Jim Wheeler may, on first acquaintance, resemble an Old Testament prophet with his flowing grey locks and beard. Indeed, when he was head mould maker for the Lord of the Rings trilogy it was noted how he looked more like one of Tolkien’s wizards than some of the veteran thespians playing them. Appropriate: Wheeler’s very much a Southern gentleman and has something of the visionary about him. And considering how he transforms base metals into striking sculptures Wheeler is, surely, working in the alchemic tradition that wizards have always striven for.
Jim Wheeler, resident in Auckland for 34-years, is amongst New Zealand’s foremost nature artists. Classically trained – his skill at bronze casting brought him here – and steeped in American abstraction, Aotearoa’s ancient landscapes awoke in him something best described as “a sense of wonder”. His outsider’s eye keenly observed the profound native flora so leading to sculptures celebrating everything from the spectacular (a pohutukawa flower) to the unjustly ignored (a lichen colony). In a sense, he’s a bard and everything he creates is part of one long song that engages with the natural world. It’s an old song Jim sings, one that links him to Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian sculptor whose engagement as an artisan artist created some of modernism’s most beautifully felt sculpture, and continues back through the Renaissance, past the school of Athens, to when our ancestors first responded to nature via art. Wheeler’s sculpture is keenly felt, finely detailed, very subtle and extremely elegiac.
Wheeler explains his aesthetic as a simple one: that of seeing and feeling.
He grew up in a small town in North Carolina, playing in the woods, always fascinated by the natural world around him. Studying botany and art at university suggests his twin passions and, coming of age in the late-1960s – a long-haired Jimi Hendrix fan engaged in the fledgling ecology movement and aware of how the Civil Rights movement had changed the South forever – he reacted to the ferment with transcendental meditation and abstract sculpture. Arriving in New Zealand he found again a society in ferment (the 1981 tour) and an ecology that filled him with awe.
“The first day here I was taken to the West coast beaches and I said, ‘this is dinosaur era forest’! From that first day I started studying New Zealand bush and I’ve never stopped. I was amazed with the forests so I slowly became an amateur botanist of New Zealand bush. I wouldn’t have been as captivated if it wasn’t such a unique ecosystem. The reason it took me a while (to develop my own sculptural language) is that I had to learn a whole new cast of characters. After some years I started exploring aspects of native trees.”
Wheeler emphasises that his sculpture is not simply aimed at acting as decorative motifs: his work is totemic, asking the viewer to engage, to think and feel for our place on this planet.
“I study forest communities trying to find parallels for how humans can live together. I believe that human beings are, right now, in the darkest age, busy killing one another and destroying the world. Yet I do believe we can strive towards enlightenment.” He pauses to think then says, “I make beautiful things to draw people’s attention. I want folks to wake up and SEE NATURE – maybe one day- see the connections! It seems impossible for humans to stop poisoning the world. Are we dead wood? Can we re-sprout?”
– Garth Cartwright