By Erin Kavanagh-Hall
As Wairarapa artist and “eel man” Sam Ludden puts it, “ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au”: I am the river, and the river is me.
Ludden, a child of passionate conservationists, a keen kayaker, and world-renowned sculptor of river creatures- and plans to user his skills in ceramics to raise awareness of, and advocate for, Wairarapa’s waterways and the taonga within.
The Masterton man, a professional potter of 15 years, is crowdfunding to bring his planned art exhibition, Project WAI, to fruition, using the New Zealand Art foundation platform Boosted.
So far, his Boosted campaign has yielded over $6000 of the $8000 needed to stage Project WAI, and he has until early next week to raise the full amount.
The exhibition, to be held at Aratoi, will feature sculptures and art installations with water as the central theme: from masses of his signature eels (tuna), to imposing figures made from driftwood and telegraph poles, to pieces fashioned from clay fished from one of the most polluted creeks in the Wellington region.
Through Project WAI, Ludden hopes to inspire the Wairarapa community to re-connect with local wetlands and waterways, and raise awareness of the dangers facing rivers, wetlands and water-dwelling animals – such as industrialised farming, dairy run-off, heavy metal poisoning and general litter.
Ludden has spent much of his career as a commercial potter, with his tuna and ruru (New Zealand native owl) sculptures gracing homes and gardens up and down the country.
Project WAI, he said, was an opportunity to “push the boundaries and create real, in-depth art”, designed to challenge and confront.
“I want to work at a new scale for me – push new ideas and new types of sculpture, and create something spectacular,” Ludden said.
“I’ve been trying to make a living for the past 10 years and I’ve loved every minute of it, but I feel like I need to do more. I felt the need to create something which is going deeper into our cultural, historical and political value of water.
“Good art has a strong and a message that’s worth telling. Project WAI is about bringing the community together to see some spectacular sculpture, but also to talk about our issues – like water quality, are we able to swim in our rivers, are we able to fish safely, what does the future hold for our water?
“I feel perfectly positioned, as an artist, to advocate for the river herself – and bring people closer to our awa.”
Ludden was born in Masterton to Irish and Scottish parents, and his family were embraced and “adopted” by Kahungunu ki Wairarapa when he was young.
For the Luddens, conservation is a family affair – with parents Mick and Peta instilling a love of the great outdoors and passing on the “Tidy Kiwi” philosophy.
These days, both Ludden’s sisters work with animals (at the Department of Conservation and Australia Zoo), and Mum Peta is secretary for the local branch of Forest & Bird.
“Growing up, the environment was always a topic discussed around the kitchen table,” Ludden said.
“Mum and Dad wanted to give us all those childhood experiences, like spending time at down at the river, cooking damper over the fire, and making sure to pick up rubbish wherever we saw it.
“That was the just pysche most Kiwi kids grew up with in the 70s and 80s.”
He said he is also heavily influenced by Maoritanga: growing up as Ngati Kahungunu and learning kapa haka and te reo Maori alongside his parents, and learning bone and wood carving at Makoura College.
“I got an insight into that world; creating art work based around whakapapa and the pakiwaitara (stories) of the region.
“All that directly feeds into my artwork – te ao Maori is not a brand or a gimmick; it’s who we are”.
Ludden was mentored by Wairarapa master potter Paul Melser and encouraged to pursue clay as a medium – leading him to study ceramics in Whanganui.
After several years travelling, and practising pottery in the UK, France, and the Czech Republic, he settled in his native Masterton and began producing work under the moniker Dirty Fingers Pottery.
Like many young artists, Ludden grappled with the idea of making money from his craft while still remaining true to his artistic integrity and personal philosophy – but began experimenting with both the eel and owl forms “on a hunch”.
He said his sculptures – his expressive, wide-eyed eels by far his most iconic staple – have become popular, as ruru and tuna have a place in many New Zealanders’ childhood memories: such as he and his friends searching the creeks at Kaituna and Mikimiki for the famous “big, black eels.”
“Everyone seems to have a tuna or ruru story of some sort,” he said.
“For example, when I was young, tuna were so plentiful; they were everywhere. You’d always come across them going down the river. They were part of our growing up.
“Tuna are so evocative – they’re taniwha, they’re the warning about a certain bend in the river, they’re that time your little sister got bitten while swimming, they’re kai. They were an important source of food for Maori, especially in Wairarapa.
“It’s part of Aotearoa’s psyche; that natural experience that involves a bird or a fish – or a tuna.”
These days, Ludden said, the tuna have taken on a different meaning – with the long fin eel species now in decline, they represent the imminent threat to New Zealand waterways.
“I was getting very sick of making eels. Now, I feel like I have to. [They are] part of our story, and symbolic of the survival of our rivers.”
Ludden said Tuna will feature heavily in Project WAI. For example, he plans to cover the floor at Aratoi with eel sculptures, so visitors end up treading on them as they walk – a reference to a conversation with a local kaumatua and dairy farmer.
“The run-off from the dairy would go into the creek behind the dairy plant, and the eels would get so thick [from the pollution], he said you could walk across the back of them. That image has always stuck in my mind.
“Then the eels you’re walking over will hit a wall and start climbing. It’s all about the barriers we put in front of these treasures, these taonga, and the lengths an eel has to go through to live.”
He will also be creating larger sculptures to illustrate concepts such as water’s ability to hold energy and water’s role in the passage of time.
One of the more powerful centrepieces, he said, will be made from sediment and refuse collected from the Makoura Stream.
The stream, which runs through urban Masterton, is clogged with decades of waste, originally discarded into gutters and drains. Despite efforts from nearby families and activists (such as the Pakus, also mentors of Luddens) to clean the waters, the bed of the creek is “chock full of rubbish”.
“It’s all visible rubbish – coke cans, plastic, plastic bags, lolly wrappers, McDonalds containers,” Ludden said.
“It all sinks to the bottom. My best mate has said when he cleans out the river, he’s pulling out Tui cans from the 80s and 90s.
“This stuff is shocking to me. It’s local level pollution, and it’s the stuff we have the power to change. This is absolutely what the exhibition is about.
“So, I will be pulling rubbish and digging clay out of the stream, and making what I hope will be a beautiful sculpture, but a sculpture that reveals what it has been built from.”
Ludden said he is humbled by the reaction to his Boosted campaign, which is now 79 per cent complete and attracted close to 80 donors.
“I think people know my work and what I’m all about – but I also think people are passionate about these issues, and want to see new sculpture being pushed.
“The general community have been really surprising me [with their donations] and that makes me very emotional.”
The Boosted campaign closes on Wednesday, November 16.