Songs from the Hellbox 

Taking a detour from a 26-year career as a librarian to follow a passion has paid off for Maria Martin-Smith.

Maria, in her final year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, majoring in printmaking at Whanganui UCOL’s Quay School of the Arts, has just been awarded the pattillo scholarship at a function in Wanganui.

“Being named a finalist for the award for three years running made me enormously proud.  I was stunned when my name was called out as the winner.”

The scholarship gives Maria $7500 to support further learning and a commemoratory medal sculpted by nationally-recognised jewellery artist Frances Stachl.

“I am absolutely delighted to have won the scholarship and plan to use the money to buy an etching press and to help set up a studio in Hokitika,” says Maria.

She will head there after graduating to rejoin her partner and begin the search for a building. She hopes to have her studio up and running within the next six months.

Pursuing her printmaking passion is a far cry from her previous work as a librarian, one she says caters to a different part of her personality.

Maria has always had a creative streak and says she’s dabbled in many types of art for as long as she can remember.

“I took art as a subject a high school until fifth form. I was making horse gear at 11 and selling it to my friends, I used to make toys for the neighbours and stuffed animals.

“I made violins for a while, I’ve even made model aeroplanes and I’ve always sewed - Mum taught me to sew my own pajamas when I was seven.  I've always loved reading, especially poetry, but it was mending the books that first got me working in libraries.”

She was introduced to printmaking through a weekend course in Palmerston North. She loved it so much she contacted the Central Print Council of Aotearoa New Zealand and undertook further workshops before deciding to give up her day job to study at UCOL.

“I just got hooked. The more I learned the more I realised I needed to know, so I came to UCOL with the aim of studying printmaking, that’s all I wanted to do.  However the courses here meant I had to take another major in second year, so now I love sculpture as well.”

“A lot of people think about print as being in frames on walls.  There is that, and I love to see a finely worked mezzotint floating on its background of white paper, but printmaking to me is not just two dimensional.  I enjoy combining sculptural elements such as three dimensional objects and installation with my printmaking. ”

Maria’s successful entry for this year’s scholarship, called Songs from the Hell Box, is a boxed set of a title page and 11 poems, set using letterpress from a small hell box.

The term Hell Box, used by letterpress printers, is the name of the container or bucket where lost or imperfect lead type is thrown, to be later melted down and recast.

“The idea of being able to pull a poetic voice from this mass of weighty black chaos was very exciting.  I chose the letters randomly, as there was no order to them. Sometimes if I couldn't find something to fit I'd tip an “L” upside down for a “T”, or use “!” as an “i”.

Her work for this years group graduation show Private Collection Open to View is a perfect example of installation based printmaking.

“I used the 1896 Brunner mine disaster on the South Island’s West Coast as a departure point. An explosion in the mine claimed the lives of 65 miners – I was interested in exploring the social impact of the disaster in a way that allows people viewing the work  feel the agony of the time, while retaining respect and individuality for those involved.”

A 4.5 metre-long table with 47 teacups  represent the 47 widows, with 156 teaspoons representing the dependant children.  The tablecloth is covered with tea and salt, an example of the communal support felt during any disaster.

The exhibit also features five prints and the 65 miners’ names letterpressed on to black paper strips, spanning the ten metre long room.

Asked how she comes up with such ideas, Maria says it’s what being an artist is all about.

“We research to give us a place to depart from, and work from there.  I wanted to give individual and personal acknowledgement to the miners, so I touched each of the letters when I was printing their names.  I made the ink colour to match the greywacke from the area, and embossed the paper to give a feeling of coal. 

“I thought of tea as the universal comfort in any disaster, which led me to using teacups for the widows.   It took a while before the idea of teaspoons for the children filtered through - I could only get new teaspoons and they were a bit shiny, and I wanted to portray the grief and anger of the children, so I marinated the spoons in tea and salt to discolour them.”

As for what attracts Maria to printmaking, she says it’s the whole element of surprise.

“When you’re working with most forms of printmaking you’re working in reverse. With some of my favourite processes, such as mezzotint, you’re working into blackness and drawing out the whites as well as in reverse.

“Because you’re in reverse you never quite know how the print will look - the magic of the moment is when you’ve taken your first proof and you’ve pulled the paper back and you see what it is that you’ve got.  I still surprise myself.”

Her work will be on display as part of the school’s end-of-year show which runs from the 7th until the 22nd of November, and already she has reserved gallery space in Greymouth for a solo exhibition in 2010.