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CANBERRA sculptor Matthew Harding has died. He was 53.
Harding was an innovative artist who had a wide-ranging practice that spanned sculpture, furniture and design. He created many works of public art in Canberra and completed nearly 40 works around the world.
In 2017, perhaps his busiest year, he completed sculptures in Miami, Florida, Singapore, Victoria, Sydney, Canberra and Bathurst.
Harding gained his first qualifications as a carpentry and joinery apprentice in 1983, his second was an art certificate in 1985, both in Newcastle, and he gained first-class honours in a BA from the then Canberra School of Art in 1995.
Harding’s father designed and built homes, but his passion was building timber and ply laminated boats. Harding senior described the lines of a hull as “poetry in motion”. Matthew Harding absorbed the skills of making and the design aesthetics, which is richly evident in his furniture and his sculptures. As he said, the sheds full of tools and his father’s practical knowledge forged a connection between the head and hands, and to this I would add his heart.
Matthew Harding’s degree at the Canberra School of Art was in the then woodwork workshop, headed by George Ingham, who helped him realise his unique sculptural sensibility and refined craftsmanship to produce exciting and unusual, but practical, pieces of furniture.
Harding worked in a variety of materials, including wood, stainless steel – both mirror-polished and exo-skeletal – marble, monofilament and stone. Importantly, however, whatever medium he worked in, he pushed the boundaries of the process. He was always ambitious for the final work, frequently working on the final touches right up to delivery and installation.
Harding was a superb figurative sculptor. He was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1998 to develop this aspect of his practice. He spent time in Italy, carving marble with the artisani of Pietrasanta and then in Bavaria where he work with Peter Whirshing, a German sculptor in wood. The trip finished with numerous studio visits to sculptors, carvers and designers in the UK and the US.
He was an exquisite wood carver. In 2000 he presented a work titled “Feather Tail” to the Duke of Edinburgh at the commemoration of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve Visitor Centre. A tiny Feathertail glider is at home in its habitat, moving among gum leaves and nuts. The carving, in white beech can be compared with that of Robert Prenzel. He also carved works in Carrara and Wombeyan marble.
Canberrans who know Curtin will be familiar with the sculpture “Flights of Fancy” and the Blue Wren play sculptures at Curtin shops. This project included banners, bin surrounds, drain grates and concrete seating pedestals. Completed in three stages, Harding worked with Kate Ward on Stage 1.
Harding participated in many international collaborations and exchanges as early as 1980. That year he travelled to the Sepik River, PNG and to Rotorua in NZ. He said: “This language of hand skills is part of the cultural fabric and spirituality of many traditional cultures and could see how aspects of these cultures would disappear if the physical and material forms of expression were lost.”
In 1993 he travelled to Zimbabwe where he met and worked with Shona stone sculptors. In the following year he went to Cambodia. Intended as a sightseeing holiday to visit the temples and ruins of the Khmer empire, he became involved with the carving department of the University of Phnom Penh, sitting and carving daily for two months with the teachers and students, exchanging knowledge and being taught some of the finer traditions of their carving and sense of proportion. The mornings were spent teaching carving to street kids at an NGO and constructing makeshift workstations out of plywood for the children sit and work on. Harding was able to arrange an exchange for the artist he worked with at the Canberra School of Art.
In 1998 Harding was invited to facilitate a group of carvers from Easter Island for the multicultural festival in Canberra, and worked alongside the carvers over a two-week period to produce a three-metre-high Moai statue.
In 1999 he was a guest participant at a design camp in Inami Toyama, Japan participating in the national ice carving championships as well as being the Australian representative in the International Wood Sculpture Camp.
Harding completed a major commission initiated by the Turkish Sub-branch of the Victorian Returned Services League. Set in the gardens of the Domain, near Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, it marks the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings and pays tribute to the extraordinary origins of this shared history.
An extensive collaboration of ideas and values helped to shape the materiality and form of the sculpture that poetically expresses the Australian-Turkish Gallipoli relationship while the various elements of the sculpture tell an individual perspective of this relationship.
Harding exhibited widely, and regularly in annual exhibitions including the McClelland National Sculpture Award in Victoria, Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney and in Denmark, and the Lorne Sculpture Exhibition.
Harding is survived by his partner Freya Mac Laren and their four young children: Arabella, 10, Lulu, 9, Polly, 6 and Hugo ,4.
This renowned sculptor has left an extraordinary legacy of work in Canberra, Australia and around the world. He was brilliant and one of the most accomplished sculptors in Australia; he was compassionate and had a rare generosity of spirit.
Canberrans are thankful that he left so many sculptures in our city and region for our enjoyment.