The South Islanders
A while back, when I first posted about my little books, I got commissions to do books for people of their own list of favourite people. I just finished this one for Pauline, and it’s in the post down to Mosgiel now. It’s appropriate that she chose a whole lot of South Islanders for me to draw. I began to formulate a theory that perhaps you have to live in the South Island for a while to become one of New Zealand’s great artists.
I never really got into James K Baxter’s poetry – a shameful admission, I know. In general I find poetry hard to engage with and I have to make myself read it. It has to be full of concrete detail, preferably a bit of narrative, or else I lose focus. I do read poetry by people I know or have met and I usually love it and tell myself that I should try reading more, by people that I don’t know. I started off my writing career as a poet but I had to give it up because I knew that I would always prefer to read a novel, a short story or a comic. But sometimes I feel like comics and poetry have quite a lot in common, with their conciseness and attention to form and rhythm.
I should try Baxter again because I do have a personal connection – when my mother was a student in the late sixties at Massey University, she used to live in Ihaka Street in Palmerston North. Father Jim Kebbell would give Mass down the road at McManus House, the former Franciscan friary, and Baxter would turn up, all long hair and bare feet, talking during the sermon, walking about when you were meant to sit in the pews. He would get to drink the wine at communion in a time when Catholics weren’t given the wine. My mother and her friends were scandalised by this dirty, vagabond presence. But Father Jim would welcome him to stay after mass and they would talk and drink. Once my mother’s friends hung around too and they got drunk on Father Kebbell’s gin.
Colin McCahon features in my novel, as a figure that Greg, an artist, was once obsessed with. Greg now creates art in a West Auckland artist’s residence, perhaps something like McCahon House in Titirangi. I haven’t visited but I want to. Last year I read a really great book about McCahon by Martin Edmond and it suggested that McCahon kept revisiting religious themes not because he was devout but because he was haunted by the notion that God might not exist. He was also an alcoholic who couldn’t work without getting drunk.
Philip Clairmont was another tortured artist – he ended up killing himself when he was 34. Martin Edmond has written a biography on him too – I should read it. I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think that the printmaker Nigel Brown might have been his student. Brown was definitely influenced by Clairmont. I did a summer art course with Nigel Brown when I was 18 and it was truly wonderful. I made giant woodblock prints of naked women crouching by rock pools looking at crabs. I felt fully adult and I was incensed that the older students, ones who were probably the age I am now, suggested that I was still a child. I was halfway through an English degree and I felt like it wasn’t enough. A burnt-out graphic designer making beautiful jazz-inspired prints suggested that maybe I’d like to be graphic designer too. I stored that suggestion away and applied for design school a few years later. Funnily enough, my first fancy design job was at his ex-company.
I’ve written about Rita Angus before, and in fact one of the first comics I posted on this blog featured her. I really love her art. I think that some contemporary comic artists share an aesthetic with her.
Pauline also wanted Keri Hulme in her book. I read The Bone People the same year as I did the Nigel Brown printmaking course. It was one of those intoxicating, on-drugs reading experiences. I just fell into the story completely, feeling slightly delirious as I read, traveling to the tip of the North Island and leaping off with her character. It’s rare that I have reading experiences like that. When I was living in New York I’d often see The Bone People in bookstores and feel proud that I came from the same country as her.
There were more people in the book – all excellent choices. Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, Janet Frame and Frida Kahlo. But my 9 year old is singing exceptionally annoying songs in my ear because it’s still school holidays. I’ll write some more later – or better still, I’ll draw a comic.