The Spirit in Stones
Auckland stone carver John Edgar feels so strongly about jade he is prepared to stick his neck out about it. To him it is a unique resource which is being squandered in the ugly race for tourist dollars. Somewhat optimistically, he would like those working the material, even on a commercial scale, to have a far greater awareness and respect for its traditional ritual and spiritual associations, and to take stock of how they are using it.'What's annoying me at present is that it's very easy to sell jade to tourists. They come here wanting to buy greenstone - they're queuing up for it. If you saw what some of them take away, you'd know just how horrible it is. Some people are endlessly copying old Maori forms, mostly from wood carving anyway, and passing it off as 'ethnic art'. This is insulting to tourists and to Maori.'
He works in jade (Maori name, pounamu) himself and earlier in his career spent some time in a greenstone factory so he feels sufficiently well-qualified to make a plea for a precious New Zealand asset, which he holds is being totally under-valued. 'We now live on the best jade field in the world. The Chinese have worked out everything in the East and the Taiwanese are now carving British Columbian jade which is of much lower quality and doesn't have the intensity of the New Zealand stone. We are just wasting this part of our country's heritage.'
He admits there is a more sensitive feeling for the stone emerging in some people's work. 'Some people are trying very hard and the quality of their work is improving. The designs are better than they used to be - but they're still often just meaningless patterns - one after the other. Some of it's done for the sheer love of making things, which is a craftsman's work, but most of it's done just for money - jade fish hooks certainly won't catch anything else! There are all these anxious objects drifting around, have no place and no reason for being except they were done for commercial gain.'
Edgar is aware he could be striking some sensitive spots with his remarks, but feels they must be made. 'I want to come across strongly about this, but I don't want to be too derogatory of other people's efforts. In a craft like stone-carving, which has so re-established itself in this country, those working in it must constantly be thinking of standards and integrity. There's a need to lift people's consciousness about what they are working with. I'm not objecting to people superimposing their designs on jade, but I do want them to be aware of what they are doing and to respect the stone's integrity.'
He points out that jade has assumed its importance in many cultures because of its powers. 'The Chinese gave it a special place and so did the Maori. Of all the New Zealand stones that you can make tools out of (and there are quite a few) they selected jade. First as a tool stone and second as a spiritual or ritual stone.
'If you have a tiki that's been through five generations, it's a powerful thing. Even sitting in a museum cabinet it's emanating some of the energy it has been in contact with. I'm not saying these stones are alive, or that they have a consciousness; but I am saying they absorb everything. Their mana increases as they are passed down through generations, absorbing the spirit of each wearer.'As soon as stones are cut open from their found state, they start to take on anything that comes in contact with them. 'When you first make something it will be quite fresh - open and empty - like a blank cassette. If the object is an amulet, it will begin to absorb essential oils. But it's more than that - jade is responsive to the energy of the wearer too, in a spiritual way.'
Because he feels so strongly about jade, John does not want working it to become an everyday job for him. He therefore works in other stones, and for the past three years has been carving pakohi or argillite. This stone was used by moa hunters as a tool material to make adzes, chisels and knives. John feels there is a responsibility for the few carvers beginning to work it, to establish a sense of continuity with the last tool-makers. 'It doesn't mean we have to make adzes but I want the stone to be recognised as a true stone of New Zealand, for it to be treated with respect and given a sense of place which restores it to its once-honoured position in a stone-carving culture.'
Pakohi has a wide range of very subtle colours from black to creamy blue, with occasional reds and greens. 'One important thing to me is that pakohi appears very much to be a stone. A lot of jade arrives already sawn into slabs and chunks so its natural form has been demolished. I would like people to think of jade as the stone it is too - not to regard it as some sort of fancy material that anything can be made out of.'
Pakohi can be used as a satisfactory teaching material for gaining the techniques for working hard stones, using the same tools and grinding methods as jade. Because it has no recognised commercial value, carvings made from it must be appreciated on their aesthetic merits - unlike jade which is universally recognised as a precious material. Jade will sell for high prices even as an inferior carving.
Moving into pakohi, and more recently greywacke, is part of Edgar's attempt to take some of the pressure off jade. But he is realistic in his expectations. 'This is a modern age and few people are interested in spiritual qualities any longer. But it is exactly those spiritual qualities that I want to make people aware of with my carving.'
Jade was prized beyond gold by the Aztecs, not for beauty alone but because it contained, they believed, healing spirits. Traders introduced this stone to China after the Spanish Conquistadors took it to Europe from South America. The Chinese, who perfected its carving as an art form, also revered its mystical qualities.
Jade is a term that loosely describes two different yet similar-looking minerals - the more valuable jadite, and nephrite jade. And when the Maori discovered nephrite jade in New Zealand's riverbeds they reacted in much the same way as the Aztecs and Chinese; recognising the carving potential of this durable rock, they fashioned it into ornaments to wear, weapons and tools. And, like other races, they wove legends around pounamu (greenstone) empowering it with spiritual virtues.
Greenstone has suffered spiritually and aesthetically this century, with quantities wasted on tacky tourist trinkets, many in crass imitation of Maori art. But while mediocre stone and bone carving continues to trap the unwary buyer, the last two decades have seen it regain respect in the hands of a number of local artisans.
Some are working to a high standard. Among them is Auckland stone carve John Edgar (39) whose retrospective exhibition Stonelines has been a recent feature at Wellington's National Museum and the Auckland Institute and Museum. His earliest stone carving concentrated on nephrite jade, and as his involvement deepened, so did his understanding of the mystical qualities of the stone.
At his temporary Grey Lynn quarters - he works and plans to eventually live full-time at Karekare on Auckland's restless west coast - Edgar, a science graduate, speaks at first with diffidence of stones in a spiritual context.
Stones clean and fresh from the riverbed, he explains, are like an empty vessel. But as they come into contact with people they take on a power - forever to be held in the stone - which is to receive, record and transmit. It's part of what the Maori may call mana, the European describe as spirit. It is what the Chinese divined in jade centuries ago.
It's not mumbo jumbo. I'm not sensitive to the psychic powers but I've carved stone for those who are, Edgar says, recalling a piece of greenstone handled by many of his friends who visited while he worked on it. The person who commissioned the carving knew nothing of this but complained on receiving it that too many people were 'in the stone'. A further piece was made honouring strict instructions that only Edgar was to touch it.
Working on nephrite jade caused Edgar to reflect on the 'stone lines' that connected him back to those early carvers. As he thought of the people who 'first flaked a blade from a stone ... drilled a hole ... incised a line', transforming base rocks and mineral into pieces of beauty, he considered other stones.
His attention was caught by argillite, a silt stone that, after many centuries as sedimentary rock pushed deep below the earth, eventually reappears along New Zealand's fault line. This metamorphic rock, which the Maori also used as a tool, intrigued Edgar. In 1981 he began incorporating it in art works, combining it with copper, a material that occurs naturally on site with this handsome rock. Other stones, like jasper and greywacke were soon included in Edgar's repertoire as his skill with tools - he is fascinated by modern technology - expanded.
Following his development through his retrospective show - it spans the years 1977 to 1989 - is a rewarding journey. His is the natural progression of an artist towards purity and simplification, as the intricate gives way to minimalist form. The refinement of some of the later carvings understates the technical skill which, says Edgar, brings into balance the elements of concept, material and process.
The work has great tactile appeal, frustrating to viewers in a museum where glass cases prohibit handling. Nephrite jade will always be his first love and many of these pieces seem to beg to be held. Examples are 'Soy', a small whirlpool of glowing green jade, or the handsomely-sculpted Tao disc in Australian black jade. A translucent jade snail shell, reminiscent of a Carl Faberge creature, has whimsical appeal. The intricate 'Induction Disc' (1979) in black jade, with its entwining outer ribbon, gives an illusion of infinity, rather like Oriental ivory carvings of balls within balls.
After quitting his career as a research chemist in 1976, Edgar worked for a time as a stone cutter in a souvenir factory. Although he didn't stay long, it was the beginning of his deep feeling for jade and ultimately for other stones. He began studying the culture and carving of both the Maori and Chinese, and these influences are seen in his work.
A stunning jade disc with two spiralling centre holes that seem to wax and wane is called 'Disc for Lord Wu'. Made in 1987, it is a fitting tribute to Eastern subtlety. Discs are a favoured theme and are included in a series, 'Coins of the Realm', demonstrating how effectively argillite and copper combine. Sometimes copper is used to bind a disc, or it may appear as inlay. Other testaments to precision are sculptures with slivers of glass sandwiched between slices of argillite.
Many of the later forms belong in design to the space age. And while greywacke retains its age-old, natural stone shape, it takes on new meaning when sliced open so that glass, in geometric patterns, may be inserted. Edgar likes the idea of dividing and reuniting, marking the parting with transparent glass that lets light into a stone. To him it is 'seeing into the heart intact'.
Enigmas - the why, what, where, how, whom and so on - were the burning and often unanswerable questions that absorbed Edgar from childhood. From the time he was very young he collected the flotsam and jetsam of other people's lives - things like an old nail embedded in wood, a piece of bent copper wire, a packet of old flints, a stone with a hole worked through it. To him they were magical and mysterious, holding secrets of the past.
Now it pleases him to think that future generations may chance upon his work one day, knowing nothing of its origin, and feel the fascination of the 'stone lines that come and go'. He hopes they may recognise the magic or spirit within the stones and that they too, will ponder the enigmas.