Electrifying driftwood

November 18

Walking the thin line of sanity in Papatowai at The Lost Gypsy Curios & Coffee.

IT’S THE SMALL PLACES THAT HIDE THE UNEXPECTED. YOU DRIVE THROUGH AND WONDER, WHAT HAPPENS HERE? THE TRIP FROM INVERCARGILL TO PAPATOWAI TAKES ALMOST TWO HOURS, AND AS YOU HEAD THROUGH THE CATLINS TO THE SMALL COASTAL SETTLEMENT (FULL TIME POPULATION ABOUT 40), YOU HAVE PLENTY OF TIME TO DAYDREAM ABOUT WHO AND WHAT YOU MIGHT ENCOUNTER. BUT YOU WON’T PREDICT A WOODEN BOX, CONTAINING A SCARECROW RIDING A UNICYCLE ON A ROPE, SET AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF THE MOON. BECAUSE WHAT, EVEN IN YOUR DREAMS, WOULD YOU CALL SUCH A THING? (FOR THE RECORD, IT’S CALLED ‘ERIC ON THE THIN LINE OF SANITY’.)

Welcome to Papatowai, and The Lost Gypsy Curios & Coffee. For 20 years, this has been home to professional “tinkerer with intent” Blair Somerville, and to his collection of magical mechanical devices that are a fusion of art, upcycling, engineering and philosophy.

I find Blair sitting outside the Lost Gypsy Caravan, by the coffee stand, chatting with Scott, another local, about solar panels. Wearing what looks like a leather blazer, Blair resembles a young steampunk version of Doc Brown from Back to the Future. At 48, he has the wrinkles of a man who smiles a lot, and a ready laugh accompanies all conversation with him, like a soundtrack.

How does a boy from the Lower Hutt, schooled in Auckland (via a detour in Western Samoa) end up here? The search for cheap land had something to do with it, as did knowing the area from visits to the school camp Blair’s grandad used to run “over the hill”. That doesn’t explain ‘Eric on the Thin Line of Sanity’, but this does, sort of: “If you buy
a section in the middle of nowhere, you have to come up with a cunning way of making a living.” He started the gallery in 1999, and it’s a living that has kept Blair going for two decades. Summers are for jawing with a growing number of curious tourists, while winters are spent fixing leaks and repairing his creations; the Southland climate is a hard one for someone who mixes electronics with driftwood.

Blair has long had a fascination with automata (a class of abstract machines that are traditionally self-perpetuating once set in motion—picture a Victorian-era version of the Mousetrap board game) and mechanical toys. “I enjoyed Science in school” he explains. “I’ve always had mechanical things in the back of my head. I like things that move.” His first work of automata was a “gurgler”, made from a bit of wire and a Pūpū Karikawa (Cooks Turban Shell); the shell spins through water to create the eponymous gurgling sound. Now, Blair uses scavenged natural materials and all manner of discarded pieces of junk like watch parts, coins, roofing iron and toys, to make moving devices that are propelled by hand, water and wind. Big and small, beautiful and strange, they are unexpected, hard to describe, and not to be missed.

“THERE’S NOT THE SMELL OF INCENSE AND FRAUD IN THE AIR, RATHER A BEGUILING MIXTURE OF YESTERYEAR AND CREATIVITY”

Many of the smaller works are set in an old Leyland house bus. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to find Rosie the Fairground Fortune Teller and her Crystal Ball, except when you enter there’s not the smell of incense and fraud in the air, rather a beguiling mixture of yesteryear and creativity. You enter another world, one where reality is suspended and the rational is left at the entrance. Every nook houses a delight; there are irresistible buttons to press, handles to turn. A penguin sings. A miniature metal dolphin dances. As the pieces (there are hundreds of them) grow in scale, and as the kinetic sculptures/trash artworks/thingamajigs get bigger, Blair employs cams and gears to give maximum effect from a single rotation.

“OH, TO BE LOST IN HIS DREAMS FOR A WHILE”

Asked where his ideas come from, Blair says a lot arrive in the middle of the night (oh, to be lost in his dreams for a while). He keeps his design book, crammed full of working drawings, beside his bed, and rather than being short on inspiration, Blair is frustrated by all the concepts that are “half- finished”. It’s a romantic vision: a man toiling
by candlelight, frantically constructing the next masterpiece, only to get side-tracked halfway through by an old hearing test machine he’s been given calling to him from the floor, begging to be made into something very different.

A few years after opening, Blair started to expand his creative spaces. He built a three-room theatre near the old bus, which now hosts a large number of medium-sized automata. He also bought a section, with the help of his brother, and built a house. For a man who used to live in a house truck in Christchurch, where he sold ceramic pendants at arts and crafts fairs, it probably all felt very permanent.

Today, things are definitely settled for Blair. He took up surfing a decade ago, and now calls himself the Catlins’ “oldest grommet”; his days are filled by all things Lost Gypsy, but when 5pm hits, the waves call as strongly as those middle-of-the-night ideas. He has also just got engaged and is looking forward to the annual Papatowai Challenge running event. He has a “rather large bet” with his new fiancéeé, which hints to a hidden competitive streak that isn’t all that surprising. This is obviously a man of quiet determination.

As for the future, there is talk of taking an exhibition around the country, maybe the world. And why not? Life is a balancing act, and Eric’s precarious position will likely resonate with many. Daydreams and encounters. The lost gypsy has found his place.

All photos Hayden Campbell / Blacklabel Photography

NEIL KIRBY

NEIL KIRBY LIVES IN OTATARA WITH HIS WIFE, THREE YOUNG CHILDREN AND FIVE SHEEP. HE RUNS HIS OWN MARKETING & BRAND CONSULTANCY BUSINESS, THE CURIOUSLY NAMED ATTICUS ROAD.


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