MIKE HEWSON SHOWS UP outside my house in an oversized Toyota Hilux, pumping South African amapiano music and wearing patterned shorts he bought on a recent trip to Thailand. It’s not the kind of vehicle you’d imagine such an in-demand contemporary artist to drive. But then again, Hewson is far from a typical artist. “The great thing about having a ute is everyone always thinks you’re doing something important,” he jokes. “So you can basically park anywhere.” Equal parts visual artist, engineer and fabricator, Hewson’s uniquely overlapping skill sets have resulted in some of the most intriguing public art this country has seen in a long time. But unlike most public artworks, these are ones you can slide, jump and swing your way through.

Ostensibly, Hewson designs playgrounds. But you’ve never seen playgrounds quite like these. I would know. As a parent of an extremely energetic toddler, I spend far too much of my leisure time running around in these things. Hewson’s niche, as someone who both creates these spaces and understands how they work structurally, is to make otherworldly-looking public play areas that are actually incredibly safe. More importantly, they’re works of art that don’t even look like playgrounds—far from the formulaic, ‘off-the-rack’ designs that I grew up clambering around, which still characterise most of Australia’s parks. Slide here, swing there, everything daubed in the same dull primary colours—you know the type.

“There’s ideology baked into everything,” Hewson says, en route to see the first of his parks in Sydney’s inner west. “If you can change what acceptable design is, you can change people’s thinking around public space. That’s kind of what’s embedded in what I’m doing.”

An aerial view of ‘Rocks on Wheels’, which sits in Melbourne’s Southbank. Photography: courtesy of the artist.

Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, Hewson spent his formative years in Christchurch. He lost his studio and much of his work during the 2011 earthquake, which sparked his interest around structures and impermanence. In the wake of that disaster, Hewson would wrap destroyed buildings in digital prints to give them second lives, establishing an inquisitive playfulness that has followed him to Sydney, his adopted home across the Tasman. His work is infused with energy, excitement and a sense of ‘why not?’ It’s fun to look at and even better to play on, which is precisely what Hewson wants you to do.

Hewson fell into this niche somewhat by accident. His unconventional dual career includes stints in the mines in Western Australia and in marine construction (“moving loads of sand from one side of the harbour to the other”), jobs he worked to fund but also inform his expanding art practice. Within 10 years, Hewson has become something of a rough diamond of the local art world, with temporary installations and commissions popping up everywhere from Moscow to Christchurch and New York City, multiple awards, group and solo exhibitions, as well as landing no fewer than five major permanent public commissions all over Australia. The knowledge Hewson gained during his former life means that, today, he can pitch what many would see as utterly ludicrous ideas to councils, arts bodies or government committees, and back them up with the structural and safety nous necessary to get them over the line.

An incomplete history of said ideas: bending and suspending palm trees many metres in the air over Wollongong Crown Street Mall; placing giant boulders on trolley wheels for a public park in Melbourne’s Southbank and creating a playground from the front fences of abandoned houses that looks a bit like a sunken city in St Peters Fences Playground in Simpson Park, Sydney. As you can imagine, kids go berserk for this stuff. Hewson has more plans in the pipeline, including a top-secret pitch for London’s Soho district, the opposite of where you’d expect to see little kids mucking about. But the way he sees it, that’s precisely the point.

Mike Hewson inside Auckland's Michael Lett Gallery. Photography: Matt Hurley. Styling: Becky Hemus.

“This is something I’m arguing for, especially in dense parts of the city: public space should be for everyone,” he says over the roaring engine of the HiLux. “There does need to be spaces that are safe for kids, but if you’re an adult, the design of a park shouldn’t alienate you for not having [them]. If you feel uncomfortable being in a space, it’s not good design.”

For the record, Hewson doesn’t have children. But his ex-partner did, and he spent many a morning at local playgrounds, watching her daughter play.

“I think that’s where I became this kind of designer, just through observation,” he says. “I think the key is being interested in a child’s interests, impulses and perspective. You don’t need to think like a child. You need to generously unpack what’s going on. I think people often paraphrase a child’s interests rather than trying to get to the bottom of [them]. They assume that kids are stupid.” As a designer, Hewson says that we are legislating acceptable levels of risk out of existence, which has a huge impact on the next generation’s confidence and curiosity. It’s something his playable art is not-so-subtly attempting to correct.

“Any space you can claim back for children is great,” he says of his hyper-coloured approach to public space. “And it’s good for parents, too; they need to be reassured that it’s okay to open up the parameters for their kids.”

Mike Hewson Fountains
Pieces from 'Fountains', Mike Hewson's solo exhibition currently on show at Auckland's Michael Lett Gallery.
Photography: Samuel Hartnett courtesy of Michael Lett.

THERE ARE FEW ARTISTIC pursuits that sit at the nexus of as much policy and legislation as Hewson’s. Playgrounds are a complex web of local-government financing and tenders, landscape architects and builders, and need to adhere to hyper-strict guidelines around children’s safety.

“When I started, I felt hemmed in by the limitations, like, ‘Oh, are you serious I can’t do this?’ But as soon as you understand the parameters, it’s totally wide open,” Hewson explains. “Artists love constraints anyway: ‘the canvas is strictly this size’, ‘stick to one medium’, ‘I’m only working with the colour blue’.”

To prove his point, Hewson walks me around St Peters Fences, explaining how every seemingly illogical structure is meticulously planned and engineered with an adherence to notoriously strict playground standards. Angled fences are reinforced by invisible steel beams. A cement-like floor is actually made from rubber (he calls this “my great innovation”; he keeps the recipe secret but has won an award for his adaptation of existing industry materials and processes). Perimeters of skippable sandstone rocks, with precious-looking stones glued to them as if a child had secretly arranged them that way. Slides sluiced through lattice brick walls.

Much of this is the by-product of various local authorities telling Hewson he couldn’t do something interesting, and him using his engineering knowledge to successfully push back. Hewson knows the exact angle and height a child could fall from without risking a traumatic head injury. He leaves nothing to chance, but infuses his work with an artist’s curiosity, which may explain why he keeps managing to get his proposals approved.

“I think that’s what I’ve been doing the last couple of years,” he says as we test out the park’s swings, which he’s custom-installed into a façade of an old terrace house that had been earmarked for demolition before Hewson incorporated it into the park. “Allocating money that has not necessarily been given to the arts and saying, ‘This is a piece of infrastructure that can be flipped into art while delivering on the same outcomes’,” he says, referring to safety, public utility and satisfying council budgets. “It’s cool to make a sculptural project people will revisit. We [artists] don’t even get the opportunity to go to one another’s shows sometimes. It’s a real privilege as an artist to make something people spend a lot of time with.”

Mike Hewson attacks the rim. The NBA regulation hoop is part of his ‘Fountains’ exhibition, on show at Auckland’s Michael Lett gallery until March 23. Photography: Matt Hurley. Styling: Becky Hemus.

While Hewson’s creations have attracted predictable pushback from some more conservative corners of the community (A Current Affair once went after him, but the episode tanked after most parents interviewed said how much they loved his work), the people have voted with their feet. Our big white ute arrives at Hewson’s Pocket Park in Leichhardt, a revitalisation project designed to enhance the existing structure rather than start from scratch. Hewson revived the tired old equipment here with towers of heavy-duty coloured buckets he made himself and a complex web of melted, Dali-esque monkey bars and logs cut from fallen trees. Low impact, high reward. It is absolutely teeming with kids—and adults. Hewson believes play is not just for the young, but the young at heart. He deliberately designs his work with this in mind and says his Southbank project is regularly populated by both seven- and seventy-year-olds. “Adults, they have a few beers and start playing. The permission sort of starts there,” he grins. “The reason it doesn’t happen sooner—without the beers—is because it’s not deemed acceptable.”

Lately, Hewson has taken to billing his art as a loneliness killer. “Having places where all generations can hang out, even if they don’t know each other, is really good for society,” he says. “As we become progressively isolated, there’s a need for older people who are lonely to spend time around kids. It’s not a new idea: the piazzas in Italy, you have people drinking, kids kicking a ball around, teenagers flirting… every age group is represented in a public space.”

‘Illawarra Placed Landscape’ featuring suspended palm trees at Wollongong Crown Street Mall. Photography: courtesy of the artist.

Right now, the artist has a solo exhibition happening at Auckland’s Michael Lett gallery that expands on his preoccupation with what’s ‘good for society’. Titled Fountains, it’s a playful exploration of the things that are needed to sustain life: hydration, art—and an NBA- regulation basketball hoop. The hoop, which is clamped to an uprooted palm tree, is designed to represent the human need for recreation. And yes, visitors can sink three-pointers in the gallery space.

Back in Sydney, wandering around these parks with Hewson, all I can think about is how excited I am to bring my young daughter out here. To watch her interact with new shapes and ideas, far beyond what she’s ever seen, that will blow her tiny mind. I also kind of want to try it out myself, which I sheepishly admit to Hewson as he drives me back home. He doesn’t seem surprised in the slightest.

“All parents eventually become connoisseurs of parks,” he smiles. “They know what they like.”

‘Fountains’ is open at Michael Lett Gallery in Auckland until March 23.

Photography: Matt Hurley and Samuel Hartnett. Styling: Becky Hemus.

See more of Esquire’s arts coverage here. 

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