Praying with Sculpture

The Sculpture in the Gardens Exhibition in Auckland’s Botanic Gardens in Manurewa has only a few days of its three month season to go. This month I visited it, as I try to do every year, and enjoyed walking around in the summer air and contemplating the works of all sorts that have been selected for this event. Hosted by the “Friends of the Gardens,” the exhibition is aimed at building visitor numbers as well as augmenting the permanent sculpture collection that accompanies the living components of the gardens. For me it has become an opportunity for silence and prayer, as I move between the art works wondering what God might have to say to me in and through the sculptures. 

In past years I have been able to process some unbearable feelings, sadness and grief, even at one point despair, through wondering with God as I walk silently around the art and the gardens. I have at time journalled what I have seen, and found healing and hope in places I didn’t expect. One artwork I really connected with a few years back was the ‘Bird Lady’, a skinny bird woman sitting primly on a bench, seemingly hiding the pain inside. She is still there; she was purchased for the permanent collection, and interestingly she doesn’t look nearly so distressed now! 

This year there was an environmental theme integrated into many of the sculptures. Concerns expressed included protecting endangered species or waterways, balancing the needs of humans and other forms of life, and heightening awareness of industrialisation, waste management, and climate change issues.

One sculpture that had immediate appeal to me, and to others around me, on my contemplative walk, was the crafted phosphor bronze of a monkey and their child in an intimate pose, reading a book. Called The Learning, it spoke to me of sharing the Bible, though of course there are many People of other Books who might see in the piece their own sacred scriptures. I felt it was a really beautiful and positive image of parents and children reading and learning together. However the guidebook explains that Auckland artist Lucy Bucknall also had a more sinister interpretation, that of the danger of indoctrination of young people. Despite that disturbing possibility, I think this portrayal of love and trust might get the popular vote that decides which one the Gardens will buy this year. It certainly reminded me of the worth of time I spend with grandchildren reading and learning.

My favourite overall though was really Khulu, a beautiful pink hollyhock made of 92 steel pitchers, and reaching several metres tall. When I read Albany sculptor John Ferguson’s explanation of the title, I realised there was a spiritual message I hadn’t grasped; Khulu is a name used for Nelson Mandela. The piece is intended to reflect his abiding hope of a new life after dark times, spring coming after winter. People like Mandela display resilient hearts, an inner world that remains strong and ready for the next season of human experience. Not surprisingly, I began to see an Easter message that I had not at first perceived in this piece. That is, in essence, what contemplative prayer can do. Open you up to different meanings and messages through which God can speak in to your life.

“But ask the animals what they think—let them teach you; let the birds tell you  what’s going on. Put your ear to the earth—learn the basics. Listen—the fish in the ocean will tell you their stories. Isn’t it clear that they all know and agree that God is sovereign, that he holds all things in his hand, every living soul, yes, every breathing creature? (Job 12: 7 - 10)

Prayer:  Creator God, thank you for the world you have given, full of beauty, touched with wonder, and filled with messages of hope. I praise you too for the way works of art created by talented people can reflect your creativity, and move, astound and refresh me. Open my eyes anew to see your love and truth around and within me, Amen.


  1. The Khulu looks really nice, so creative ! Thanks for sharing:))


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