Llew Summers Body and Soul by John Newton
The circumstances which led to John Newton, poet, critic and cultural historian, writing ‘Llew Summers Body and Soul’ can be put down to happenstance. John Newton, the, then, University of Canterbury writer in residence was looking for accommodation. He met Llew Summers at a poetry reading, following that a book launch. Summers offered him a rent-free house on his property, an offer which, in its generosity, implies the artist’s warmth, openness and the genuine interest in others which is further established within the memoir. The initial plan, that Newton would stay six months extended to twelve and then beyond. In that time Newton and Summers became firm friends. Summers became seriously ill and it was important that his life and his work was recorded. Newton, as he puts it himself, ‘became the right person in the right place at this impossibly wrong time.’
This is a frankly beautiful book, both in the telling of a life, the poignancy of photographs and in the sumptuous, evocative images of Summers’ work. The book takes its shape from photographic records kept by Summers and Newton speaks of working through these with Summers explaining the works and the evolution of his artistic practice. Out of these, Newton has evolved both a record of work and, also, a narrative of life.
Summers’ development as an entirely self taught artist,- as he, himself, put it he was 'a total non event’ at school, is quite a story. It seems that, quite spontaneously, he set out to carve, to impose an initial image on stone which led him to the next, then the next project. He began to sell his work and have it exhibited.
I love the early works in concrete; the enormous, wonderfully-rounded female figures suggesting maternal warmth, nurture, the celebration of the body. Later works made using wood and marble speak to Summers’ development as an artist in their elegance and thematic focus. His works were frequently controversial. ‘Maternity’ featuring a giant, naked woman holding two children was both loved and derided. The figure was ‘fat’, there was no evident father. In Timaru, someone tossed red paint over his sculpture ‘Tranquility.’
Newton tells Summers’ life story in relation to the images. For example, the early large female figures may very well be representational of the loss of the important female presence he felt his children were deprived of when his first wife left them and his ‘Stations of the Cross’ not only of his own spiritual beliefs but his humiliating experiences after being arrested during the 1981 Springbok Tour protests. Newton, in associating these sculptures with life events demonstrates how personal circumstances may immediately inspire creative works or how the memory may stay dormant for some time and later arise.
This is a book to be valued, to be read over and gazed at, both for the honest and perceptive telling of the artist’s life story and for the energy and pure joyful celebration of life represented in the images.
Reviewer: Paddy Richardson
Canterbury University Press