Creative Ones- The Seriously Whimsical Deborah WalshIn her readiness to prick the pomposity of the art world and address hard issues head on, Deborah Walsh is historically rare and refreshingly good. by Jim Mitchell. Photography by daniel rose
Her ‘Three Monkeys’ confronted deaf, blind and dumb responses to Mapua’s toxic little pollution problem. Three transparent skulls, each containing an apple or a pear, suggested that we should “Eat no evil”. ‘Patches’ married gang patches and the innocent award ribbons of a rural childhood. ‘Animal Form’ challenged our view of the real, with soft knitted skulls, a trophy pig’s head made from gumboots and seafarer’s charts of mythical lands in animal, bird and piscine forms. Behind the whimsy that wraps a provocative idea lies a demand that we consider prosperity’s price or the nature of what we think we know.
Yet to meet the creator of these fabulous looking and dangerously charged pieces is to be disarmed. Deborah’s small, draughty studio is chaotically jam packed with piles of raw and partially assembled materials, scatterings of partially finished works and sketches of works yet to be born; a treasure trove of ideas in the process of hatching. Says Deborah, “I pin down ideas and then, to prevent their escape, circle them like a hungry shark.”
Starting out as a chef, “a full on kitchen droid”, Deborah “veered wildly” into jewellery in the last year of an NMIT Visual Arts course and, self-taught, became a “number 8 wire, bung it together” jeweller. In her second year out of college she was burgled and robbed of all her jeweller’s tools and materials. Reduced to working with what was at hand, Deborah began weaving and creating sculpture in willow and flax.
Text and verbal play is an important part of her work. There is play too in her unexpected and surreal use of familiar and base materials. “Being an artist allows you to comment on things in a way people don’t normally do”.
The skulls that accompanied her gang patches were made out of that most transient and disposable material, Sellotape. “A marvellous medium because it’s commonplace and thus hard to take seriously - the Arte Povera element to my work.”
Arte Povera, poor or impoverished art with its origins in 1960’s Italy, incorporates organic and industrial materials to reveal the conflict between the natural and the man-made and the intersections between life and art and thinking and seeing.
Scrimshaw and other sailor-made primitive art inspire the nautical themes often found in Deborah’s work. Recent works on paper, reminiscent of maritime charts and ancient maps, suggest the joy of discovery and the magic of “making real” imaginary things.
“From Cook onwards, maps and charts are part of the story we tell about ourselves.”
In Deborah’s twelve years as a practicing artist, the stories she tells about us have spread from Nelson to the wider world. The history she creates might not always be comfortable, but you cannot doubt that it is good.