Turning metal into magic

A multi-million dollar balloon dog made out of steel... what will they think of next?

It’s bright orange. It shines like something from a science fiction movie. It is made to look like a clown’s balloon dog trick and it was created by master steel sculptor Jeff Koons.    

At auction it sold for $58.4 million. There are more where that came from.

Broadcaster and commentator on life phenomena Stephen Colbert captured the essence of Koon mania.

 “A lot of them are shiny, you know.  So when I look at them I can see me and then I’m really interested in it.”

There are other artists around the world who choose steel as their creative medium of choice. One named Richard Serra created a name for himself in developing a massive sculpture called Snake. Having worked in steel mills to support his aesthetic habit meant he was probably closer than most to understanding how beautiful steel can be.  

New Zealand has its own ‘man of steel’ in the form of another Jeff. Jeff Thomson, who has been likened to a modern day Abel Tasman or Captain Cook. Mainly because he’s always on the hunt for new discoveries and new materials from which he can create.

He has a proclivity for ripping steel off roofs to then create art for the wall or pedestal. Those that know his creations, as many New Zealanders and even Australians do, will recognise his signature treatment of corrugated iron animals, birds, cars and even people. His first body of work was built around the iconic New Zealand letter box. From there Jeff developed the ability to turn steel into captivating art creations.  

Auckland-born Jeff grew up in the North Shore suburb of Castor Bay. He loved the outdoors and from an early age became a prolific walker, no doubt discovering along the way the treasure chest of flotsam and jetsam that could be used for artistic expression.

Rather than communicate solely with words, he became a very good illustrator, developing the ability to draw images quickly with pencil.

Jeff attended a secondary school that put a premium on nurturing artistic talent, so that when it came to tertiary studies he was a prime candidate to enter The University of Auckland’s Elam School of Art. He graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts having, ironically, developed a passion for painting and printmaking rather than sculpting.  

It was during a break from studies in 1980 that his path would lead toward a change of artistic direction. He found himself at Portobello, 20km out of Dunedin, living in a small seaside bach. On many walks he re-discovered the limitless array of beach and highway paraphernalia in the offering. One person’s junk became Jeff’s sculpting foundation.  

His meanderings went further afield and reinforced his fascination for rural pursuits.  

Jeff's next countryside jaunt entailed a five day walk from Bulls to New Plymouth. Along the way he dropped 350 leaflets offering to do some artwork in keeping with each farmer’s particular passion or occupation. Five farmers came back to him to commission work.  

His next walk was Ashhurst to Masterton. This time instead of leaflets he took with him photographs of his work to show to prospective customers. He achieved a 20% success rate.  

By this time Jeff had completed his Fine Arts Degree and his first exhibition was held at Albert Park. It was a great success. He then spent a year studying at Otago University after being awarded the Francis Hodgkins Fellowship. Next stop was Germany to complete a commission at Berlin Zoo and to participate in various exhibitions.

From there the name, and steel sculptures, of Jeff Thomson grew far and wide.  

In 1988 he exhibited at the World Expo in Brisbane, as well as in Melbourne’s Heide Park and the Museum of South Australia, Adelaide. More recent exhibitions include solo shows in Sydney, Auckland and Wellington. His works are on permanent display at Te Papa National Museum as well as other collections around the country.

Jeff’s work has been described as ‘unashamedly popularist’ and certainly gets around on country gateposts, in solo shows, at exhibitions both here and overseas, in public parks, and with his HQ Holden, out on public roads. 

Writer Neil Rowe in a piece called Any Old Iron says ‘Jeff’s work has an energy and originality that couldn't get much closer to grass roots. What’s more, people liked it! It wasn’t obscure or dependent on current art theory for understanding.



Over and above works of major artistic merit, some amazing possibilities exist when working with COLORSTEEL®. The selection of colours to use in your home is just one area where you can put your own creative stamp on your property.  

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