and I’ve continued to hold on to that idea of him still busy, still somewhere doing his thing, even after hearing of his death. In some odd way this thought was even helped along by that announcement, by the details of his funeral and funeral pyre, and now, by the release of this book and the news about it, each occasion a reminder of him, of what he did and who he was, just as in life, he managed to make the news every so often, to regularly get a new sculpture to some unexpected site in Christchurch, to have a presence that reached out, beyond the body, and is reaching still a year later. He’s gone they say again and again, and I hear only he.
Llew Summers, Body and Soul by John Newton (Canterbury University Press, $65) is available in bookstores nationwide.
* ReadingRoom reviews appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*