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Rail Trail Tales With The Thames Public Art Trust

Photo: Left to Right - Paul Silvester (Chair of TPAT), John McKeowen (Artist) and Rob Johnston making 'Miners Gates.'


Rob Johnston first became involved with the Thames Public Art Trust (TPAT) in late 2017. Having been pursuing his idea for a sculpture trail along the Hauraki Rail Trail, he was advised that TPAT might be a good body to associate with, having already formed the Underfoot Gallery, with its series of paintings on the footpaths in Thames. Rob felt his project would align with their work, and joining alongside provided the opportunity to seek community based funding which was unavailable to individuals. Following a presentation of his idea for an Open Sculpture Competition for the Xmas 2017 / 2018 period, both TPAT and the Thames Community Board offered their support.

The competition was held with 48 entries from artists and non-artists alike, two of whom were from overseas. The exhibition and judging took place in early 2018, with four sculptures initially selected as the best. The Speeding Train was the overall winner, and Jandal on the Mandel (a seat) the utilitarian work selection. In addition there were two people’s choice works selected by the public who came to see the exhibition - Miners’ Gates and Weave Your Way to Thames.

We caught up with Rob to ask him more about his involvement with TPAT, the importance of art in our communities, and their plans for future installations.


Photo: Work by Thames local and body paint artist, Mem Bourke, at the Underfoot Gallery in Thames.


What is involved with your work for TPAT, and how has this evolved?

I am now a Trustee of TPAT and the convenor of the Sculpture Trail sub committee. We are a small group of four trustees, and various volunteers who assist from time to time with our projects. Part of my work involves the planning and construction of those sculptures that came to us in model or concept form. I have done that for Miners’ Gates, Interwoven and Poetic Directions – all works that were entries in the competition as concept ideas rather than finished works.

This work involves sourcing suitable materials, scaling up the models or drawings to large size, and dealing with the problems that arise such as structural requirements, connections, and construction of the piece. During the construction process I’m also involved with the various stakeholders who need to be consulted about installation.

Stakeholders include KiwiRail who own sections of the rail corridor and lease the land to various parties, Thames Coromandel District Council and Hauraki District Council if the work is going on areas that they lease, local iwi who also have an interest in the land, the Hauraki Rail Trail Charitable Trust and if any works are close to a State Highway we consult with NZTA - Waka Kotahi.


Photo: Jandel on The Mandel by Artist Ricks Terstappen


The enhancement of the Trail with sculpture is part of an ongoing initiative to bring creative expression to the public and enhance local and visitor experiences in the region. Can you tell us more about this and the importance of public art in our communities?

The Trail already provides a place for people to get out and enjoy the outdoors for exercise or leisure. We are enhancing the experience with the presentation of artworks which provide additional points of interest along the Trail. Some of the Trail users may not ever make a trip specifically to an art gallery or sculpture park, so this project brings the work to them. We are also providing a space for a range of artists to display their work to the public, an opportunity they may not get otherwise through galleries.


Photo: The Spheres by Artist Mark Hayes


What do you enjoy most about your involvement with TPAT? How many installations are there, and are there plans for others?

Most of all I enjoy working for the community to bring art into the public space. At present we have three installations on the ground. Jandal on the Mandel, The Spheres and Penny Farthing, all towards the Thames end of the Kopu - Thames section of the Trail.

Our next three works are all in storage awaiting final permissions before we can install them. First to go up will be Poetic Directions, then Interwoven and finally Miners’ Gates.

Once we have these installed we will start again, with some more development from concept to construction of other works - most likely Weave Your Way to Thames first.


Photo: Penny Farthing by Artist Bruce Harper


Photo: Poetic Direction by Artist Sam Rogers


Photo: Miners' Gates (concept model) by Artist John McKeown


What is the greatest challenge you face with projects?

Funding the cost of construction materials is the major hurdle to overcome. The volunteers all give their time and expertise for free, but there are material costs which must be paid for. We apply regularly to various funders for support, and have been successful to date to get this far. Some of our future planned projects are larger and we’ll require higher levels of sponsorship to see them to fruition. Getting all the necessary permissions is also a challenge, and satisfying the requirements of the various stakeholders.


Have you enjoyed the Hauraki Rail Trail on foot or by bike?

I have ridden from Thames to Paeroa and on to Te Aroha on the Trail. I have done the Karangahake Gorge section separately, and also been part of the way along the Kopu to Kaiaua section.


Where are you hoping to adventure next?

I’ve been thinking about researching the locations of some of New Zealand’s lighthouses up around this area, and I’m currently planning a trip to see them as they’re interesting buildings to me.


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