There are many things I admire about Aaron Abernethy.
I know he has courage. It took guts for his family to move from Auckland to our little valley to live their self-sufficiency dream. And he’s a multi-talented engineer who can solve countless problems big and small. Many farmers in the valley will tell you that. Finally, anyone who’s eaten one of Aaron’s famous barbeque meals will agree that he cooks up a superb spit-roast.
But I didn’t know until very recently, that behind the engineer lies a talented artist and sculptor
Can you remember the very first-time that inspiration struck way back in your childhood? Not many will be nodding here, I bet, but Aaron is one who can.
“I remember very clearly the first time I did art. We had picked some flowers and I started rubbing them on the path. You can get some good colours from the centre of flowers, and the pictures last for ages on the pavement.”
From there Aaron kept on drawing and experimenting. His parents must have been exceptionally easy-going because as a teenager his experiments took the form of drawing with black Vivid Markers ALL OVER HIS BEDROOM WALLS! You can always paint over a wall, I guess, but I’m not sure that I’d have been so tolerant.
Later, as adult life and responsibilities took over, Aaron’s art faded into the background. Little did he know that in becoming an engineer and honing his welding and metalwork skills over the years, he was sowing the seeds for a new passion.
At first, Aaron was busy establishing his home and business, DBE Engineering Ltd. But then animal sculptures and figures began to form in his brain. Tentatively he began to create them using the tools of his trade — metal and a welding iron.
Into The World
It’s a huge leap from making art to putting it out for others to see. But gradually other people began to see and love Aaron’s work. In July 2018 he made a leap of faith and submitted a beautiful stag head to the Riversdale Art Exhibition.
“Why don’t you put your highland cattle sculpture at The Ivy Box” a friend suggested. “
That was a nerve-wracking thought. However, Lynda Hensman, the Queenstown artist/owner of the gallery made everything easy.
“She was so enthusiastic and professional,” says Aaron.
Over time Aaron began to feel easier offering sculptures to local businesses such as The Athol Gallery and Craftkeepers too. Then as his reputation grew, people began to offer commissions and his art expanded with a new life and direction.
It’s one thing to see Aaron’s work in a photo. It’s quite another to see it in real life. I was bowled over when I visited The Ivy Box to see Aaron’s famous stag and highland cattle heads in person.
Inspiration — Animals and Beyond
If you ever tour around Aaron and Bonnie’s little farm you’ll quickly realise that they love animals. There are hens, ducks, Kune Kune pigs — and piglets — sheep, cows, dogs, cats … a veritable menagerie.
Added to that, Aaron’s a keen hunter. But these days he’s likely to be up in the hills to shoot with a camera rather than a gun. Sure, he still brings home meat to eat, but he’d rather re-create an animal from metal than kill just to get a trophy.
So animal sculptures came first, but as commissions started to trickle in Aaron began to find inspiration in other ways. Now, when he talks to a client it is to establish their vision. It can take a while, but eventually, a theme emerges. That’s when shapes and patterns begin to form in Aaron’s mind.
Sometimes he draws them out first. At other times the vision is so clear he’ll go straight to the metal to start cutting, shaping and welding.
Aaron was given carte blanche for my sculpture — which is often harder than meeting a specific request. Aaron says:
“I started by drawing because I’d been given a blank canvas. And I thought about things you’ve been teaching and how you seem to love Maori, so I started with a koru shape.
But, then I was also thinking about the land and the connection between land and sea, and about being grounded and nurturing new things.
So, you can see the wave in the koru, and then all the little extra shapes are the new growth. And if you look through it (the koru wave) you can see the garden beyond.
Also, that one can stand in different ways and each way it will look different. I like that about it.”
A Special Family Gift For Garston School
Aaron wanted to acknowledge and thank Garston School for educating and nurturing his kids. He and Bonnie love Garston’s caring vibe. So, when Quinn finally graduated, Aaron created a very special family sculpture for the school.
Kathryn O’Loughlin, Garston’s Principal couldn’t have been happier with Aaron’s gift. After all, the whole Abernethy clan was a huge part of Garston School for many years.
Even dashing past on the busy highway below you can see the rising branches of Aaron’s rusty-red metal tree. But when you know the story behind it, the sculpture seems all the more beautiful for it represents the Abernethy
In many families, Mum is the foundation. Her love and support for her family allow all the members to grow. So Aaron has shown Bonnie as the trunk of his family tree.
Aaron is the largest branch and then the other branches flow out. The Abernethy children have grown and are going out into the world.
It’s a beautiful sculpture and personally, this is my favourite of all of Aaron’s work.
Tools of the Trade
I don’t know much about working with steel so this was all new territory for me, and fascinating to learn.
Aaron uses metals such asZintec — which is steel thinly coated with zinc to protect it from rusting — and Corten, which seems to be the opposite. Corten is weathering steel. It doesn’t need to be painted but instead, weathers to give a rust-like appearance over time. It’s not really deteriorating or rusting away, it just goes an interestingly rusty colour. You can certainly see this in action at Garston School. Already the Family Sculpture, which arrived as a shiny grey piece, is now a beautiful rusty red.
One of Aaron’s main tools is his MIG (Metal Inert Gas), welder. This has a continuous wire electrode feeding through the welding gun, which melts into the join as the welder fires up. This is a great tool for artists, I’m told, and seems to be a little like using a super-powered fiery metal glue gun. The “MIG” certainly allows Aaron to create some interesting effects on his sculptures.
Shaping The Sculpture
Of course, Aaron has many different techniques, depending on what type of sculpture he’s making.
For this koru sculpture, Aaron cut out the basic shapes, “tacked” them together and then began to beat and shape the flat metal shapes to give them curves and contours. Then he welded them together. That’s when I took the photo (above.) Of course, this koru’s still a blank canvas. There’s a lot of detail yet to come.
Some of Aaron’s animals look as if they’re covered in fur or hair, and for this technique Aaron welds and melts hundreds of tiny pieces of metal onto the main body. It takes hours and hours of concentrated work to produce such a stunning effect.
Q & A
I had a couple of burning questions for Aaron:
“I know you’re flat out in your engineering business, so when on earth do you get time to create?”
“Tuesday nights are art nights. Even when I’ve had a bad day and I’m tired when the workshop becomes my studio then I’m in my happy place. It’s funny when you’re creating you lose all track of time. Hours go by and I have no idea.”
I love the name Starlight MetalArt. Where did that come from?
“We found on a very old map that this (mountain) range above our house was named Starlight. I just loved the name.”
Into The Future
Now that he’s finally giving his art a place in his life, Aaron’s finding that more and more shapes, sculptures and possibilities are lining up in his mind, waiting to see the light of day.
I hope they make it out — we’ll all be just that little bit richer with Aaron’s lovely sculptures to enjoy in our world.
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Find out more about the little township of Garston, Northern Southland.