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In search of Sculptor Josephine Miller

In search of Josephine Miller


A nationwide search for the creator of a striking bronze has drawn a blank, despite the possibility of substantial royalty payments for the artist.

The current owner of the piece, Canterbury art enthusiast Eric Robinson, is desperate to find its creator. He’s making reproductions but wants to see the original artist financially rewarded. Eric’s so passionate about the need to support New Zealand artists, he’s voluntarily placing royalty payments from the sale of each bronze into a special trust fund.


Eric Robinson is desperate to find the artist who created ‘Acrobats’ more
than 30 years ago.

Problem is, after three years of searching, he can’t find any trace of the artist.

All he has is a name – Josephine Miller – and a trail that goes cold at the now defunct Whitecliffe Gallery in Auckland, some time in the 1970s. Eric has been told that both the gallery owner at that time and his son have since passed away.

“There was only one piece of paperwork that came with the bronze and that was apparently written by the artist, Josephine Miller,” says Eric. “She was describing this and other pieces of work that were exhibited at Whitecliffe Gallery. Of course it’s possible Josephine was not the artist but it’s the best lead we’ve got.”

Eric admits to being absolutely captivated by the piece and is also keen to see more of her fabulous work.

“Whoever made this would likely to have been sculpting for a very long time to produce a work of this calibre,” he says. “Everyone comments how Cubist ‘Acrobats’ looks. Perhaps the work is earlier than we thought? Where did she train and with who?”

There is also strong agreement that the creator of ‘Acrobats’ was extremely talented.

“Every expert we have contacted comments on how distinctive it is – so much so, if Josephine produced other works, they would be highly sought after,” says Eric. “One of my theories is that she married and never continued with her art. The other possibility of course is that she has passed away or left the country.”

A key to finding Josephine lies in the way the bronze was made.

“Even today, this is an extremely difficult piece to produce,” says Eric. “It literally has holes in it, which is a large part of its appeal, but this makes it almost impossible to create in bronze.”

Art NZ, operated by Eric and his wife Sue, intend selling a limited edition of Acrobats. Nine have been made so far but they’re still struggling with the technicalities of the product and haven’t decided what the final number will be. Acrobats retails for around $3,000.

“We’re looking into whether the trust fund will have to be held in perpetuity for Josephine Miller or her estate, or whether it could, after a certain period of time, be used to provide a scholarship fund for sculptors,” says Eric.

“Female bronze sculptors are very rare, even internationally, so it would be fantastic to see Josephine Miller finally recognised for being the incredible artist she is, or was.

“The ultimate would be to see her work in Te Papa.”

PERSONAL HISTORY AND PHILOSOPHY:

Eric Robinson and his wife Sue live in Charteris Bay on Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula.

“My interest in art came from my mother, who was a professional illustrator and cartographer, now retired. She dragged me round the world from gallery to gallery from a very early age,” says Eric.

“I started collecting at age eight with a Hundertwasser postcard - ‘Street for Survivors’. I see artists producing work here that’s just as stunning and beautiful as anything I have seen in the world, so I wanted to promote work by New Zealand artists.

“As a collector, I buy art from living New Zealand artists. I’d rather not deal in the ‘cold’ stuff, art from dead artists. It has to be a win/win situation for us both.”

BACKGROUND INFO ON BRONZES:

In his desire to reproduce the work, Eric contacted a highly experienced patternmaker who told him ‘it was too difficult’. Luckily he later came upon Christchurch’s Colin Quartly, who successfully made the pattern but they then faced another setback when three successive foundries told them it couldn’t be cast. The ceramic mould that the bronze had to be poured into was too big to fit into the heat-up kiln. Christchurch’s foremost foundry Maces Engineering eventually came up with the solution which involves two men manually heating the ceramic mould with blow torches.

Steps involved in reproducing the bronze:

Make the die tool (from latex and fibreglass)

Make waxes from the die tool.

Make ceramic moulds from the waxes.

Pour the metal.

Clean the ceramic off

Sand blast the figures.

Braze the figures and the base together.

Sandblast the assembled bronze.

Patina the bronze (metal is heated and ‘aged’).


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