A Conversation with Flox

On September 15-16, The Exchange hosted a one-night, one-day pop-up shop, a joint venture between jeweller Cathy Pope, artist and illustrator Ema Frost, and artist (and all-round renaissance woman) Flox. The Auckland-based triumvirate transformed the Waltham space into a unique retail experience, packed with jewellery, clothing, books, prints and original paintings, representing the changing dynamics of our methods of consumption; offering an alternative to both online shopping and the dreary mundanity of monolithic mall culture.

We took the opportunity to speak with Flox about the pop-up shop concept, her experiences travelling and painting at various events and festivals, her stencil process, and her reflections on post-quake Christchurch…

Hi Flox! Welcome back to Christchurch!

Always good to be here!

Tell us about the pop-up event here at the Exchange, and how that came to be…

So, myself, Cathy Pope (a jewellery designer) and Ema Frost, who is another painter/designer, last year we got together to a start a project called the Painted Peacock Project, which took us up to India, where we worked with some kids and painted a mural. Aside from that we’re really great friends. After we came back we just really enjoyed working together, and there’s a lot of really great connections with what we do, so we thought well, let’s try this pop-up idea that we’d been talking about. We’ve since had two pop-ups, we did our first one in Napier and the second one in Tauranga. Both of which were really successful. Luckily for me, the Tauranga one coincided with an event, and it’s quite good when I can tag a pop-up onto a festival or something that I’m in town for anyway, you get an even more fantastic response because you’ve just done this great big thing for their community, and it’s really cool, just that whole give and take thing.

Yeah, absolutely

So it’s fantastic to be here in Christchurch. This is the first time in my entire career actually that I’ve been able to do something at this scale, for Cantabrians. I know I’ve got a lot of fans down here, and a lot of my online purchases are from Christchurch. So, I said to the girls, why don’t we do one in Christchurch? Why don’t we go the extra mile, pack the van up, like pack that shit in, like a Tetris game and just drive it down. So, Ema and I did the road trip down and Cathy and her husband Martin are going to drive the van back and we get to fly home, which is cool…

Sharing it out!

So we’re sharing it, it’s a beautiful kind of sharing philosophy that we have, and at the end of the day, you know, we’re all trying to make a buck and to live off what we’re all passionate about. The pop-up format is a good way to expand audiences and allow for different communities to come and look and touch and feel and have that kind of retail experience. You know online is online. Everyone shops online these days but you can’t beat being able to actually see the piece in the frame, touch it, feel it, lift it up, you know. That’s the thing.

Particularly when they are unique items…

Totally. Even in Auckland, in my showroom, people come in and say, ‘Oh it’s so good to see the stuff!’ And a lot of the pieces, they do get up there in terms of price and I wouldn’t expect people to not want to have a look in the flesh first. So, yeah, I’m super excited about tonight and tomorrow and it looks like we’ve had a really good response online so we’re hoping for a good turn-out.

Pop-Up Shop at The Exchange, September 2017, photo courtesy of Flox

I imagine it will be, Christchurch seems to have developed a better reputation for coming out. There feels like a bit of a sea change, but it’s understandable when for so long there wasn’t much to do…

Absolutely, as you said before, I have been down here a multitude of times in the last ten years and every time, obviously a lot has changed down here, but I go back with this renewed sense of energy, cos so much has changed and I feel like it’s quite motivating. I mean, you guys have been through shit, it’s been hard, but I think now you’re on the other side of it, there’s a lot of positive change, it’s cool to see.

Touch wood!

Touch wood!

Opening night of Pop-Up Shop at the Exchange, photo courtesy of The Exchange

Just going back a little bit, when you talked about the experience in India, and then in Napier, which was the Sea Walls event right? (Sea Walls New Zealand is co-ordinated by artist Cinzah Merkins, and is a tie-in to the international Pangea Seed Foundation events which combine muralism with ocean conservation themes)

Yeah, it was Sea Walls, correct, correct.

Such events are becoming more and more common, where there is a social tie-in to the ever popular street art or mural festival. They obviously present muralism as a vehicle for social commentary and serve as a realisation of the power of these forms. Through your participation what reflections do you have on such events?

Yeah, you know it shows thought and discussion and it really brings a community together, you know, like public art does that anyway, but on top of that we’ve got this incredible theme running through, such as Sea Walls, which is basically marine conservation. We were given a range of topics to choose from. Firstly, it brings communities together because it brings up topics that need be discussed and talked about. But also, from an artist’s point of view, you’re really connecting and you’re really forced to think outside the square and maybe try something new. So you’re growing yourself. You know, with those festivals, personally, every time I paint a mural I want it to be the best I’ve ever painted. So it’s a growing exercise, from a technical and process-driven point of view. But also, the level of communication that you get and feedback from communities is unprecedented. It’s phenomenal.

As opposed to festivals that might undertake discussions about what graffiti and street art are becoming now, these events with social or ecological themes, they move in a different direction, away from the insular reflection and show the inherent ability of these types of expressions to be part of our wider discussions. You know, urban art is often considered rebellious, something people try and solve, but this shows the potential for these cultures to be part of a whole wide range of our communal experiences, which ultimately must be really fulfilling, because I assume ten years ago this wasn’t something you thought would be happening, right?

It’s moving so quickly, like these whole subgenres that are happening and the whole muralism thing, twenty years ago, it was just graffiti, and that had its own origins. But I think fundamentally, when you’re comparing maybe the graffiti world and then this whole street art thing and then the muralism and the festivals, the difference is that I always liken us to the ‘hippy’ artists, the tree huggers, you know, because our intent is to engage, to say ‘Hey come and have a look, I’ve got something to say, and I want you to be able to read it and to have a connection with it.’ I want you to be a part of this genre or this thing that is going on, whereas graffiti was really closed. I wouldn’t have a friggen clue what that said, what they were writing was for those people only, so I think the arms are moving wider and wider, and muralism again is just this whole other thing, it’s just like this huge growth, it’s just blowing up isn’t it?

And it’s raising some really interesting questions around who gets to define and appropriate terms, is post-graffiti/street art/urban art/muralism the same thing? Are they different limbs of the same body? But in many ways its feels like all these arms need to co-exist so that it isn’t co-opted by institutional powers to say this is what this is, and that is one of the dangers I guess, and it’s really important for the sense of ownership and that is why I think artist driven initiatives are so key…

Yeah, I think so, and I think one of the greatest things of any subculture that arises is that it is completely natural and it just comes out of nowhere, you know, and then suddenly you’ve just got this thing, and you’ve got to make a label for it, ‘Quick! What’s it called? What is it?’

Its our human nature to categorise, isn’t it? Recently I was talking to some students about Christchurch’s post-quake landscape and the changing types of creative expressions and interventions, and one student asked why certain cities have become popular sites for graffiti or street art? And my response was that there are so many reasons, and things happen organically, be it a socio-political influence, a response to the physical setting, or it can be just a group of people coming together at a specific time…

It can be a specific situation, like the earthquake, there are so many reasons. Then you’ve got gentrification, that’s another one…

It is really interesting in Christchurch in the inner city at the moment, you may remember a few years ago it was much more haphazard, but you’ve got more and more of these shiny glass facades popping up, and it’s changing the landscape. It is quite interesting to think about what the response might be, there’s room for some really cool guerrilla projects because that physical surrounding is such a big driver of how artists respond to areas.

Absolutely, it’s about using what’s there too, looking for those opportunities.

So when you visit other cities and produce work, how much of that experience of the physical, the social, all those other issues that the actual event that you’re there for, or if you’re just travelling yourself and you get the chance to produce something, how many of those issues come into consideration, I mean is it everything? Or is it often something more personally driven?

Thinking of Taiwan for example, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay there for three months on a residency, so I had the freedom to take my time and create a new body of work and respond to some of their social issues, you know, and also draw on some of the parallels that Taiwan has with New Zealand. So you have those situations where you have freedom and time, and then for me because I work with stencils most of the time, I’m having to pre-plan. So I’m not one of those artists that can rock up, (laughs) like when we did Sea Walls there were 23 artists, and I’d been working for three weeks leading up to it, and then we got there on the first day and I’d say 70 per cent of the artists didn’t know what they were painting! That’s a luxury right there! But I felt really confident because I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I actually like the whole planning thing. It has become almost like a graphic design exercise for me, that’s the challenge. Lately I’ll work really hard on these graphic layouts and Photoshop stuff, and some client driven jobs will require me to do that, but far out the last few walls I’ve done have been really well matched to the brief, so for me the process means that I can’t rock up to a city and, unless I’ve got time, and create a new body of work there and then, or get stuck into a wall. But certainly I like to respond thematically to a locale, and I think that travel has become an integral part of my rollercoaster process. With my practice I get asked to do stuff all the time that may not be as artistically rewarding, and because I’m doing that I have to make sure that I’m well fed, artistically, so I’m doing the festivals and I’m doing the fun stuff, so there’s sort of like two ‘me’s happening at once, and travel is the way in which I come back round to the beginning of that loop and re-influence myself and get that whole new inspiration from new cultures and new locations. For me that’s key, that’s how I work now.

And it just becomes a legacy that you can carry on and build on right?

Totally.

All those experiences feed each other…

And for your audience as well, it shows that you’re constantly on your toes, and you’re moving things along and you’re creating new stuff, and like I said, it’s for me too, otherwise, I’d be bored shitless!

Absolutely! That’s a good transition to talk about your diverse practices. We’ve talked about wall works and murals, but obviously your work ranges from clothing to light boxes to painted panels and beyond, do you think that’s driven by your own explorative nature, or is it tied to the processes you use, or again, is it all of them? Does your approach present constant opportunities to collaborate?

I get asked to do a lot, and now I do a lot of public speaking, and I work with students a lot and I say: ‘I think the best piece of advice I ever got and I’ll pass it on to you guys is that versatility is key.’ In this day and age, when you go to art school and you practice to become a painter, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go off and be a fashion designer or a photographer. I mean, you don’t have to be one thing. I think industries are crossing over in all sorts of ways, and I think that if you can show versatility then that’s essentially keeping doors open. So, yeah that’s always been part of my philosophy, just doing all sorts! (Laughs) But also, if we look at the business side of things, I’ll think: ‘Well, I haven’t really been doing many kitchen splash backs lately, but far out, the private commissions are going off at the moment!’ So it’s sort of like, if somethings not really flying, something else is…

In those commercial elements, say the splashbacks for example, do you find that inspires you to push your work in new directions that may reflect that experience, but without the utilitarian value? Do you find the commercial or practical stuff inspires your more freestyle practices? I’m just thinking that working on that glass surface of a splashback, it must present a range of problems, therefore a range of solutions, therefore a range of possibilities…

Yeah,

Do you find that they overlap quite a lot, do you find them seeping into one another?

Yeah, definitely, there are heaps of cross-overs like that, you’re learning on every job. You’re learning something that you can then take to something else. I mean thirteen years of doing this, you kind of take for granted the level of skill and knowledge you’ve got in your little kete, because it just seems normal. But it wasn’t until I started teaching workshops and I’m like actually, that thing there, you should be teaching them that because I’m just taking that for granted now, it’s just second nature for me. So, yes, there’s all sorts of stuff that crosses over, like you know kitchen splashbacks or outdoor exterior wall stuff for the council, yeah all sorts. I’m constantly learning.

So let me ask about your stencil techniques and processes. I was fascinated when you were here for the 2015 Spectrum show, I had the chance to see the show being put together, and I will always remember seeing all your plates laid out for your indoor wall work, it was an enduring image for me about the process of creating a larger stencilled work. What are your thoughts on the progression of stencilling, because I look back at the very political lineage, it was about a graphic nature that could be replicated and get out to as many places as possible…

It’s like signwriting almost isn’t it?

Absolutely, and what it did was allow preparation and readability, for images that could be replicated anywhere to suggest a particular message…

Repeated as well, repetitive…

And then from there slowly we’ve seen the rise of processes that sort of lead to the likes of Logan Hicks producing massive works of photorealism…

Highly skilled…

Almost mechanical in precision.

Like it’s gone back to the actual photo, like it is the photo.

What I’m getting to (in a long-winded manner!), is that one aspects I love about your work is the painterly quality, which shows the potential of stencilling as a medium, so it’s not just a way of producing a representation image. There is something beautiful in masking space and exploring negative space.

There is, and that’s the fun part about stencilling. I think my background, when I went through art school, I was really interested in printmaking and there are a lot of principles very similar to stencil creation: positive and negative space, what part you leave and what part you take away, that’s the bottom line of stencilling. But for me, my stencil aesthetic has always been evident. I remember the day that my partner at the time, we were working together in Cut Collective, and I remember when we did our first power box together. I was Flox, just, and I was just dabbling, mucking around with the stencil, and we’d finished it and printed it out flat and looked at it, and he was like, wow, I’ve never seen stencilling that looks like this, this is really unique, it’s really different. And up until then, all we’d really seen was you know, Banksy, and its that whole posturized kind of, very Photoshop looking stencil. And so this, over time, that’s the way in which I make marks, the scalpel is my pencil, so I’m really lucky. I feel like inherently, I have his thing in me that I feel so confident with a scalpel now that I’m really scared of a pencil. Like it’s flipped on me, like I get quite anxious when people say, ‘Can you draw something?’ and I’m like ‘No, I can’t draw anything actually, but I can cut!’ But, yeah, what I love about it is that there’s the whole stencil cutting creation, which is unique to me and because I’ll project up on the wall the image and I’ll draw my rough guidelines, but then really at the end of the day I’m ad-libbing with my scalpel, and that’s my special time, and then the painting part, I still get to be playful and although the stencil is rigid, it is what it is, but I can do all sorts of beautiful shading and splatter, and that whole painterly thing, I can be really creative with that stuff, the under-lying stuff, so there’s the combination of the rigidity of the stencil but also the intuitiveness of the painting process as well. I think that’s quite a nice blend.

And I think it’s often overlooked with the way people approach stencil techniques, they’re thinking blocks, a hard and fast positive/negative concept of form. But when you combine the rigidity of a plate with the amorphous nature of spray paint you get this nice combination…

Yes! You get that nice marriage. It’s funny because people will ask me, like a big bird of mine, how many stencils is that? And its only ever one, so I do all the shading and all the colours, and all that stuff freehand underneath, and then I put my stencil line layer, the top layer, whatever you want to call it, on top and that really confuses people, it seems way more complex than it actually is. But it’s not many layers, its one.

But it is layers of paint.

It is layers of paint. And that’s what I teach, I don’t hide anything, my kaupapa for my workshops is to teach exactly what I do, all my tips and tricks, and I just think, the more you can share the better, and who knows whose coming through? We didn’t really have any role models you know, it was kind of like walking through blindly for those first few years.

Which can be quite freeing right? Like you’re not living up to something, and yet at the same time it can be daunting…

It’s both isn’t it? You don’t really know where you’re going, however yes, it is really liberating.

I’ll stop before we get too far down the rabbit hole! Finally, coming back to Christchurch several times, what is your perception of how the city has changed, both in the obvious physical standpoint, but also compared to other cities? Is it a site of great potential or as some people might suggest, a site of lost opportunity? Which might seem cynical, but rebuilding on such a level is obviously a difficult proposition…

It is and everyone’s always got their perceptions, like one of my best friends, she comes down here a fair amount, to visit her sister in law, or some family member, and I always go on to her about how much I love Christchurch, and every time I come down things are moving and there’s this sense of motivation in the air, and new cafés and restaurants are opening, and she’s like, ‘Really?’ I don’t know if it’s the circles she hangs out in, but it’s just so depressing, but I guess I am part of the creative movement, and I’m surrounding myself with certain types of people, and that is what is motivating, and its up to the person isn’t it? To be a part of whichever part they want to be a part of. But for me, yeah, I’m not sure about missed opportunity, but from what I’ve seen I feel like people are really moving and changing and it feels like there’s a lot of really entrepreneurial types out there.

Flox’s wall for Spectrum, Welles Street, 2015

And I think there is an interesting type of entrepreneurship, in that there’s a social element, it’s not just the economic opportunist, it’s the social contribution…

People are a lot friendlier too, I mean compared to Auckland, you know, it’s a lot more open door, and maybe it’s easier to generate networks. But also like you say, for so long, there wasn’t much to do so people are really amped to be a part of something.

I think seeing your city deconstructed imbues in you a willingness to try things, to explore things, an that’s one of the interesting conflicts with the rebuild, you know, as this wild west landscape is disappearing a little bit, that control comes back and it will be interesting to see if that willingness of people to try things, to do things, endures…

I think so, it feels like you’ve got some good planning in place, I don’t know the ins and outs, but I’d like to think we in an era now where people are actually thinking about these things, it’s not the nineties, so I don’t know, touch wood right?

That’s right, as wishy-washy as its sounds, it’s a journey everyone’s on, and everyone’s experience is going to be slightly different as well.

That’s very true. Like we were just saying before, like imagine if we had a place like this (The Exchange) in Auckland? Obviously Auckland’s got its own problems, it is so widespread that it’s very difficult to create those cool little networks, those communities. In saying that, I’m right in Greylynn, so I do have that to a certain degree, but still. Not to mention, the price, the cost of rent, to have something like this you’d have to be a millionaire, times two!

It’s quite interesting to walk out of this space into the surrounding industrial area…

Yeah, I like that!

And yet, you’re still a stone’s throw from the central city…

It’s just there! It’s only five minutes! I like that and I hope these places survive through the build…

Definitely, it will be telling to see what legacies remain, and which are cast aside. And as I say, I hope the majority of people are willing to embrace ideas that have been borne of the challenges of the whole experience.

Like they’re genuine to that right?

Yeah, part of an attitude that has become fortified by this whole thing. Thanks for speaking to us! I’m looking forward to your pop-up, I’m sure you have a lot to do before the opening, so I will let you get back to it!

Thank you!

Find out where to see Flox’s mural in Christchurch on Watch This Space’s interactive map here or find out more about what Flox is up to on her Facebook page.

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