Artist turns Raoul life into sculptures

Department of Conservation —  09/05/2016

By Paul Rennie, Ranger on Raoul Island

Artist and conservation volunteer Eleanor Cooper has created an exhibition of sculptures inspired by her time on Raoul Island, evoking the experience of living in an isolated, wild place.

Artist Eleanor Cooper in front of her work at The Physics Room in Christchurch.

Artist Eleanor Cooper in front of her work at The Physics Room in Christchurch

Eleanor spent four months on Raoul Island from December 2015 to March 2016, where she was part of a DOC weed removal team.

Eleanor’s exhibition ‘They say this island changes shape’ opened in Christchurch venue The Physics Room on Friday 29 April and runs until Saturday 28 May.

The works tell the story of the island, its settler origins and its remoteness – from bronze casts of orange seeds taken from trees planted by the Bell family in the late 1800s — to kites made of shrink-wrap plastic scavenged from the regular deliveries of supplies to the island.

One of the sculptures in Eleanor’s exhibition.

One of the sculptures in Eleanor’s exhibition

Eleanor says her fellow ‘Raoulies’ helped her create the artworks during their four month placement.

‘One of the other volunteers made a kite and they all helped set up, carry things around, and scavenge for bits and pieces. A couple of them turned up to the opening as well.’

The exhibition at Christchurch’s The Physics Room features some original artworks as constructed on the island, as well as replicas and photographs of artworks that could not be transported back to New Zealand because of biosecurity restrictions.

The works were made with materials found on the island.

The works were made with materials found on the island

Inspired by life on the island

Long hours spent weeding were physically demanding but allowed for creativity to flourish.

‘Raoul is really steep and rugged in places, and when you’re so far from medical help, you have to be careful about what you do. Grid-searching for weeds meant following a compass bearing over and under and through whatever was on your line, like a giant comb. But we’d laugh a lot and there was also plenty of time to think about what I was going to make.’

At work on the island, looking for noxious weeds.

At work on the island, looking for noxious weeds

Raoul Island is an active volcano, and during Eleanor’s tenure the caldera was closed due to heightened earthquake activity.

‘Some days we would feel several earthquakes a day – you get a sense of the island as an unpredictable, and at times inhospitable place,’ she says.

Towards the end of her stint, extreme weather conditions meant Eleanor almost had to change the dates of her planned exhibition.

‘There were a few weeks where I thought I wasn’t going to make it back in time for the show. Cyclone Winston hit Fiji – and three days prior it had been forecast to head straight towards Raoul. We boarded up our windows and lashed down anything that might have caused damage. The HMNZS Wellington was scheduled to collect us in late March but was redeployed to assist with the cyclone response in Fiji. The impact of severe weather systems in the South Pacific, that are happening more and more frequently, became real.’

Eleanor in front of the hostel accommodation on Raoul.

Eleanor in front of the hostel accommodation on Raoul

Impressive commitment to art and conservation

Raoul ranger Paul Rennie says it was impressive to see Eleanor’s commitment to her twin passions.

“Her primary role on Raoul was to weed at a time of the year where the conditions are the most arduous, in a terrain that can only be described as challenging. Conservation is one of her passions, the other being her art. Somehow she managed to devote time and energy to both with the latter resulting in this exhibition.”