In Site Library - Greater Dunedin: Southern Man (Dunedin Airport) (2000)

Southern Man (Dunedin Airport)

Dunedin International Airport- front entry (Sculpture Trail #47a)

Sam Mahon

In Site


Southern Man ...... Dunedin International Airport ......Sam Mahon, sculptor.


In his book "The Year of the Horse" the artist Sam Mahon describes the physical and artistic struggles involved in realising this massive bronze statue which is certainly the largest equestrian monument in New Zealand and possibly the largest single cast bronze statue ever made in this country.

The work was commissioned by Speight's Brewery as a millennium gift to the Otago region. It shows a high country musterer on horseback. It is an impressive work, rich in surface texture, which brings remarkable dignity to what, at bottom, is an ad man's fantasy. Hat down over his eyes, his horse steady beneath him, the reins held with one hand, the musterer is slightly twisted to his left, looking behind him. He is, it seems, immersed in his work and at ease with himself and his place in the world.


Mahon's account of the practical problems of bringing this huge project to fruition are enthralling. The first of these difficulties arose when he showed an early wax model based on measurements of a real horse to an equestrian friend who complained that a horse standing in the pose he had modelled would be diagnosed as suffering from bladder infection.


After this design was modified, and approved by Speight's, the next stage was to make a full-size model. This was built on an armature of steel and covered with cloth, chicken wire, and about a tonne of plaster. The rough outline was finished in a couple of  weeks and then carved. The idea was that the horse and man should seem inextricably linked without too much distracting detail. When the client saw the finished model the one change they required was that the saddle bags should be more clearly carved. This was where the company logo was to be displayed.


From this finished model moulds were made. And it was from these that the horse and rider were cast. The final sculpture weighs about 1200 kilos, with the tail alone weighing about seventy kilos. It was made in about fifty different sections and then welded together. This sound very simple. However, Mahon and his collaborators were constantly required to adapt their techniques and build specialised equipment to solve the many technical problems they encountered. For example, a  machine for turning bricks into dust for the moulds was driven by the drive wheels of the family Morris car.


The invention and ingenuity shown by Mahon remind us of the heroic struggles of his great predecessors in bronze sculpture. In fact, on one occasion he turned  to the workshop manual of the great baroque sculptor Benvenuto Cellini for a  recipe for the inside of the mould-making kiln which had burnt out. The ingredients were sand, clay and fresh cow manure, mixed together by treading them with bare feet. Mahon and his partner, Alison, tossed a coin and he lost. She went to make a cup of tea while Sam took off his boots and got treading. Cellini also provided a recipe  for giving a final patina to the bronze. This required the urine of young boys but was not adopted by the modern sculptor who preferred copper nitrate to provide the surface finish.


The statue was unveiled in September 2000, having taken a little over a year to complete.


Richard Dingwall.


Text Copyright Richard Dingwall