“This situation is an opportunity. You have to turn the negative into a positive,” says Josie Martin. Martin is the creator and owner/operator of The Giants House in Akaroa, in Aotearoa/New Zealand. It’s a historic villa with terraced gardens full of sculptures, mosaics and ceramics by the artist. We’re talking on the phone in March 2020, while New Zealand is in complete lockdown, due to the global pandemic.
No cruise ships
There are currently no cruise ships anchoring in Akaroa’s tiny harbour, near Christchurch on the South Island. Nobody else is allowed to visit either. “Luckily, we had a very busy summer season, but I don’t think I’ll be travelling any time soon,” Josie says. The artist, sculptor, painter and horticulturist (“I like moving between mediums”), had plans to travel to China. One of her ceramic creations is being enlarged there. It will be forged in mirror polished stainless steel at a Beijing foundry. A trusted craftsman she’s worked with before is looking after the prototype, sending her emails with photos to keep her informed of the progress.
Josie’s positive takeaway during lockdown is having a lot of time to make art. “Time is really precious”, she says. Today, she spent outside all day, working on a new mosaic at the front entrance of her sculpture garden. It’s a luxury, reminiscent of the beginning when there were fewer visitors. Now she can no longer work during garden opening hours in normal circumstances. “People are curious and want to chat and that is too distracting,” Josie explains. “Receiving people’s enthusiastic encouragement is wonderful, but spending time with them takes a lot of energy. I need to conserve my energy. If you really want to do something, you’ve got to prioritise.”
Starting is the hardest part
Josie Martin creates all mosaic work in situ. “Starting is the hardest part, but I start by making hundreds of drawings, and once there is a foundation, you have something to kick against. First, I work on the form, using steel and concrete. I have been working with the same tradesman for many years. We’ve developed techniques of our own, for working with steel and concrete, because it is a bit of a grey area. We work with a solid foundation. I use much more steel than necessary, I like to use it for shaping the form and expression. You can’t fix it afterwards.”
Inside, Josie will smash tiles and organise them by colour in ice cream containers. “As much as I can prepare, I will prepare. I will walk around the form, see how I need to cut the tiles and get everything ready to go.” This way, Josie can start work outside as soon as the last visitor has left, with still enough daylight for making art outdoors. During this lockdown-period, Josie’s also had time again to get her hands in the clay: “I made some pots in my studio. It’s good to feel the clay, get the feel of things.” Josie handcrafts her own tiles to include in her mosaics too. Twenty stretched canvasses in her studio are ready to use.
Running out of space
What’s more, Josie is waiting for the green light from the council to proceed with plans to extend both the garden and the cafe, as well as to create a new entrance, on a newly acquired neighbouring property. Because even though the creation of The Giant’s House sculptures and garden began only 23 years ago, Josie has already run out of space. “It’s not so much that I’m fast. I was definitely slow to begin with, because I had never worked with concrete. But my painting background is a great asset and I don’t muck around. I’m good at making decisions.”
From wilderness to world-class tourist attraction
What was once a wilderness, is now a world-class tourist attraction. The Giant’s House received a “Garden of International Significance” award, as well as a 6-star rating from the New Zealand Gardens Trust. On the Trip Advisor website and in Google ratings, Josie Martin’s Sculpture and Mosaic Garden has received innumerable glowing reviews and ranks 4.5 stars out of 5.
Josie Martin never compromised: “This place wouldn’t be what it is today if I had.” Martin had to sacrifice parts of her social life, but has some close friends she often makes time for. “Instead of going out for a coffee, I rather make something,” she explains.
Fulfilment through making
“It’s always a balancing act. You can’t just walk into the studio, it takes time to warm up. Creating something I love, I’m completely fulfilled. I’m happy when I’m making, when I do all these drawings and suddenly something comes to life. And I’m able to live off my artwork, which is usually hard to do for artists.”
© Sitara Morgenster
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An edited version of this article appeared in Opus Oracle (Issue 31), the e-magazine for members of the Mosaic Association of Australia and New Zealand, MAANZ.