Man of steel: Morgan Jones and a maquette made with wood

At 85, award-winning sculptor Morgan Jones reckons he’s getting better with age as he strives for elegance and balance in his monumental steel works. Guy Williams visits Jones at his castle-like home near Arrow Junction to find out about his life from 21-year-old ‘Ten Pound Pom’ to scooping one of the world’s major sculpture prizes.

From Morgan Jones’ home, on a low rise between Morven Hill and the Crown Terrace, the glories of the Wakatipu landscape stretch out before him.

But the ideas for his work come from within.

“They are abstract thoughts – they’re not based on any reality,” Jones says.

In November, one of those ideas netted him Australia’s most prestigious gong for the art form, the Aqualand Sculpture Award.

His 2.5 metre-high, 4m-long COR-TEN steel work, The Sun Also Rises, was admired by nearly half a million people on Sydney’s Bondi Beach as part of the world’s largest annual sculpture exhibition, Sculpture by the Sea.

He reckons he was “bloody lucky”, but that seems unlikely for an artist whose work is held in private collections in Australia, the United States, England, Germany and New Zealand.

He’s been invited to exhibit in Sydney for the past five years, and last year was the only NZer to receive the honour.

But he hasn’t always been a Kiwi.

Born in Surrey, England, he immigrated to New Zealand in 1955, aged 21.

The move was driven, in part, by a loathing of the English class system and a “terribly rebellious streak”.

As a Ten Pound Pom assisted immigrant, he was obliged to work for the NZ government for two years.

Thus only a month after leaving his job at a London bank, he found himself planting trees for the forest service near Ohakune, “wishing I was back in London”.

Back then, long before today’s cheap and instant communication, moving to the other side of the world was a radical step, he says.

“You just cut off everything – all your friends, relations – I didn’t go back for 29 years.”

His tree-planting stint was followed by factory and farm work, then a job as a copywriter at a radio station.

But wanting to do something “a bit more idealistic”, he moved to Christchurch to train as a teacher.

It was in the early 1960s, while teaching at schools in South Canterbury, he began making sculptures from wood, holding his first exhibition at the Dunedin Art Gallery in 1964.

NZ’s top prize for sculpture, the Hansells Sculpture Award, followed in 1975, but it wasn’t until the age of 55, after a one-year artist-in-residency at the Dunedin School of Art, that he was emboldened to dedicate himself full-time to his art.

His switch to steel came in 2003, after a commission to make a steel sculpture to sit outside the Christchurch Art Gallery.

Jones says he has no regrets about his lack of formal art training.

“I don’t particularly think you can train sculptors.

“What you need is a desire to experiment, and join materials together.

“But I’m deeply interested in the history of art – I’ve read and read and read.”

With this year’s Sydney exhibition in mind, he already has a maquette – or scale model – at Queenstown Engineering for fabrication into a seven metre-by-3.4m work.

The cost of fabrication, and shipping across the Tasman, is in the tens of thousands.

But he says it would be “presumptuous” to think he’ll be invited back for a sixth year in a row.

“I won’t assume that it’ll be accepted, but I hope it will.”

This month he’ll be 86, and admits he can’t work the hours he used to.

“My New Year’s resolution is to walk down to the studio every day.”

But he does think he’s getting better every year.

“I really think sculptors are in a different category to other artists – I think they improve with age.”

One thing he will never do is repeat himself.

“You’ve got to evolve, you’ve got to retain your integrity and never sell out.

“I’ve never, ever made something with the hope of making money out of it.”