LOST IN PARADISE – Sheep Photos – The Back-story

‘LOST IN PARADISE’ – is an exhibition featuring the work of Bruce Mahalski, Kevin Dunkley and Miranda Woolett at the Exhibitions Gallery on the corner of  Featherston and Brandon Streets in Wellington. The exhibition runs between the 20th of August and the 5th of September,2009 with the opening on Thursday the 20th between 5-7pm.

I always think art is more interesting if you know a bit about what you are looking at. So here’s a bit of information about the sheep-head series ( AKA ‘Planet of the Sheeps’) – a body of work which I propose to continue until I have enough for a book. Most of the photos  were taken of friends around Wellington in 2009 using three different 35ml cameras and negative black and white  film.


Sheep - The Happy Couple (n) 

The Happy Couple – Carey Hibbert and Catherine Povey – 2006.

In 1996 Te Papa held a contest to promote an exhibition of photos by the internationally renowned Magnum Group of Photographers. The competition brief was to produce a photo that was quintessentially New Zealand and if there is one thing that has always screamed New Zealand to me  – its sheep (sorry to everything else).

I already had the sheep masks (see www.mahalski.com – Current Exhibitions – ‘News’ section – first ‘Lost in Paradise’ entry) and one Sunday I took them to my friends’ Carey and Catherine’s place  to try and shoot the perfect kiwi picture  of them in front of their old state house. The clothes they were wearing were perfect but the house itself just didn’t work as a back-drop. We went for a walk with the masks and the camera and literally just around the corner we stumbled across the most  archetypical  state house in the country! I took a few picture (in colour) and entered the best one in the competition.  I can’t say that it won (although it was a finalist). That honor –of course  -went to a picture of a cabbage tree or a nikau palm – I forget which.

Ten years later- in 2006 – I was organizing an exhibition at Toi Poneke(the Wellington Arts centre) with another artist- Stefano TeVega and we needed a picture to put on the invites and the poster. After a failed attempt to take pictures of ourselves dressed as boxers  I decided to try and re-take the Sheep/Statehouse picture again but this time in black and white. Once again I went round to Catherine and Carey’s place and persuaded them to put on the masks. Luckily they still had the same clothes even if the intervening decade had seen them ‘shrink’ a little bit and the photos we took turned out well.

Stefano and I used one for the posters for the show and people  seemed to like it. It was fun taking photos using the sheep heads – they made almost any picture look provocative and interesting  – so it sounded like a good idea when dealer Ron Eskamp suggested I do a few more.


Sheep Farm

       Mother and son – Lisa and Tom on the farm  –  2009

The picture of Lisa and her son, Tom in front of a flock of sheep was the next ‘Sheep-head’ picture I took in the series. My original idea was to have a couple of young women wearing the masks and surrounded by a flock of sheep. I rang my friend,Christine, and she put me in touch with Lisa , and her husband, Mike, who help run a  farm in the lower North Island. Mike had already got quite a large flock penned up for dosing when I got there and a number of us went out to the pens with the masks and the cameras. I took a whole film of Lisa and Christine’s daughter,Amber, standing in the middle of the flock but it just wasn’t looking the way I wanted it. We’d already let young Tom have a play with the mask and he looked pretty good in it so I took another film of him and his mother posing with the flock behind them. These pictures were a lot more successful. I particularly like the look of the sheep.  Some of them are even looking at the camera. Normally when you point a camera at a sheep it automatically  turns its back on you (try it sometime) but I’d already taken a lot of photos by this time and I think the flock were starting to relax. I’m really pleased with the picture below of just Tom and the flock and the nice round hill behind him.


Sheep series - Farm Boy

    ‘Farm Boy’ –  Tom on the farm – 2009.


Sheep - pregnant

   ‘Young Mother’ – Justine King – Wellington – 2009

Years earlier I’d taken some pictures of my pregnant partner wearing one of the masks but she refused to let me show them to anyone. Naked people always looked great wearing the masks – like  Egyptian Gods or something out of ‘The Magus’ by John Fowles.  My friend Justine was really pregnant with her first baby and I knew she would be up for a picture. She’s one of the most uninhibited people I know and a great photographer herself.

I was trying to shoot all couples for the series so at first I included Justy’s partner Tristan, in the pictures. Like most self-conscious guys he refused to get his clothes off but the contrast of the naked and clothed sheep-head people looked quite good. However I was having  trouble with the light. The camera I had been using for years had just broken down and I was using an old Nikon I’d borrowed off my mother. It was giving me some really funny exposure readings ( I found out later it was broken too) and many of the photos turned out under or over-exposed. I couldn’t take the pictures again because Justine wasn’t pregnant anymore (having given birth to Rafaella by then). At first I disregarded this picture because I thought the subject was too small but the more I looked at it the more I liked the way the figure was standing on the edge of the darkness with a luminous glow around it. After bit of Photoshop tweaking by long-time collaborator Diane Davis I thought it was good enough to include in the series.


Sheep Heads _ Tom and Vaune

    ‘Circus Sheep’ – Tom Beauchamp and Vaune Mason –

        Wellington –  2009

My original idea for this picture was to have Tom  hanging upside down with Vaune standing beside him. Tom is the main man behind Fuse Circus – a Wellington circus company that does shows around the country. They also teach people how to do acrobatics/trapeze acts/ hula hooping /you-name-it ( www.fusecircus.co.nz).”

Vaune is also involved with Fuse and she is well known in Wellington as a   talented jeweler/artist/performer and all-round arts polymath. The photos I took of Tom hanging off the trapeze with Vaune beside him were OK but it was easier to get the look I wanted when they lay down on the floor together. I got quite a few nice shots from this series including a colour one of Vaune with her arms held out by her side like an Asian dancer. It looked so cool I got her to repeat the same pose in my studio  a couple of weeks later where I shot it in black and white (see below).

                                            Sheep with hands

                                      ‘Goddess’ – Vaune Mason – Wellington – 2009


Sheep - Rock1(com)

‘Rocky Shore Sheep’– Wellington’s South Coast – 2009

It was one of those winter afternoons when the light around Wellington’s South Coast was just awesome. I went out to my favorite beach just around from Moa Point with the masks and took a lot of pictures. It was hard to choose just one because several of them tuned out really well. This one stood out because of the lovely pool of light on the heads and the rocks in the foreground and the  calm dark detail behind them. It’s the only picture with no people in it.



Carlucci Sheep - Carl and Katherine Gifford and cat

  ‘Carlucci Sheep’  – Carl and Catherine – Carlucci-land – 2009

Like  a lot of people I had been driving past Carl and Catherine’s place in Ohiro Valley with a growing sense of amazement at the development of their sculpture park – Carlucci –land (carlucciland.co.nz). Their large property seemed to sprout huge stone and metal sculptures over night. One morning I went by and there was a Fiat Bambina ten meters off the ground on giant legs like a spider.  How did they do it and did Carl never sleep? One day I went round and introduced myself and suggested we do a sheep photo. Spiders are one of Carl’s recurring themes and I particularly liked the big one he had in his back-yard.

I took some photos of Carl and Catherine standing in front of the spider but this was the shoot when I found out my camera really was broken and none of the pictures  turned out too well. I had to borrow another camera – the third I’d used so far on this series – and we tried again a couple of weeks later. This time their cat , Max, was also keen to get in the picture and the photos turned out a lot better.  Apparently the large ball that makes up the body of the spider is some sort of cooling or lubricating component from a hydroelectric dam.

SauronAndSheep(medium size 

  ‘Sauron and Sheep’ – Marina, Steve and Al – Underground Arts – Wellington – 2009

 This was the most difficult picture to take. In fact I tried three times to get it right!

Steve Maddock is the director of New Zealand’s only Tattoo Museum (www.tat2.co.nz) and Underground Arts Tattoo Studio in Wellington. The Museum in Wigan Street in Wellington is also home to part of Steve’s impressive Lord of the Rings collection including the spectacular Sauron Mask in the photo.

The recent movies have connected New Zealand very firmly with the Lord of the Rings franchise and so it seemed pretty obvious to take a picture connecting LOR with New Zealand’s other big export identity – sheep (sorry everything else again).

I arranged to take the photos with Steve wearing the Sauron mask but we needed two other people to wear the sheep masks. We had one body, in the form of Steve’s business partner and well-known tattoo artist, Al Musson, but we needed another.  Luckily at that very moment a couple arrived to visit the museum. I asked them if one of them would don a mask for a photo and Marina, a visitor from Italy, kindly agreed to do so.

When I looked at the pictures they were fine but the sign on the wall behind them was too distracting and the masks did not stand out as well as they might. I took the pictures again with Steve wearing the Sauron mask and two other people under the masks but once again my camera refused to function properly and the pictures were under-exposed.

I did them a third time (with the third camera)but on this occasion I couldn’t get the composition right. I should perhaps mention  that taking the photos was made more difficult by the fact that Steve expected me to take the pictures extremely quickly – “You’ve got one minute!”   – and just wasn’t interested any pathetic excuses on my part.

I really wanted a Sauron and Sheep picture for the show. I just didn’t want to give up but I was too scared to ask Steve to put a  mask on again.  I decided to ask my my Photoshop Wizard friend, Diane, if she could  have a go at lightening the background on one of the first pictures  I’d taken.  I think she did a damn fine job and the image finally looks the way I hoped it might.


Sheephead pics- Lampton Lambs

‘Lambton Lambs’ – Katherine Field and Jonno Huntington  – Lambton Quay – Wellington 2009  

 This was the last photo I took the current series. I had been wanting to take a couple wearing office-type clothing in the centre of Wellington for some time but  most of the people I know are bohemian types with little in the way of ‘’straight’ clothing. Finally I managed to talk Katherine Field – administrator at Toi Poneke(Wellington Arts Centre) – where I have my studio – into doing the photo. She then had to convince her boy-friend, bar –owner, Jonno Huntington.  

One Sunday not too long ago we took a series of pictures in the CBD and I think the picture above came out the best. I had a bit of trouble with the new camera in the early shots but by the time we arrived in front  of the Prudential building I had it sorted.   Jonno looks like a sheepish Clarke Kent on his way to find a phone booth while Katherine plays the role of sultry secretary in the background.  I like the way it’s got the words – Lambton Quay in the picture. It always remind of Lamingtons- those small strawberry filled sponge-cakes that are so popular in the provinces. 

Sheep Lotto2(com)

      ‘ Lotto Sheep’  – Justin  – Wellington – 1999.

This photo was not taken at the same time as the rest of the series. I took it for an exhibition called ‘Money and Desire’ which was held in Auckland in 1999 but I never actually used it for anything at the time.

The show purported to be collection of artifacts from a cargo cult that had  recently started in New Zealand and that people were using all sorts of magic and ritual to try and achieve instant wealth. I already had some work in the show about Lotto and so I was ecstatic when someone I had a vague connection with actually won First Division. Justin was the eighteen year old son of my ex-partners new partner and he had taken out the Big One with his first ticket. What made this ticket even more cool was that he had watched the draw live and circled each number as it came up . Normally you’d circle the number in every row that it appeared but Justin just followed the one line with his circles getting more and more scribbled as his numbers all came up. This is a photo-copy of the ticket – you have to give them the real one – and they give you a copy. I used Justin’s win in several pieces for the show. My favorite was a decorated reliquary box which held three golden bottles – one contained his hair, another his nail clippings and the final one some fluff from his belly-button.

Thanks very much to all those who took part in the show! And to Ron at the Exhibitions Gallery, Diane Davis, Chris at Framer vs Framer , David White, Rogan Spears, Pauline Mahalski,  Photospace and all the staff at Wellington Photographic Supplies.

All photos © Bruce Mahalski 2009




Sheep Shakespeare

                                          The very first sheep head photo.

Used on the cover for the single – ‘Uptown Sheep/Dunedin Sound on 45’ (Flying Nun records) 1985

Photo by Miffy Rees  Model = Bruce Mahalski


About artordeath

Bruce Mahalski is a Dunedin artist, known for his illustration, street murals, and sculpture incorporating animal bones. He is founder and director of the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery, a private museum of natural history and ethnographic objects and curios.
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