Sunday, 10 March 2013

Tamarillos and Esther James - who was she?

In spite of the severe drought we are experiencing in Northland presently, a tree in my garden has sprouted two very fine tamarillos (aka tree tomatoes). Which is a bit surprising, since it isn't a tamarillo tree.

In fact, these tamarillos are cast glass, with stainless steel foliage and twigs. They are a collaboration between Auckland glass caster Lou Pendergrast-Mathieson and stainless steel fabricator Phillip Moodie.  I saw a 'crop' of these in another non-tamarillo tree in the exhibition Re:Fraction 2012: the Outdoor Glass Exhibition at the Sculpture Park, Waitakaruru last spring. I was struck by their simple beauty, and knew at once I could find a host tree in my own garden.

What I was less clear about (indeed, really puzzled about) was the title that Lou had given these: 'A Tribute to Esther James'. Who was Esther James? 1950s Hollywood star? 1920s Paris dancer? Both seemed vaguely possible, though why tamarillos would be a tribute was quite mysterious.

Researching Lou's glass work on the Internet told me that she and Phillip had exhibited a whole tree of fruit at the Auckland 'Sculpture on the Shore' exhibition in 2010, and had shown similar fruit at other exhibitions. Lou has since told me that they made about 42 fruit all told, tamarillos, pears, apples, plums and peaches, and they have been 'a massive hit'.  

In much of her cast glass, we are told, Lou has a passion for the Art Deco era, and her work is influenced by the glass of the 1920s and 1930s, with soft finishes and engraved surface details. The decoration often makes reference to the gardens of the time.  Lou has a continuing interest in the decorative embellishment of objects combined with a love of the New Zealand landscape.  In her work she uses New Zealand native plant specimens and nostalgic flowers from the garden as decorative elements. 

Esther Marion Pretoria James on her walk from Spirits Bay to Stewart Island, 1931-32
(Alexander Turnbull Library photo)

Lou's interest in things New Zealand, in art deco and in the idea of a 'Buy NZ Made' campaign led her to discover a remarkable New Zealander Esther James, who was a campaigner for 'Buy New Zealand Made'  in the 1930s. In 1932, James walked from Spirits' Bay in the Far North to Stewart Island to draw attention to the issue.

Lou says that when she read Esther James's 1965 book Jobbing Along in 2010 it made quite an impact on her and she felt compelled to celebrate the remarkable exploit and the wonderful NZ pioneer woman that Esther James was, but also to comment on the same issue some 80 years later.

Thanks to Lou, I now know who Esther James was - inventor, entrepreneur, model, author, crocodile hunter, opal miner - what a life!  I would encourage you to read about this remarkable New Zealander - her biography is on Te Ara at and her book is in your local library.

So now when I wander in my garden, I can admire Lou Pendergrast-Mathieson's glass, and also be reminded of the remarkable Esther James, to whom this work is a tribute.