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Wanda Gillespie: The Spiritual Form

Wanda Gillespie's Friday Feature Artist Interview can be found at the bottom of this page.

Wanda Gillespie is driven by her belief in the spiritual potency of physical objects. Familiar objects reimagined with alternate uses, history, culture and ceremony. Wanda has refined her craft as a word sculptor, through her evocative portrait sculptures, which combine ancient and contemporary forms detailed and abstracted. 

With a BA and MA in fine arts, and solo and group exhibitions in Australia, New Zealand and internationally, Wanda has also been the recipient of multiple awards, grants and residencies. With titles such as The Ministry for Mystical Reckoning, Counting Frames for a Transient Era, and The Ceremonial Procession of Dreamers, her sculptural works, explore and challenge fictions and ideas around history, culture, ritual and ceremony, and explore the reimagining of known forms. 

Coming to carving

Wanda embraced wood carving a little later in life. “As a kid, I was really into drawing. I went to art school, did Media Arts as my undergraduate, and I was working a lot with photography and video, and I started wanting to create fictional artefacts from invented places.” Wanda explains.

Wood carving came to Wanda when she was awarded an Asialink residency in Indonesia. “That was really the start of working with wood,” she says, “because they have such incredible wood carving in Indonesia, and I had this idea that I wanted to create wood-carved artefacts from a lost island. Initially, I was working with traditional wood carvers over there, and then I learned to carve myself.”Wanda Gillespie Artwork

Discovering the right material

While her interest in wood carving was piqued, there was one more catalyst before Wanda made it her own.

“In the 2000s,” she says, “I did some installations and sculptural works that were more assemblage and worked with perspex and things like that, and just realised how much I hated that material. I became more interested in the energetic qualities of different materials and wood in particular. In Maori, they talk about Wairua, a spirit or soul of the wood. And because it's once living, it's just got that energy about it that I don't get with other materials.”


A significant portion of Wanda’s work is creating otherworldly abacuses. A love of the intricacy of abacuses, connectivity along with inspiration from novels like The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse have drawn Wanda to abacuses, but she wants the viewer to bring their own interpretations to her work. “I like the idea of secret codes and being able to write secret messages with the beads,” she says.

Wanda shared where some of her inspiration comes from when creating an abacus: “I was thinking about environmental things like the health of the river. I'm interested in measuring the unseen. So how do we measure things like unpaid labour, or the deficit of the pollution where industries are pumping into rivers, and the cleanup that will entail for future generations? I'm thinking about what we value, how we measure it, and thinking of new, more holistic ways of accounting for things.”Wanda Gillespie sculpture woodcarving art


One facet that is integral to Wanda’s work is storytelling. “I think it's developed over time,” she says, “There were fairy tales and Maori myths and things growing up, and my mum is in theatre, so I spent a lot of time in the back of theatres at rehearsals, drawing pictures. I guess I was exposed to that kind of performative storytelling. But in terms of my actual artwork, I guess a big inspiration was the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. He wrote this amazing story called Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, and it was about this invented planet that these academics have come together and created, and slowly objects from that planet were found here, and then history was rewritten. I was just quite attracted to that story, and that sort of got me on to writing stories and creating artefacts.”


Wanda is open to the idea of spiritualism and the spiritual influences in her work. “I've definitely always been open. As a child I often saw ghosts and spirits, and I've had experiences of waking up, floating above my body. So I've been quite comfortable with the idea of that separation, that you can exist beyond your physical body and that there are other beings around.”

Recently, Wanda did a course on traditional Maori Whakairo carving where spirituality was again brought to the fore. “At the start of each session, we were taught a karakia, a prayer that sort of acknowledged where the wood was coming from and different energy. And if you were doing it really properly, you should be doing it all the time while you're working and breathing at the same time as saying this ‘karakia’ (prayer).”

Wanda is far from strict with her spirituality. “I guess I'm often grounding myself and then imagining that I have this creative team in the spirit world that are sort of helping me with my work,” she says. “But then, at the same time, my husband's Russian, and we go to the Russian Orthodox Church. So I also pray often when I'm working with machinery and I'm feeling a bit nervous with it. I'll stop praying a lot. I'm open to lots of different ideas. I do think of just the process of creating as being a kind of spiritual act. I sometimes imagine that everything I'm going to make has actually already been made. I've already made it in a parallel universe, and I'm just bringing it forth. There's this collective consciousness that artists are tapping into.”

Wanda Gillespie wood carving artwork

About Wanda Gillespie

Wanda Gillespie is an Australian/New Zealand contemporary artist based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa, New Zealand. Her sculptural works and performative actions seek transcendence through the reimagining of known forms.

​Over the past decade, she has refined her craft as a woodcarver through the creation of evocative portrait sculptures, combining detailed and abstracted, ancient and contemporary form. Familiar objects are reimagined with alternate uses, such as history, culture and ceremony. ​In recent years, Gillespie has established a unique practice centred on the form of the abacus. With her bespoke interpretations of this ancient counting instrument, she explores systems of value and how, within them, the material and the sacred become entwined. 

Gillespie has established a significant practice with numerous solo exhibitions, awards and residencies. Her work has been included in several noteworthy museum exhibitions, including An Alternative Economics at the Institute of Modern Art, Numinosity at Contemporary Art Tasmania, Future Inheritance: 20 Speculative Objects for a Time to Come for the National Gallery of Victoria Design Week, and several of her pieces are currently exhibiting in the Tel Aviv Craft and Design Biennale, Israel. 


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