Ten questions with Patrick Shepherd


Q1: What’s your personal connection to Antarctica?

As a young boy growing up in the north-east of England, I’d get really excited waking up to a thick covering of snow. A good fall of snow really changed the feel of the day — it does something to the air and the quality of the light. I remember reading the Ladybird series on Captain Scott and being fascinated by that whole adventure but it never occurred to me that I might one day go to Antarctica and experience it for myself, not once but twice. I first went to Antarctica in 2004 as an honorary Antarctic Arts Fellow and educator in the Artists to Antarctica scheme. I had been interested in going for a while and the more I read, the more I got hooked; it grew from being an interest to an imperative. I returned in 2016/2017 in my capacity as a lecturer with the Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies (PCAS), part of the University of Canterbury Gateway Antarctica programme. That allowed me to see Antarctica through the eyes of my students, many of whom were themselves creative people and went on to produce artworks from their trip.

Q2: How did you become interested in the responses of other artists to the frozen continent?

It is integral to my work as a composer, writer and visual artist to continually be thinking about my own arts practices and ways of doing and thinking about the work that I produce. I could have let the stunning images speak for themselves, but I felt the artists’ voices also needed to be there; what their thought processes were in creating these artworks.
Another attraction was having the rare opportunity to examine the significant body of work created by a large and varied group of people who have been exposed to virtually the same narrowly defined experience over a substantial length of time.
Presenting these works and the thoughts of the artists in one place allows us into the creative process, to experience Antarctica through the lens of artistry and ingenuity, adding multiple dimensions to our understanding of what it is to exist in such a hostile, desolate and yet utterly absorbing and fascinating place.

Q3: There was initially some tension between scientists and artists around the arts programme, but this seemed to change over the years.

The arrival of something new can often create tensions and science has long been the driving force in Antarctica. It is where the majority of the funding goes. Many of the artists talked about the genuine interest and help they received from the scientists, but it wasn’t always so. This can be attributed to a perception that the art programmes were syphoning off money and utilising resources which would have otherwise gone science’s way. I noticed a distinct change between when I went in 2004 and when I returned in 2016 — there seemed to be a greater level of appreciation of what art and science could do together.

Q4: What can artists contribute to scientific research and our understanding of Antarctica?

Science has a crucial role to play, but the story is much bigger than that. Of course, art isn’t going to save the world in the same way that scientific discovery will, but it can heighten public awareness around the issues and create a platform to broaden understanding and appreciation of one of the most enigmatic places on the planet.
The work of visiting artists and writers from a wide range of disciplines, with the support of Antarctica New Zealand, has led to a deeper understanding of life on ‘the Ice’.
The paintings, prints, sculptures, music, writing and dance that have been produced are important in their own right and a number of the artists featured in this book have pointedly remarked that referencing the science was not part of their role. However, others did hope that their creative approach may have helped (either deliberately or by chance) to support the work being done in Antarctica by providing a touchpoint in the public awareness that complements the science.

Q5: Our human response to this alien and awe-inspiring landscape could get repetitive but there is a huge variety in the stories the artists tell of their particular experience — was it hard to draw this out?

Not at all — everyone was very happy to share their thoughts, which seems to be a general trait for most people who visit Antarctica. I think it harks back to Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest member of Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition who, in his book The Worst Journey in the World, said that ‘everyone who has been through such an extraordinary experience has much to say, and ought to say it if he has any faculty that way’.
It is certainly something that the Kiwi artists have done, presenting their works to the world, giving public talks and academic lectures, going into schools to talk with eager schoolchildren and typically ‘spreading the word’. I can only speak for myself here, but I know that whenever I’m in a social situation and get onto the topic of Antarctica, there is immediate interest and people always want to know more. Actually, you have to be careful not to become an ‘Antarctic bore’, something I’ve not always managed! Children are really interested, particularly in the gory bits.

Q6: What were some of the biggest physical challenges on the Ice?

Logistics, basically, but there is also the practical aspect of making sense of what is, paradoxically, sensory overload and, at the same time, aesthetic deprivation. You are continually at the behest of the weather and that can start before you even head out to Christchurch Airport, with delays getting to Antarctica commonplace, meaning less time down there.
Earlier visits had the artists accompanying staff to areas of interest on daily visits but that proved flawed given that the staff had to return regularly to Scott Base, so the artists had little time to immerse themselves in, say, the historic huts. The upside of that was that you had the creature comforts of Scott Base at the end of each day.
As the programme progressed, it became more usual to go out and camp in the field so the obvious challenges there are around carrying supplies, having weather that allowed you to carry out your activities, and battery life, which suffers in the extreme cold. ‘Roughing it’ was something I found challenging but enjoyable and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. For example, the difficulties of emptying your bladder into a small bottle at 2am were far outweighed by having Mt Erebus fit perfectly into the apex of the tent opening.
You are tested on so many levels, but the biggest test is perhaps that life is reduced to its essentials and that, while artistic endeavour is really important, Antarctica takes no account of that and one bad decision, one misstep, one unseen crevasse and it’s all over. In our cosy little worlds back home, we know that to be kind of true but you are not faced with it so blatantly every minute of every day as you are down there. Humans are simply not meant to be in Antarctica and the continent continually reminds you of that fact. I think complacency could well be the biggest danger down there.

Q7: And how did this effect the creative process?

Processing the experience was handled by the artists in very different ways. For some it meant sifting through thousands of photographic images and selecting the right one; for others it meant months of cogitation. Some had to create their art down there (e.g. dance sequences, photographs, sound recordings, a magazine) and others developed their material on their return.
For me, it meant starting small and gradually moving through to the larger pieces. I also returned to my former loves of painting and writing poetry because I found that, while music says a lot, it doesn’t say everything.
While the main attraction of heading to a barren wilderness may lie in its remote inaccessibility, the consequence is that it doesn’t give you much to work with, and you find yourself digging deeper to get more out of the material you are presented with, and certainly what you thought you were going to be presented with.

Q8: The book includes an essay by Adele Jackson which sets out just how much Antarctica features in our cultural heritage. New Zealanders really do seem to embrace this connection.

Adele has addressed the value of Antarctic art, which is important because all the artists understand their contribution and were able to show what their work highlighted, but I’m a firm believer that context is vital in understanding the broader picture, certainly for a public audience. Antarctic devotees are especially thirsty for detail in anything that relates to their passion, and Adele’s article provides that in spades. While I was able to talk to the artists in depth about their own creativity and vision and draw out themes from their comments, Adele has presented a rich panoply of the various programmes, arts disciplines and influential arts practitioners across the years.

Q9: What did Antarctica New Zealand hope to gain by sending artists to Antarctica?

Aotearoa New Zealand artists have been heading south to the frozen continent since 1957, either as part of the Artists to Antarctica programme or under its predecessor, the Antarctic Division of the Department of Science and Industrial Research (DSIR).
The Artists to Antarctica programme was officially launched in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1997 as a partnership between Antarctica New Zealand and Creative New Zealand. It ran for 10 years until Creative New Zealand stopped its funding for the programme in 2007.
More recently, the Antarctica New Zealand Community Engagement Programme has sought to attract applicants who understand the importance of the science carried out in Antarctica and can express and communicate this in new and different ways to reach a wide audience of Kiwis.
Like most things, the programme has been disrupted by Covid-19, but with the backlog of science schedules gradually clearing, it is due to resume in the 2024/2025 season.

Q10: One of the questions you ask the artists is would you go again. Would you and, if yes, what would you want to do there?

I would go again for a third time in a heartbeat. Many of the other artists said they would leap at the chance to go again and felt that having been once they would have a better idea of what they would do a second time. However, some said they felt that going again would somehow detract from the very special nature of the first trip and they wanted the memory to remain intact, unspoiled by over-familiarity.
My feelings lie somewhere between the two, I think. I have done an enormous amount of work relating to my trips south and will continue to do so, so I’m unsure what a further trip would or could add to that body of work. But one should never say never — ever! I’m also conscious that me going again would mean somebody not going, and that would be a pity given I have been lucky enough to go twice.