What’s going on with all these seal sculptures?
A woman’s love letter is an enduring feature of New Zealand’s front yards.
This story was first published on Together.
There is one, freshly painted, in front of the door of a house in Titirangi. There is one swinging a ball-shaped lamp, awkwardly placed above the cubicles of the public toilets in Whanganui. Another, with a ribbon placed around his neck, is seated on a porch of the Mount. And there’s another, the paint peeling off slightly, sitting next to an overgrown lawn; location unknown.
These are outdoor concrete sculptures in the shape of seals; Classic Kiwiana that appears sporadically as you walk through the New Zealand suburbs, sitting proudly on lawns, patios and driveways.
They’re also at the center of the ‘Ornamental Seal Appreciation Account’ Kiss From a Seal (formerly known as Concrete Dessert), a weird, delicious, and extremely specialized corner of Instagram that you should follow immediately.
Auckland-based Amy Wheeler started Instagram in 2015, as a kind of social media study of suburban Auckland. At first, she photographed and shared her own seal discoveries; after taking a hiatus for a few years while living abroad, she now receives submissions which she happily shares (yes, there was a Guinness Seal submission from Dublin).
“I was halfway through my visual arts degree and painting mostly, but decided to do it in parallel. It didn’t translate well into everything I was working on in the studio, as it was more about the process, ”says Wheeler. “I had mentioned it to people, and they thought it was cool and I wanted a place to be able to document my findings where people could engage in the work.”
Okay, but why the seals?
“It’s so weird to have become a suburban socio-cultural paraphernalia,” she explains. “The seal sculptures just seemed rare and funny. I have no intense interest in real seals.
Growing up in Auckland’s Blockhouse Bay (deep western suburb), Wheeler had noticed many ornamental seals in his neighborhood: “An unexpected addition to the otherwise monotonous homes of my suburb.”
She widened the net – a combination of walking and spending time on Google – and was surprised at how many she discovered.
“I started with the ones I knew, but started to find more and more when I actively looked for them. Once I found out which areas they were most prevalent in, I even spent time browsing the streets on Google Maps. The areas I have found the most are Mount Roskill, Māngere, Onehunga, and Te Atatu.
But his initial question remains unanswered: why are or were they so popular? Where do they come from
“Everyone is as puzzled as I am,” says Wheeler. “I wrote letters to the owners of the houses I found on Google Maps some time ago; I wrote maybe 20 letters! I received a few responses – but the general response was that he was there when they bought or moved into the house and they didn’t know why it was there, but chose to keep him.
There is something delightfully quirky about them; a unique and kitschy suburban nostalgia.
Last year Hawke’s Bay Today shared the sad news of the theft of a seal statue of a retirement home in Napier.
“I am so distressed by the theft,” she said. “It’s concrete and very heavy – it would have taken two men to move it and a van to take it away.
“My late husband loved the statue – I remember when he had some help lifting it into position. It’s sad that these bastards trample my memories.
“He lived in the front rose garden, not far from my bedroom window, and I hope this can help me find him.”??
In 2015 Community site Network Number 8 (“News for rural greenery northeast of Hamilton”) spoke with Dr. Ian Duggan (senior lecturer at the University of Waikato who published the academic article “The Cultural History of the Garden Gnome in New Zealand ”) on gnomes, where he shared what he knew about the history of ornamental garden seals.
“They don’t appear in any of the garden catalogs I have until 1946 – so there’s a big gap. If their popularity was related to Marineland, it didn’t open until 1965. But that’s when I can start to find pictures of them. There was one stolen from Levin in 1991, and it had been on their lawn for 18 years. There was a concrete joint in a new playground in Auckland in 1969. The Pāua House Flutey’s had a couple around their pond for a while, which began to be developed in the 1960s. But d ‘after what I can tell, the 1960s… There seemed to be some real “art deco” seals that appeared earlier, but that were intended for interior decoration. “
Today, you can sometimes find vintage options for sale on Trade Me, or buy a new unpainted version for $ 120. In 2017, Colleen Hawkes wrote about the art of the garden and its inherent lack of freshness, while also recognizing the power of nostalgia and renewed interest in mid-century design – predicting that ceramic seals would make a comeback.
This nostalgia is part of the allure of Wheeler’s page, which is part of the larger trend of localized return accounts on social media, like Facebook’s old New Zealand school.
“I didn’t think so many people would find this interesting because it’s so much of a niche, but it hits a certain demographic,” says Wheeler. “I think it unlocks memories for people and then they like to follow the journey to see how many there are still. But through this project, one thing that struck me is that they are a marker of the gentrification that is going on in Auckland.
“With all the new developments happening around Auckland, I’ve seen that some of the houses that had seals in their gardens are now a construction site for a duplex. It’s another seal gone and it’s a shame. I know this is just a small observation, but I think their suburban charm won’t last long.??????
If you have any knowledge of the origins of these ornamental seals and what they stand for, or have seen any that you would like to submit, contact Amy at @kissfromaseal
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