Michelle Elvy: Can you share with us how you began as an artist, and a bit about your path to where you are now?
Manu Berry: I was fortunate enough to grow up with an artistic mother who has worked as a fulltime painter for most of her life. I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic of printmaking and its practical application. When I started along this path, it opened up and branched to take me to many interesting places.
ME: You are a strong community member, with your own work immersed in community. And you create art that is visually striking and also connects to a social vision/view. How do you find/choose subject matters for your visual art – and in what ways is it a reflection of community (sometimes, or often)?
MB: Starting from a point of literally drawing from my immediate environment so as to gain a deeper connection and awareness often develops into a conversation about different experiences of the shared aspects of our world, such as people’s different connections with buildings and places.
I also enjoy collaborating and this opens up new connections for me. In recent years, I’ve had really fruitful collaborations: with paleontologist, Marcus Richards, on the evolution of penguins; with music duo, Aro, on their albums Manu & He Wai; with Indigenous Studies academic, Raphael Ricter-Gravier, on Bird Myths of the Pacific; & poet, Richard Reeve, illustrating his and other poets’ work.
ME: Visual art, like writing, requires both attention to detail as well as a sense of the broader conceptual frame. In your artworks, the viewer can see something specific as well as an indication of bigger themes. Do you begin with one or the other, when you go about creating a piece of art, or a series?
MB: Sometimes a project may begin with a larger framework, such as stories from the Pacific that contain birds, but with each individual artwork I try to find that specific moment in a new light or focus that fades out the background noise that then allows the pieces to come back together to create a novel view of the subject.
ME: Your work tends to capture landscape and natural settings, from coastal scenes to the hills of Central Otago and even urban scenes. And in your work there is often a play of light. I am thinking of light’s flickering, and how you capture this within a frame. Do you think this is among the most challenging parts of the way you create landscape on paper the way light plays a role (and as with the question above, the relationship between permanence and impermanence)?
MB: This is definitely one of the enjoyable and challenging part of my process. Laying down several layers of semi-transparent colour allows subtle renderings of light play. When I’m drawing something that’s static, like a building, the movement of the light and shadow is what adds dynamism to the process and product of drawing. So, although, I’m not consciously portraying that relationship between permanence and impermanence it definitely brings to the fore the specific nature of the present moment even in the face of the enduring.
ME: Related to the above, it’s as if you capture something of the unseen and unheard. Is that a central goal for you, and can you give us some examples of how your work does this?
MB: In an earlier series I developed a technique of laying 2 prints from the same edition together and cutting away from the top layer to create subtle references to another aspect of the depicted scene, literally another layer of meaning, such as an ice-field with Shackleton’s ship superimposed; or wind turbines over a Lammerlaw tussock scape (the development of a windfarm in this area was hotly contested some years ago and eventually vetoed).
When collaborating with palaeontologist, Marcus, I drew him in the Geology Department, piecing together the ear bones of a 20 million year old whale. It was a privilege to witness the aha moment of the bones fitting into place and I wanted to recreate the experience of this amazing creature being called into being across vast swathes of time by Marcus reassembling its apparatus for listening in a noisy laboratory. So in a print I showed the space below Marcus’ bench as a deep slice of ocean with the living whale inhabiting it, illuminated by his angle-poise lamp. I also used the cut-out technique in this print to overlay the whale’s sonic vibrations.
ME: Are there influences on your work – other artists whose work you’ve studied or whose work has seeped into your consciousness over time? Are there others you directly reference in some of your work? What about the confluence of past and present (and future) in visual art, and in how you view your own work?
MB: I work mainly in the Japanese tradition of woodcuts but I also draw on multiple influences such as the German Expressionists and other eclectic sources, for example at the moment I am looking at early 20th Century screen-printed travel posters for a harbour based project. Some 2022 works, Elephant Rocks & Hasui, evolved from my renewed attention on the limestone forms of the Waitaki and their changing context over time, from seafloor to land valley. I blended this with the heritage of woodcut printmaking & its own changing contexts. Hasui, whose works I reproduce, is an early 20th Century Japanese printmaker whose work around water & rock structures has the timeless classical feel which first engaged me with the medium.
ME: Let’s talk about your 2022 collaboration, when Edith Amituanai spent time in Port Chalmers with a residency. Can you tell us about the residency and how it came about? Is it a new programme, and how did you set it up?
MB: The residency was established by an earlier group of keen community members who formed a community trust to give local kids an annual intensive experience working with a high-calibre artist and then to bring the results of their work to the community in some way, usually in the form of a parade but sometimes involving performances or exhibitions. This is a key feature in the calendars of several of the local schools and ECEs. I, and an almost entirely new cohort, took over the trust in late 2019. All of us had kids at local schools or kindies and very little idea about how to run a residency but the previous group had left us with a modest sum in the bank and a loose blueprint for how to set things up. For our 2022 residency, we approached Edith who had worked with another trust member, jeweler Octavia Cook, previously and, as another of our team expressed, she was a ‘dream choice’.
ME: This took place in your hometown of Port Chalmers. What were your own observations about the way this art experience impacted your community?
MB: Edith’s skill in building relationships with the children as well as her obvious technical skill, allowed the children involved to really bring themselves to the project and bring the best, cheekiest, funniest, most resourceful and powerful versions of themselves to the portraits. The community really loved seeing their kids authentically depicted like this and it made for a real celebration of our children, their distinctive spirits and talents. We were so lucky to have her!
ME: And more generally about art helping us change our view of ourselves and the world:
MB: I find that art has the potential to cut through those established narratives that desensitize us over time with an acute subjective voice – which can be a shock and it can be transformative because it helps you feel a personal connection.
ME: What has been a personal experience of your own in this regard?
MB: My sister, Miranda Bellamy, made some really potent and vulnerable photographic & video work about her gender transition, the images showing some of the minutiae & accouterment of her transition such as a large scale close up of an estrogen pill, looming like a full moon. Having the work in a public art space gave a real opportunity for open sharing around this subject and made it feel like an occasion that fused the public and personal for our family.
ME: Tell us a bit more about where your art is exhibited – what kinds of spaces do you like for your art, and where can we find it most recently?
MB: Mostly, I exhibit in our family gallery, Bellamy’s Gallery on the Otago Peninsula & Diversion Gallery in Picton but I have had shows in galleries around NZ and have also exhibited in less conventional spaces like Dunedin Airport & Olveston Historic Home (where I had a residency a few years back).
ME: And what’s next for you? What are you working on now and where can we find your next exhibition?
MB: At the moment I am working with poet, Richard Reeve, producing works that respond to his recent long poem, Rain Poem, that is largely set in a Southland landscape as viewed from the road but knits in reflections on language and metaphysics. I’m also working on a series of screenprints that document points along the way of my commute around the harbour, from my home near Port Chalmers to Bellamy’s Gallery on the other side of the harbour, in the mode of old-fashioned travel posters. This seemed like a timely project with a new harbour cycle-way shortly to be completed & the sense of old style travel having a new lease of life that comes with this.
Manu Berry’s practice employs a range of printmaking techniques. He responds to subject matter within his immediate environment in a tangible and disarming way. His driven work ethic has seen a huge, diverse body of work created over the last 15 years.
Informed by Japanese woodcut tradition without being beholden to it, Berry creates picturesque nature scenes, cleverly rendered portraits and tableau’s with depth and maturity. Inspired by his South Island home environment, he superbly captures the character of place. More here.