Sarah Maxey is a graphic designer and hand lettering artist with a distinguished career in book design. She has produced award-winning work for literary publishers in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. It is her collaborative work with poets in particular that has inspired her to develop her own singular voice in concrete poetry using hand-drawn type. Concrete poetry is that in which the typographic arrangement of words is as important in conveying the conventional elements such as text, meaning and rhythm.
Maxey has recently returned to New Zealand after eighteen months in the United Kingdom and Germany and is currently regrouping on the banks of the Whanganui River. On her arrival in Wanganui, the Sarjeant Gallery commissioned Maxey to develop a site specific text based work for the central dome and ‘Comeback’ is the result.
Moving from the page to the room is a giant leap and the drawing that Maxey produced for ‘Comeback’ was tiny – just A5 – and she is interested in the way that meaning can be altered by a change in scale. On the page, the word feels plaintive and sorrowful, like a request for a return. Enlarged, it feels like a confident return to action.
Maxey lived in Wanganui as a teenager in the 1980s and remembers spending a lot of time in the Sarjeant Gallery, she comments “It’s a great honour to be back installing my own work in the dome, and it feels like a comeback of sorts. I’ve also just returned to New Zealand so the notion of reappearance is on my mind”. Growing up Maxey was an avid reader and from an early age this interest was coupled with an innate love of letter forms and she cites being completely obsessed with her own handwriting from the age of about seven. For this installation Maxey has hand painted each of the letters directly onto the walls of the dome. Training as a textile designer has influenced the forms of the letters with each resembling folded fabric, as though they could easily be removed from the wall and be packed away for a ‘comeback’ somewhere else.
As a space the Sarjeant’s dome has the dual purpose of drawing visitors to the centre of the symmetrical Greek cross that forms the Gallery and at the same time it also pushes people into the wonderfully distracting wings filled with more art. Maxey has played on this point of axis by encouraging us to stand at the centre and let our eyes travel around the eight wall surfaces of the dome to take in the word. The letters are at once beautifully crafted forms in their own right but their connection to one another spans each of the four openings to the wings, and rather than a broken line of text, Maxey has made a continual thread.
In contrast to the controlled letter forms of comeback, Maxey has also handwritten couplets of words that occupy and agitate the bases of the four niches. From where you are standing it looks as though someone has been dancing in the discs with grubby boots, on closer inspection we find that each has been filled with two words. When read from any starting point and working in a clockwise or anticlockwise rotation around the four niches these form a poem that Maxey has penned in response to the Whanganui River. Maxey comments that as a teenager she barely noticed the river but as an adult she has gained a new found respect and admiration for it and the poem is an exploration of continuous flow.