As kids, we readily believe in magic. Somewhere in the accumulation of age, we can become consumed by the chores of daily existence and forget to seek it. Ari Freeman, the apprentice wizard of Christchurch, shares it every day.
Once upon a time in Christchurch...
Over velvet green moss, Ari Freeman moves purposefully through the forest, ducking his head, and pointy hat, to navigate low-slung branches.
“Words are magic,” says the apprentice wizard.
After Merlin, but long before Harry Potter attended Hogwarts, New Zealand has had an official wizard.
Ian Brackenbury Channell was born in Britain a few weeks before Christmas in 1932, but if you use this name he’ll pivot on the heel of his jet-black shoes to tell you why you should not.
“On my birth certificate it says Wizard of New Zealand,” he declares, index finger aloft. “But nobody can get their heads around that. They want to call me by a name I no longer recognise.”
Since 1974, when he emigrated to Christchurch, the Wizard has reigned over Christchurch’s centre, Cathedral Square, speaking on a ladder beside the gothic Christ Church Cathedral. A phone in his belt was his “hotline to God”.
Back then the Wizardmobile, constructed from the front halves of two Volkswagen Beetles, was a familiar sight on city streets and his booming voice echoed around the central business district.
He made an artform out of evading the compulsory census: “I am not a real person and I don’t want to be counted by the Government.”
But Government wanted him. In 1990, Prime Minister Mike Moore proclaimed him the Official Wizard of New Zealand, appointed to “protect the Government, cast out evil spirits and upset fanatics”.
Awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in 2009 for services to the community – “notable for reviving the ancient art of rhetoric” – he is still paid an annual $16,000 honorarium by the council.
His image has likely appeared on as many postcards as the city’s iconic cathedral.
For decades, the Wizard waited patiently for an apprentice.
“I went from about 1969 without anyone,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’ – it’s such an easy life. It’s good fun to do this. Maybe I’m that weird or different no-one else can do it.”
But five years ago, the Wizard finally found his apprentice and deputy in 33-year-old musician Ari Freeman.
Wearing the hat
When he was just 5 years old, Ari Freeman wondered if it might be possible to fly.
“To lift oneself off the ground or to jump then jump again before hitting the ground in order to get even higher ... I was having very vivid dreams, where I could in fact, lift myself off the ground,” he says.
“In one recurring dream, I learned how to do a special sort of skip that meant that, with enough effort, I could hover above the ground with great speed. This dream kept happening, and I learned to go a bit higher over time.”
Freeman was 6 when he first met the Wizard.
“When I was a young child, I was fascinated by medieval things ... stories of knights and wizards and shining armour,” he says.
His first important interaction with magic occurred when he was about 10 or 11 years old and he read fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea.
“This is about a boy going to wizard school that later influenced Harry Potter. In this book, the writer, Ursula K Le Guin, puts forward the idea that words are magic. This gave me permission to try and think about how magic could be used in the real world.”
The idea that attributing something with a name gives it power – “Rumplestiltskin theory” – embodies Le Guin’s work. Freeman embraced it.
Women weave spells or “put on a glamour” when they wear make-up, he says.
“I discovered that the less I shaved, and the longer the beard got, the more fun life got.”
He started studying the Wizard before finally approaching him.
“Are you prepared to wear the hat and all this stuff?” the Wizard recalls asking him.
“If you wear the hat you are halfway there because you’ve got to be clever and you’ve got to be prepared to look a fool at the same time ... it is hard to do both. He has to watch me interacting with nutters and weirdos and crackpots and political fanatics ... and see what I do.”
Freeman now has a total of four wizard robes, including one he designed. It boasts colourful squares which represent his music.
Around his mentor, Freeman is deferential. He hangs back as the Wizard stomps majestically down the hallway of his inner city home, past giant bookcases full of magical books.
The Wizard laid out some rules: “I am the boss and that’s that. If anything comes up, you have to give in to my decision because otherwise it is not going to work. No master can operate with a rebellious apprentice.”
The wizards sit opposite each other at the kitchen table and engage in animated debate about esoteric topics, hands and arms waving enthusiastically in the air as each seeks to drive home their point.
A group of wizards is known as a “disagreement”.
“Wizards love to argue,” says the Wizard. “It’s an important part of being a wizard.”
Freeman collects ideas about magic from those who are skilled in it.
“Most importantly, I try things out in the real world,” he says. “I consider being a wizard a community role. People who do their magic only at home tend to only end up enchanting themselves, which can easily become delusional. I think it’s best to take responsibility for being a magician. The effectiveness of one’s magic should be decided by one’s audience, not by oneself.”
‘Music is my magic’
Rows of orange road cones, ubiquitous in post-earthquake Christchurch, line the road outside Freeman’s home in the eastern suburbs.
In black T-shirt, crimson jeans and shiny pointy black boots, Freeman is munching on a piece of toast in the music room of the flat he shares with a punk musician – “his irreverent solo project is called Narcotic Tonsils”.
Pale streaks of sunlight dance through the windows and fall on microphones, an endless array of black snake-like leads and instruments.
Opposite the drum kit, atop a cupboard, is a raggedy furry wolf’s head.
It’s a throwback to his former band, Lupus Lunar.
Whenever Lupus Lunar performed Rabbit On the Moon, people would dress as rabbits and wolves and chase each other on stage.
“Sometimes the rabbit won,” says Freeman, toying with the end of his beard. “Sometimes it was the wolf’s turn.”
In 2012, a year after the earthquakes devastated the city, with 70 per cent of the live music venues in Christchurch destroyed, Lupus Lunar played their songs about lust, earthquakes and magic – Blood Like Rust, Aftershock and Company of Wolves – at house parties.
Now Freeman has three musical outlets – psychedelic funk band Rhomboid; “one-man-band” The Blues Professor; and his new band, Fools Know More. The latter’s song Transcendence is currently on student radio.
When he’s not working on music, he’s teaching it. When he’s not doing that he’s writing a book about wizardry.
New York wizard Devin Person photographed by Mark Shaw.
New York wizard Devin Person photographed by Mark Shaw.
Worldwide web of wizards
Brooklyn-based wizard Devin Person, 33, was on holiday in Puerto Rico when he got a message from Freeman.
“Oh my God, it was so exciting,” he says. “We have had some great chats over Skype. We are a similar age and have similar views.”
Person moonlights as the “New York subway wizard”.
He rides the subway, sitting under an official looking sign he had made which reads “Talk to the wizard”. He helps people connect in a “largely unfriendly city”.
“I have made good friends through being a subway wizard,” he says. “I am the catalyst for people to interact.”
He decided to become a wizard in 2014.
On November 30, 2014 he rented a room and did a ritual to become who he wanted to be and then returned to his “normal life”.
Not long afterwards his knee swelled up so badly he couldn’t leave his house for a month.
Then he discovered he had an extremely rare condition called pigmented villonodular synovitis (PVNS), which causes the thin layer of tissue that lines the joints and tendons to thicken and overgrow.
“In lieu of surgery, the doctor prescribed an experimental medication that turned all my hair white,” says Person. “It was a real shortcut to becoming a wizard, the doctor was surprised I was so enthusiastic about the side effects.”
When you approach life with a sense of magic, interesting things start to happen.
“Everyone has that friend who goes with you to a party and the minute they arrive they’re surrounded by laughing people and end up drinking on a rooftop at midnight,” says Person. “If you’re living a fairy tale you can play with the way reality works. It’s a beautiful thing to explore.”
He heard New Zealand had the world’s only official wizard and was intrigued.
“I thought, ‘Oh this is so cool’ and ordered [the Wizard’s] book My Life As A Miracle immediately. I was very impressed.”
Person has a podcast called This Podcast is a ritual and also hosts magical tours of Central Park.
Like Freeman, he is involved in the indie music scene.
In Brooklyn, he is MC at events and introduces bands such as Bodega, Cookie Tongue, Otro Lado, Adam Lempel and Native Sun.
“Music crowds can be so lame,” he says. “Everyone standing around holding their drink and staring at their phone. If you choose to go out and have this unique live experience people doing that can make it a lame show.”
A wizard dancing around and having fun can “change the whole vibe”.
“The New Zealand wizards have a similar playfulness and a desire to use silliness to get people to see the world in a different way,” says Person.
“I am interested in the way human beings make our stories about reality. If you play with that useful fiction... In my own life, telling people I am a wizard and dressing up helps people interact with me and it is practical magic. It is the loveliest thing.”
Magic under a mirrorball
Perched on the side of a volcano, access to the Wunderbar is via a spiralling staircase in the port town of Lyttelton in Christchurch.
It is a dark wintry Saturday night and needles of rain hypnotically lash any exposed skin.
A sign which reads: “Nice people only” swings haphazardly in the wind.
Down below, in Lyttelton harbour, seagulls shriek unseen and cruise ships of largesse sway seductively on salty seas.
The Wunderbar has a reputation as the coolest little music venue in New Zealand.
They wait patiently for magic as a candle flame flickers in a red glass.
Under lampshades fashioned from old hair curlers like the kind your nana once used, friends, lovers and strangers warm themselves.
A man with a tattoo on his forearm of a black snake, forked tongue extended, steadies for a shot on the pool table, eyes peering down the length of the cue.
On the stereo, Iggy Pop is heading to an alley to have a little chat.
Freeman dips his head in the doorway to accommodate his pointy hat, strides across the room and stands beneath a giant glittering mirrorball.
No-one appears surprised.
After all, this is a city known for wizards. In Christchurch we see wizards on the bus, at the library, en masse drinking coffee in New Regent St or waving to tourists as the tram passes.
The Wizard has six apprentices in total, including Wayne Snyder, who runs a magic shop in Richmond, Virginia. In his shop you can trade items as long as you make up a good story as to why your item is magical.
Four apprentices live in the South Island and another, Auckland-based Doug Robertson, is Freeman’s own apprentice.
Like a musical fairy grotto, delicate lights in muted pastel shades are draped delicately around the microphone stand and are peppered across the Wunderbar’s stage.
The rainbow of soft light dancing around the darkened room feels dreamlike.
“All good art is magic,” says Freeman. “Performance, art, theatre, acting, and, most of all for me... music.”
Whenever Freeman speaks, even about trivial concerns, it is as if he is making a grand proclamation with onion-like layers and riddles to unfurl.
“When I play music I put myself in a magical trance state. The music I write often has magical themes about dreams and perception. When I play a song, I’m aiming to make people dance. They think it’s their idea to dance but it’s actually mine because I’m the magician.”
Freeman’s handmade guitar, Coagula, has indents on its base, presumably from a stiletto, from its former life as a floorboard in a previous home.
After warming his fingers, he starts to play. He’s casting his shadow, weaving his spell.
At first the crowd hangs back, but Rhomboid’s high-energy songs soon have people dancing.
Following the first set, a dark shape appears. The 86-year-old Wizard has crossed the crowded dancefloor, dark robes rippling at his ankles, and is standing at my elbow.
He peers up from beneath his hat, face creased with shadows.
“Come with me,” he commands.
I follow the Wizard across the dancefloor around the swaying drunk, impossibly tanned youth.
There, in the rear of the room, he introduces me to Freeman’s parents, a welcoming couple, and Freeman’s girlfriend, Ivy. Freeman’s dad leans in proudly to discuss his talented son’s throat-singing display.
The Wizard leans against the wall, eyelids narrowed in either rest or contemplation. Yet there is a listening look on his face.
When Freeman returns to the stage he announces the second half of the show is Beatles tunes. His magical mentor cheers so forcefully his pointy hat bounces atop his silver-haired head.
A wild man on guitar, in full wizard regalia, Freeman stomps and moves energetically until his forehead is shiny with sweat beneath his pointy hat.
Did the spell Freeman cast work?
It is undeniable that for many heartbeats around midnight, thoughts of the cold world outside vanished and the room is sprinkled with magic.
As spring arrives eager and bright, the wizards roam the inner city streets of Christchurch beside teetering yellow daffodils.
Outside the Canterbury Museum and in Cathedral Square the apprentice wizard quickly attracts a crowd of tourists.
He twirls the end of his beard with one hand while leaning on his staff, with its intricate Māori carving of a “blue-eyed man”, as they eagerly photograph him.
Small children grin and point. Others hide behind their mother’s skirts, peeking out with wonder in their eyes.
“Look at the wizard, Mum,” says one little girl, lollipop forgotten in her hand as her mouth gapes open.
A man the colour of pork sausages furrows his brow quizzically: “Are you in some sort of show?”
Freeman knows that some people might think that wizards are “completely crazy”.
“They are fantasy, and that magic is simply stuff that doesn’t work,” he says.
“To that I would say, wouldn’t you rather trust someone who comes out in the open, presenting themselves in a ridiculous way, but then saying interesting things, than someone who puts themselves forward as an expert and then says crazy things?”
Wizard as a word is an olde English term for a wise man.
Freeman’s greatest challenge has been finding a “meaning system that keeps me well” and which “helps the people around me”. The wizard persona has been a “helpful and playful way” to do this.
As children we readily believe in the existence of magic. But, as serious adults, we can become consumed by the chores of daily existence and forget to seek it.
“I think having people like wizards around, who challenge what is and isn’t ‘real’ can be very good for people’s mental health,” says Freeman.
“Too many people are using all their brain power to come up with reasons why they are screwed. What if we were able to switch that brain power towards seeking opportunity instead of despair?”
The notion of changing your life by actively seeking magic in small everyday moments – a sunrise, holding hands, feeding ducks or meeting a kindred spirit – is charming.
“A good spell should affect the person and change the way they think about the world, at least temporarily,” says Freeman.
“A good wizard should be able to talk about any conversation, politics, religion, spirituality and most of all ... magic.”
After Freeman said this, he did not disappear in a dramatic puff of smoke.
Instead, we bid farewell and returned to our ordinary homes in this ordinary town at the bottom of this magical world.
Visuals Chris Skelton
Words Vicki Anderson
Design Kathryn George
Editor John Hartevelt