The Good Life

SharonJo Bailey talks to super-talented Hawarden artist Sharon Earl, who lives a “haphazard life” full of creativity and resourcefulness

Sharon Earl’s excuse for not collecting her three children from an after-school swimming practice is definitely in the strange but true category.

She was sound asleep inside a life-sized steel cow sculpture called Flora.

The talented Pyramid Valley artist was making the complicated piece for the Ellerslie Flower Show in 2009,  and had fallen well behind with the painstaking job of welding and bending 6mm mild steel rods into the three dimensional bovine.

Fuelled with coffee and joined in her workshop by constant companion Miss Elizabeth, the whippet, Sharon decided to work on the project for 60 hours straight – most of which she spent squeezed inside the cow to complete the interior welds.

“It was a really strange experience. My frayed jeans caught on fire three times and I would invariably nod off inside Flora as it was easier than yoga-ing myself in and out.”

Her children, Alex now 14, Fletcher 13 and Henry 11, would visit Sharon’s workshop after school to check her progress. But one afternoon she woke with a start, looked at the time and realised they hadn’t been in because it was swimming day.

“It is a very odd experience when your mother doesn’t arrive to pick you up because she is asleep inside a cow sculpture,” laughs Sharon.

Odd experiences are really nothing new to the Earl family, given Sharon’s wildly creative nature.

Her husband Paul returned to their 40 acre farmlet one day after work earlier this year to find she had painted a wall of the lounge black.

“I had seen blackboard walls in a few magazines and thought it was such a practical idea. On the spur of the moment I decided to mix some old black paint with tiling grout to make my own blackboard paint. I was halfway through painting it onto the wall when I had two thoughts, ‘I wonder if this is going to work? And I hope Paul is going to be ok with it’.”

In the end Paul didn’t actually notice until the children mentioned it.

“I think I’ve worn him down over the years. He knows to expect the unexpected.”

When the couple met seventeen years ago Paul had just moved a neighbour’s former house onto his 40 acre farmlet.

“It was literally up on blocks in the middle of a bare paddock,” she says.

Now the 1950’s weatherboard bungalow is surrounded by an easy-care garden with native plantings and a number of pieces made by Sharon, including the front gate and fence, and an outdoor table she created out of an aluminium roller door bought off TradeMe for $10.50.

“Most of my own projects have a budget of zero so I’m always on the lookout for materials no one else wants. I try and restrict my surfing on TradeMe though because I’m my own worst enemy. I’ve lost count of the times the kids and dog have had to scrunch up in the car because mum’s bought some peculiar piece of steel from Lyttelton or Rolleston.”

Before Sharon started welding steel sculptures she was renowned for her life-like animal drawings and regularly commissioned to draw pets, farm animals and racehorses.

After moving to Hawarden and the arrival of her three children in quick succession she started limestone carving, and not long after moved into steel sculptures that she says (modestly) are “really just three dimensional drawings in steel”.

She bought a welder from the Buy Sell and Exchange and after one lesson made a couple of pieces for the garden then decided to create a life-size steel horse for an Art in the Garden event.

“Quite a few people said I couldn’t do it. But I’ve always been very a much a rule breaker and prepared to challenge stereotypes. Right through my life there has been that element – but why not a girl?”

Some of her other outdoor projects include building three ‘cages’ for her children; constructing a forge with Fletcher; and doing up an old 1947 Guardsman van.

Inside the house she and Paul, both talented woodworkers, have made “nearly every stick of furniture”.

Sharon’s biggest interior project has been the new industrial-look kitchen she built around a solid mahogany bar-top bought from the Canterbury Student Union Bar for $80.

“The project took three years and I made the fatal error of pulling out the old kitchen before the new one was ready. We lived for nearly a year with very little bench or storage space.”

Quirky features in the kitchen include the ‘David Bain’ and ‘Earthquake’ cupboards lined with clippings and imagery from these major news events.

“In our house it is quite normal to be asked to get something down from the David Bain cupboard.”

Sharon also has a fondness for leaving “little-moments-in-time-capsules” including photos, letters or drawings within most of the projects undertaken in the home. She has even built secret cupboards into the kitchen drawers where a handwritten letter has been placed for “future finders”.

As well as being a busy mum, Sharon is also largely responsible for the family’s menagerie of real-life cows, sheep, donkeys and pigs, with such fetching names as Amenda Racer, Pixie Caramel and Wayne Obama.

In February, her beloved sculpture Flora will move to her new home at St Andrew’s College where she will grace the entrance to a new building on campus.

Another of her large pieces, the couple’s own four-poster bed, is currently centre stage at her exhibition, Crisp White Sheets, at the Chamber Gallery, Rangiora.

“It really is our actual bed! For some reason my life is haphazard and full of weird or strange occurrences. I’m not sure if I seek it out or how it happens – but it does.”

See more of Sharon Earl’s extraordinary steel sculptures, drawings and musings at her exhibition Crisp White Sheets that runs at the Chamber Gallery, Rangiora until 11 January.