Manu Berry

Before I set off for today’s interview I googled Woodcut so I had a little background of this art form.

Woodcut is when an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges. The areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ at the original surface level. The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas.

Manu’s Print Studio

With that information freshly tucked away in my mind I drove down to Port to meet up with printmaker Manu Berry. He has recently moved his studio space from George St, Dunedin to George St, Port Chalmers. It’s a light, bright, combination gallery/working space, easy to find, and has free parking right outside.

Manu’s primary years were spent at Becks School in Central Otago. In Dunedin he attended Tahuna Intermediate, Bayfield High School and then switched to Logan Park High for his final year of schooling. Logan Park was where Manu found his niche – like-minded students, an art department he ‘connected’ with and, it was where he met his partner Cass. So a brilliant decision all in all!

Manu’s work area

When I asked Manu about his first important piece of art he quietly withdrew into his memories before retrieving, an owl drawing. I won a prize for it, I think I got money and I’m pretty sure I didn’t get to keep the owl. He went on to say, Art at Tahuna Intermediate was great – Lynn Taylor was the art teacher there. And I also attended Saturday morning classes with Rob Piggott – I really enjoyed those. (Rob is another of our haiku artists, still to be interviewed).

Manu’s first exhibition was at Changes Gallery in Queenstown – now it is some kind of china or antique shop he thinks. And your best exhibition I ask? Manu’s face lights up and he answers with no hesitationStone Flowers, it was at The Forrester Gallery in Oamaru in 2010. That was a great exhibition – it had a limestone theme. When I asked where else he’d exhibited he responded, mainly in the South Island – Greymouth, Alexandra – and a little in Wellington.  I’m so lucky having the connection to the Gallery at Macandrew Bay. (Manu is Pauline Bellamy’s son). It allows me a freedom to experiment and it means I can put all my energy into creating. I’m not a sales person. John is brilliant at the gallery (Bellamys Gallery) he has this way with people, not in a forceful salesmanship way but he just talks, is on hand to explain work and, without any pressure he makes sales.

Otago University

Back in 2007 Manu spent 6 weeks in the outback of Australia staying on a property of a fellow artist. It was so vast and alien. I took a while to adjust to it. You know if a tree fell it didn’t rot, it just dried up. The minute I sat down I’d be covered in ants. It was a bit like over on the West Coast – you had to work fast and keep moving.  Towards the end I became quite productive. Pauline came over for a week or so and that was great, both of us working there. I’d picked up materials from an art supply store and I bought a pasta maker and made very small, very very small prints.

Manu’s current project

Manu has great display drawers, he opens several to reveal brilliant prints, some inspired by a trip to Japan and India. While there he visited galleries, and sketched. Manu said he was privileged to see the gentler side of India  – he wasn’t hassled by vendors and locals, instead they gathered around him intrigued and fascinated by his sketching. In Japan he enjoyed the culture – everyone was busy being polite, so so polite. His love of Japanese woodblock prints shines through these works. Moving over to his bookcase Manu shows me pictures of woodblock printmaker Munakata at work and then by comparison the rather stark work of several German printmakers.

Manu giving me a live demonstration

Even though there’s no boss standing over him Manu tries to keep to a 9-5 routine at the studio. And when I asked what did he do if things got tough he was quick to reply I just try to work through it. Often if I persevere it opens up other ideas. Having a deadline – like an exhibition – tends to keep me focused. I’m a project person – I enjoy that.

Works in progress

And commissions? Yes I’ve had commissions. They’re quite tricky to balance. The customer obviously likes your work that’s why they’ve chosen you but then you have to make sure you don’t put too much of your own vision into it. Sketching children is a challenge, they are forever moving. I’ve also been commissioned to make prints of buildings –that’s interesting.

Concentrating

With Vivaldi playing in the background I ask if this is his typical studio music. Yes, and jazz and rock – depends on my mood and what I’m working on.

Do I work with sale in mind? No because it’s impossible to know what is going to sell. I make what I want, I’m my own personal critic, and if it sells that’s fine. Otherwise it goes away in my drawers and it’s there for another time. Once I stopped to sketch a mountain range and these cows came up to watch and in the end I started sketching the cows and as more came up the sketch expanded until it was huge. That ended up being a triptych and someone bought it – all three. Now that was unexpected, a pleasant surprise.

And another sale was made via nebulous means. My father had taken a picture of an aunt in my studio and put it up on facebook. Someone saw one of my works in the background, contacted my father for my details and they bought my work. So yes social media can be helpful. I keep meaning to get around to doing something like facebook but I’d rather be working in the studio. I’m not into the sales side really. And my work seems to sell without too much effort.

And where do Manu’s ideas come from? Well, from the tangible world rather than the intellectual. Often something will catch my eye when I’m driving.  I need one of those warning stickers on my car – this vehicle stops often. I draw at home, take the camera when we go for walks. I’ve got some Oamaru stone at home –I’m working on a sculpture of shags. There’s so much natural life to capture around here. I’m lucky the studio is so close to home. If people come out to Port Chalmers and I’m not in the studio they can always ring and I can easily pop along to open the place. I know I said I’m there 9-5, well I try to be. If I’m there, people are welcome to come in for a look around.

Llama and the Dalai Lama

Cute as

Manu wanders into the back room and comes out with some screen-printing he’s been playing around with. He opens up a couple of bags and pulls out some great t-shirts – each with a print on the front. There’s a duck, an albatross, the Dalai Lama with a llama……

Manu works directly from drawing to print, carving away wood and adding layers of ink. He dons his apron and shows me how he peels layers away. He works in very limited editions – usually only five or six in each edition. His partner Cass and baby Eulalia, feature in his current project.  With two such beautiful subjects I think Manu has a lifetime of projects ahead of him.

Cass and Eulalia

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