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Landscape Painting

Historian Kerryn Pollock writes on Siv B Fjaerestad’s field painting project Projected Fields with Letting Space in Wellington 2015. Kerryn considers the marks we leave, and how this artwork touched off the past, present and future of a fascinating commons space.

Images: Gabrielle McKone, Mike Orchard and Grant Sheehan.


In 2015 attentive travellers moving along Adelaide Road - a major arterial route connecting Wellington’s inner city and southern suburbs - would have noticed a series of enormous paintings on the grass of Macalister Park, Berhampore.  

Like colourful crop circles, precisely measured and laid out, they appeared on the slopes and playing fields of the connected Macalister and Liardet Street Parks during a grey week in April. Unlike crop circles they were not the work of alien visitors from outer space, or more terrestrial beings with a penchant for mystery; rather an artist, Siv B Fjærestad and her team of volunteers working with public art producers Letting Space.


Projected Fields took Letting Space out of buildings and into the ‘burbs. It was borne out of Siv’s time in 2012 living near the parks, walking there each day with her young son and two dogs. She watched how people used the parks and navigated their way through their varied topography. She observed how the painted marks outlining the boundaries of sports fields often determined where people walked, as if they too felt obliged to adhere to the rules governing football and cricket. Dogs and children meanwhile had no such self-imposed restrictions, ranging wherever they chose.


Macalister and Liardet Street Parks provide a layered landscape of flat playing fields, grassy slopes, and hills threaded with bush. Siv noted how the painted lines glimpsed through a view shaft between trees, or truncated by the brow of a hill became divorced from their sporting origins, no longer simply denoting a rigid boundary over which a foot might not step or a ball fall, but carving up the landscape in a more abstract way. Marks and shadows cast by trees and clouds added natural shapes to the mix.

During the winter months, walkers left their footprints in the dew-laden fields. Those with a particular destination beat a straight trail as they short-cutted across the grass, and others out for a wander left a more serpentine line. Ordinary people going about their daily business, unintentionally leaving their mark on the land until the sun dried it away.

People’s paths brought to Siv’s mind English artist Richard Long’s ‘A Line Made by Walking’, a seminal work of land art made in 1967. Long trudged up and down a field in a straight line, flattening the grass and creating a distinct, if temporary, impression of his path through the field. His intervention gained a form of permanency when he photographed the line.

Taking its lead from these lines, Siv’s Projected Fields sought to capture in visual form the myriad ways people used the parks, present and past. A user survey by Siv and Letting Space, with much time gathering information on the field and online, produced data sets that lent themselves to graph-like representation on a grand scale. Giant pie charts painted onto the grass told how often respondents used the park and what new activities and events they’d like to see held within it. A stacked bar chart on a steep slope at Macalister Park’s northern end told how much time a typical couple with young children spent on unpaid work and leisure activities. The bar chart looked like a huge slide, referencing a favourite community activity on the slope, whizzing down it on flattened cardboard boxes and corflute signs. 


Other paintings told of past uses and hidden features: sombre brown blocks laid over cricket pitches marked where a plague hospital had been built in 1900; the line of an underground stream was traced from one end of the park to another. It probably didn’t matter if viewers were not immediately aware of what exactly the paintings signified; the lines and shapes were intriguing and encouraged further investigation, aided by an aerial map published by Letting Space listing what they meant. 

Perhaps just as intriguing were the things the paintings didn’t record. A survey is a good way of eliciting information and stories, and it produces an organised set of data that lends itself to the kind of visual exploration Projected Fields was, but it has its limitations. Only people who like doing surveys will participate, and unless they are unusually frank, they’ll only share the stories they want to tell.

Question four of the survey said: Please tell us a story: this could be a positive experience or happy or meaningful memory from the parks. It could be yesterday or from childhood. It could be an anecdote about the parks or the people who use it, or a reason why you feel these park areas are important to you or the larger community.

This question asked for affirming stories and memories, things that stuck in the mind and provoked a smile when recalled. ‘Meaningful’ doesn’t have to mean positive, but the celebratory tenor of this question encouraged people to share the good times. Public parks are important to people because they provide an accessible space for enjoyable recreational activities. They facilitate togetherness by hosting sports games and community events. They are precious public resources open to all. They are also a venue for illicit activities, hinted at by broken booze bottles and used condoms. Parks are sometimes forbidding places at night, low on lighting and full of darkness and menace. Fun can be had in the dark, but so can bad times.

Projected Fields didn’t set out to tell these stories – the fundamental intent was to celebrate the parks as public commons – but they are the flipside to scoring the first goal of the match and games of hide-and-seek.  


The project culminated in a community picnic in April 2015. A large crowd turned up on a windy but sunny day to join a dog walkers’ parade, watch a tai chi demonstration, fly a kite, listen to poetry, do zumba, share memories at a history booth and learn how to play kī-o-rahi, a traditional Māori team game, which a central design was inspired by. The paintings were walked on, sat upon, run along and cart-wheeled over, subverting the do-not-touch rule that would have applied if they were mounted on a wall. Just prior to the picnic they survived an accidental mowing by a council tractor, an incident a little reminiscent of the time Damien Hirst’s installation of coffee cups and full ashtrays was tidied away by a London gallery cleaner.

Projected Fields’ closing date was open-ended, contingent upon the action of the weather. The paintings faded as autumn turned into winter. Some were churned out of existence by football boots when winter sports returned to the park; others in quieter areas slowly dwindled to nothing in the wind and rain. The parks eventually returned to their usual state; the paintings that told some of their stories were a moment in time that passed.




Projected Fields happened coincidentally at the same time as nearby Berhampore School was commemorating its centennial. I was part of a group researching the suburb’s history for a book. The plague hospital depicted in the work was one of my discoveries.

A friend, surveyor and history enthusiast Ben Zwartz, volunteering on Projected Fields, told Siv about the hospital. Overlaying an old survey map over a Google map of the parks, we worked out exactly where the hospital had been. In painting out its footprint, Siv activated our discovery in a far more tangible way than merely writing it up in a book could.


The painted outlines of the hospital opened a window into an unexpected past. Some may have wondered what other stories the parks had to tell. Like an anniversary, Projected Fields provides an opportunity to tell some of these.

Macalister and Liardet Street Parks lie on the lower slopes of the Tawatawa ridge. Few know the ridgeline by this name anymore. Before Pakeha settlement the ridge was partially clothed in native forest and used by Māori as a bird-hunting ground. The lower section of the ridge became part of the town belt when Wellington was founded in 1840, preserving it from development, though not from deforestation.

Berhampore started its transition from farm to suburb in the late 19th century. What is now park was a scrubby, open wilderness. The plague hospital was built by the council in 1900 after bubonic plague reached New Zealand. Berhampore was still in Wellington’s hinterland. Going by horse or foot along imperfect roads were the only forms of transport.


The plague never even made it to Wellington. Victims of other infectious, but more commonplace, diseases were treated at the hospital instead, as were injured soldiers during the First World War. Later, the shabby buildings were rented cheaply by local families. They were knocked down after a fire in 1929.

Berhampore boomed in the 1900s and grew full of working class families, whose children extended their playtime range well beyond their back yards. They roamed throughout the town belt when not at school, only coming home for tea in the evening. The land was criss-crossed by streams running down from the ridge, their waters full of eels, freshwater crayfish and watercress.


The underground stream traced in Projected Fields hinted at this watery past.

One stream ended in Stanley Street, just below the present-day parks. Kids dammed the stream with rocks and branches, making small pools on which to sail toy boats. All of Berhampore’s streams are now gone, many encased in pipes and transformed into stormwater drains. The boggy parts of the golf course are all that remain above ground.


A drain that was once a stream - a natural feature turned into a piece of civil engineering. The parks themselves have their genesis in a similar act of transformation. In 1940 a large rubbish tip was constructed on the town belt next to Liardet Street. The land there was hilly, and cut through by a deep gully. A stream ran along the bottom of the gully and horses were grazed on its slopes. It was nothing special, but locals are unlikely to have welcomed the council’s decision to put a tip there, with its attendant smells, rats and methane fires.

During the Second World War, American soldiers were stationed in Wellington. Before they left in 1944, they dumped a load of unwanted military equipment in the tip, treasure for local scavengers who were used to picking over more mundane rubbish. Even more unlikely was another deposit of 1944 – the body of Nellikutha, a Wellington Zoo elephant.

The ‘Bradford system’ of municipal waste disposal was used at this tip. This involved dumping rubbish into a gully, squashing it down and covering it with soil. This created a flat, compact surface that could eventually be turned into a park. The tip was closed in 1950 and Macalister Park, named after ex-mayor Robert Macalister, opened for play in 1957. The top part below Vogeltown became known as Liardet Street Park.

For 30 years, play was undisturbed. Then, one morning in April 1987, a groundsman turned up for work to find a huge sink hole around nine metres deep had suddenly appeared in the middle of a football field at the Liardet Street Park end – right where the tip used to be. Old tyres and bricks protruded from the crumbling walls of the shaft. The weather was bad and the hole grew deeper in the rain. Council engineers concluded it was caused by a collapsed stormwater drain, but suspicious locals blamed the council for allowing development over a tip. Houses next to the park had subsided in previous years and one owner was paid compensation by the council. No more sinkholes appeared though, giving credence to the engineers’ report.

The parks were the site of an event that exposed a different sort of gulf. Macalister Park was directly across the road from Athletic Park, the home of Wellington rugby. This led to it becoming a favoured site for anti-apartheid activism. In the 1970s protesters gathered when the All Blacks played there or held selection trials. All this was preparation for 1981, when the South African rugby team – the Springboks – toured New Zealand.

The second test was held at Athletic Park on 29 August 1981. Berhampore’s surrounding streets were blocked with skips and the Adelaide Road side of Macalister Park was blocked with a dense thicket of barbed wire. Despite this, the park was still used as a staging area by protestors. They gathered in Finnimore Terrace at the top of the park and made their way down through the trees to Adelaide Road. Police with shields and batons were waiting for them on the other side of the wire. The protestors, committed to their cause, pulled out the warratahs holding up the fence and trampled over the wire in a great mass, spilling out onto Adelaide Road. For those who were there on that historic day, this is what they remember when they think of Macalister Park.

Landscapes are composed of layers, seen and unseen, remembered and forgotten. They host human stories that become layers of history as time passes.

Projected Fields linked landscape with memory. It played on the idea of layers in a literal sense – paint was applied again and again until the earth was thickly coated with bright colours. It also became a layer of history itself, another story to be recorded and then re-discovered in the future.

By encouraging viewers to seriously consider what it was they loved and valued about these parks, Projected Fields perhaps acted like an aide-memoire for the future, cementing in the mind favourite activities and new ideas that might otherwise have been forgotten. It both recorded memories and created new ones.

What will the children of 2015, who played on the painted grass that day in April remember about that place when they are grown up?

Kerryn Pollock is a Wellington historian. She is co-editor of Berhampore: Stories of a School and Suburb (2015) and Heritage of Health: a Brief History of Medical Practices, Maternity Homes and Motorways in Te Aro, Wellington (2006). She was a writer for Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from 2008 to 2015.

For a detailed look at the process of the development of Projected Fields see the artist's blog for the project here.