Llew Summers was born Christchurch, New Zealand on 21 July 1947 and died on 1 August 2019, after a career of more than 50 years. In 1971 he held his first exhibition of 27 works, and held many one-man shows as well as exhibiting alongside other artists including: Tony Fomison (an early mentor and supporter), Fatu Feu’u, Michael Smither, Tom Mutch, Peter Carson, Roger Hickin, Bing Dawe and Graham Bennett.
He believed it is the role of the artist to challenge: “if it’s not challenging, then, in some way, it’s not new”. His interest was primarily in figurative works, and celebrated the human form, affirming the beauty of the human body.
His use of religious symbolism developed following a formative and revelatory overseas trip in 1999. It was first manifest through a series of icons and shrines comprising crosses, hearts and lights. It then led to a fertile preoccupation with winged forms, most often, but not exclusively, attached to bodies. These angels are an obvious melding of the human and the divine – bringing an explicitly spiritual element to his work and highlighting the important role of morality, and the spiritual dimension of human existence.
“What’s important to me is to get a balance between the physical and the spiritual in life. We’re given a soul and we’re given a body. Sculpture is a nice balance because works can be made which are deep and meaningful, but they require your physical body to produce them. Works must have soul, rather than being merely clever or smart.”
In 2000 he was commissioned to carve a set of Stations of the Cross for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. His depiction of the crucified Christ caused some controversy (to which he was no stranger) due to Christ being naked and Llew reluctantly added a plaster loin cloth. The Stations inspired the writer Bernadette Hall to write a series of poems, or meditations, and these were published, along with images of the works, in a book: The Way of the Cross. The Stations and Hall's poems in turn became the inspiration for New Zealand composer Anthony Ritchie's fourth symphony, Opus 171, Stations. The work was written for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and was dedicated to those who suffered in the major earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2010/2011. Stations was first played in Christchurch in February 2014 and has been recorded by the CSO on Atoll (ACD314).
Llew regularly participated in outdoor sculpture shows such as those held at the Auckland Botanic Gardens and Tai Tapu Sculpture Gardens, and his works are held in their permanent collections. His large sculptures can be seen in public spaces from Kaitaia to Wanaka and many localities in between, with Timaru having purchased its second large work, Encircling the Baroque in late 2017 – now installed in a prime location on the piazza of the Bay Hill, overlooking Caroline Bay.
Listen to an interview by Denys Trussell in his Cultural Icons series here:
“The figurative has been going out of fashion for so long and people have said to me: ‘the figure has had its day’. Hello? We are human beings. As long as we are human beings, the figure will be there.”
Llew died at his home on 1 August 2019. We mourn him and miss him at the same time as we celebrate his huge legacy of 900 sculptures, and enduring memories of his vitality, generosity and love of life.
A book on his life and work by John Newton, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2020, with assistance from Creative New Zealand. You can read the full Media Release here. The book has been widely reviewed and praised.