Chris Bates

October update

Up close

Chris and I met in June for her blog spot interview and since then I keep bumping into her around Dunedin. I’m not complaining! Chris is a most delightful lady and even when this exhibition is just a far away memory I know we’ll still be friends.

The full picture

This is Chris’s latest piece of exquisite jewellery which I’d like to share with you. I have a special fondness for giraffes so was chuffed to see them appearing in this necklace!

The Chris Bates interview

It’s become increasingly difficult for me over the weeks to ‘stick’ to my questions because the artists’ answers send me off onto tangents! Now and then I have to be firm with the artists, and myself, and say right back to the questions. But within minutes we’re veering off course again!  Today I’d like you to join me for a meander along the path and side-tracks of Chris Bates’s life.

I first met Chris at the Dunedin Railway Station Art Gallery when this project was in its infancy. Chris was serving in the shop and upon seeing her necklace I made some comment, a positive one, and she just casually said, Oh I made it, there are more in the cabinet here. I knew immediately her work would be perfect for When North meets South and invited her to take part in our exhibition.  A few weeks ago I received an email from Chris asking if she could make two necklaces.  When I replied go for it I also asked her if I could come out sometime for a chat. So on Tuesday afternoon, when Southland was under siege with snow and dire wind warnings were blowing about Otago, I drove out to Mosgiel.

Chris’s house, built by husband Buster, is down a long drive way, surrounded by neighbours but secluded in its own magnificent setting. The naked lady lounging in a bath in the gardens was the first thing that caught my eye. Being such a cold day it was fortunate that she was one of sculptor Suzanne Emslie’s creations!

When I arrived, Chris was busy working on her current project – pricing fixtures for the house she’s just finished designing. So the first question immediately presented itself. Is Chris Bates a designer?
“No, but I did study interior design at the Open Polytechnic. You just have to figure out what you want. Well it’s not what I want really as it’s a spec house Buster is going to build. I have to keep in mind it’s not for me and not pour all my dreams and desires into it! We want to sell it, so it’s got to be practical but with a sprinkling of magic. You know, it has to be special. I’ve worked hard to make sure the Mosgiel winter and summer sun come into the most used rooms at the right time of day.” When I commented it looked to me as though she was a bit of a perfectionist Chris laughed. “Not really, but I have to admit one day Buster found me muttering away looking frenetically through my paperwork. I’d just got my results back from the Open Poly  – 98%. I had to figure out where I went wrong. I know that sounds silly so I guess, yes you probably could classify me as a perfectionist.” So if anyone is looking for a stunning, down to earth 3-bedroom house in Mosgiel, with a hint of special peppered through it, then keep an eye out around February. I’ve seen the plans Chris has drawn and she’s thought of everything – complete with inner courtyard and water feature.

Chris’s necklaces

When did art first make an appearance in your life Chris?
“Well I’ve drawn ever since I was a youngster. I took School Cert art as an easy option to avoid maths but that was about it. Then after our son died suddenly at 7 months I decided I had to do something with all my spare time. I found a watercolour course on offer at the YWCA, which fitted in with Alaina’s kindy hours. I went to those classes… Audrey Bascand was the tutor…. for 18 months, until my next pregnancy which enforced bed rest. When the twins were born I’d put them in highchairs in the kitchen with crayons and paper while I leaned on the kitchen bench painting watercolours.”

And here goes for one of my totally irrelevant but ‘I’m interested’ questions. Apart from bringing up your family where else have you worked?
“My very first job was at Hallensteins where I earned, wait for it, a whole $11 a week. Amazing, $11.00! Then I worked for a Medical Firm for 15 years as their sole charge office person. I enjoyed that job. I was a fulltime mum for a few years.  When the children got to school age I started working as a caregiver to a tetraplegic friend  until her death. So that was 50 hr weeks for 19 years. And in our spare time Buster and I bought houses and did them up for resale. We worked hard. The children were practically brought up with power drills and paint strippers in their hands! I sat my Real Estate exams too but apart from knowing the ins and out of selling houses I haven’t been interested in following it up professionally. Well I haven’t really had time.”

So I guess travel hasn’t been an option for you?
“ Well,” Chris laughs, “I’ve been to Africa, South America, America, China, Asia and Cambodia. I guess that counts as travel.  Cambodia was the highlight for me. I take photos wherever we go. Come and have a look.” We wander into the workshop Chris shares with Buster. It’s like a magpies’s nest with an array of bright colourful tiles, pebbles, stones, glass – – – – . Chris shows me her mosaics, a giraffe painting, a zebra one in progress and then we wander through to another room where from out of a cupboard she pulls painting after painting. I’ve known her for less than 30 minutes but I feel quite comfortable in reprimanding her for stashing such treasures away in the dark – paintings of elephants, kowhai, pohutakawa, more elephants…….. We wander back to the lounge to continue our chat…..

Seeing all this work tucked away I’m wondering how you market your work and where else can we find your jewellery apart from the Art Society Gallery at the Station?
Looking slightly bashful Chris admits, “I only sell via the Art Society Gallery. I could easily sell other people’s work but not my own. I don’t like to push myself and I take rejections so personally.” I have to agree with Chris. I don’t mind approaching people via email or letter and if they reject my ideas/projects well there’s always that distance but to be rejected in person, it’s kind of squirm making!

Are you painting or working on jewellery or mosaics every day?
“No I’ve got too much happening in my life. And I work in fits and starts. I’ll work on the jewellery, get totally absorbed in it and then I’ve had enough. I need a break. I decided I’d like to have a go at mosaics this year. The library books were so confusing. The ones from the States said use this adhesive and the UK books said don’t use the same adhesive. So I just rang up a tiler, asked his advice and from then on I was away laughing.”

And some more beautifully crafted pieces.

Do you work on multiple jewellery pieces at a time?
“No, just one at a time and it has to be perfect. If Buster comes in at night and sees what stage I’m at he’ll go away and start dinner because he knows I won’t stop until I’m finished!”

Where do you find inspiration for your work?
“Well it’s usually when I’m working on a piece of jewellery. I’ll be halfway through it and suddenly I’ll have an idea for another piece of jewellery so I have to stop, write my idea down and then I’m desperate to finish what I’m working on so I can start on the new one.”

We are doing so well sticking to these questions, lets keep going. Do you work with sale in mind?
“Not really. I get an idea and then I can’t settle until I’ve made it. A sale is just an added bonus.”

Do you prefer to be on your own while you work?
“Yes definitely.”

Do you work in silence or have music playing?
“When I’m painting I’ll make a careful choice, a cd that lets it flow. But when jewellery making it can be talk back radio or tv in the background, it doesn’t matter I’m so absorbed.”

Do you ever push yourself to finish something that is arguing with you through the whole creative process?
“Yes. I will never walk away from a painting. I just keep going until I’ve got it the way I want it. For my jewellery I’ll pull it apart and start again until I’m happy. I won’t be beaten.”

What was your first exhibition and where?
“It was in 2010. That was the year I came out!

I was diagnosed with Parkinsons two days before Christmas 2007 and you won’t believe this but Buster and I went out to celebrate. We bought a new Christmas tree and decorations. We’d known for a while that there was something wrong and it could have been a number of scary scenarios so having Parkinson’s was such a relief! I didn’t want people feeling sorry for me so only the family knew. But in 2010 when the Parkinson’s Society was looking for a focus for their Awareness week we offered to have a Garden Tour with cream teas at our place. I was the face for Parkinson’s Awareness that year too so it was huge for me as I’m more of a background person. 350 $10 tickets were presold and another 150 were sold at the gate – so it was a really successful day. I had a sales table of jewellery and to my utter surprise I sold several hundred pieces that afternoon!
When I couldn’t manage watercolours anymore I moved on to acrylics.  I played with a pegboard for a while on the advice of an OT, it was all about keeping my fingers nimble, but it was so boring I couldn’t bear it. I saw a button necklace and thought that would be a more interesting way to keep my fingers supple. I bought a roll of wire, buttons, feathers, and beads and because I had no knowledge I had no limitations. I hadn’t been taught or read any books so you can’t or it’s not possible didn’t interfere with my ideas. I use nails, electrical wire and anything in Buster’s workshop I can lay my hands on. I’ve just created and played and had the most wonderful time making necklaces, bracelets, rings. So what was the question? Oh yes that was my one and only and best exhibition!”

 This next question I should skip. With everything you’ve mentioned I’m guessing you don’t have time for any other interests?
“I can always find time. There’s my family for starters. Alaina, she’s the oldest, lives in Mosgiel. Alaina and Nathan both work full-time and also have their own photography business, Gillies Photography. I look after their 3-year-old, Cameron, one day a week. And then the twins; Larissa works at Placemakers and Clinton served his apprenticeship under Buster and now works with Buster. I look after Clinton’s wee lad on Thursdays. He’s two so that keeps me on the go. We’ve got 1.5 acres of garden, I volunteer as a St John’s helper in the ED unit one-day a week and also work one day a month at the Art Society’s Gallery. Life is full.”

Well that takes us back to where we met and that seems like a fitting place to take my leave. 

Oops, one further question. How did Buster get his name, I’m intrigued?
“Well the family story goes his mum wanted to call him Alan after some film star at the time and his dad took one look at his new-born son and said he looks more like Buster Keaton to me. And so he’s been Buster ever since.”

As I farewell the lady who by now is looking chilly in her bathtub I head back over the hill to Dunedin working on some ideas as to how Chris’s jewellery can get more exposure.

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