The recent death of yet another major New Zealand painter prompts me to share a few memories as is the way.
Don and I never had an easy relationship or any bonding of depth, but painters are aware of each other and get a nourishment from the air breathed together in these poky islands. It’s an unspoken thing. My earliest memory of Don is when I was a student at Elam, and he came to do some bronze casting of some fat birds. He was rather removed – even grumpy – was the impression. No one was in doubt this was a famous artist although there may have been the attitude that wildlife was not conceptually challenging in comparison to the focus on McCahon. Don had, by then, done the overseas thing but it wasn’t triumphant.
A bit later when I was out at Titirangi I also have a memory of the potter Jeff Scholes. My neighbour Maurice Shadbolt and Don are connected with a party out at Te Henga. There was that great feeling of a New Zealand purpose and arts community combined with bush landscape. Later my friend Derek March built a house and on visits I became quite familiar with the place – sand hills, cliffs and swampland. Marvellous.
After Elam I was eventually invited to join the New Zealand Society of Painters and Sculptors, one year becoming President with Don as my secretary. Don liked things done in a proper way. At one meeting the more casual Pat Hanly wanted us all to traipse up to the Engineering School without the formalities but Don wouldn’t hear of it. He stormed off to the library to write his resignation letter. I was a bit nonplussed but Roy Dalgarno as an older man was sent in to speak to the man. Half an hour later Don emerged with a cheesy grin and things returned to normal. Later I heard his resignation letter had been filed in several places!
Other memories of Don at this time include a rather painful ridiculing of him by students where a whole lot of those bird pictures that appear three-dimensional were put up in the staffroom somehow. Another time at an evening for Max Gimlet I can remember Don tapping me on the head and leading me up to meet Max where I was rather lost for words and rapidly retreated. I was not amused at the time.
Don would have been at many of those wonderful openings at Barry Lett galleries talking away vigorously. I always respected his work but didn’t aspire in that direction of restraint. I saw the control and the observation but the stilted factor, as I felt it, was not beckoning. The emergence of Fomison and Clairmont was more mesmerising even if part of me wants a quiet landscape factor with some truth of place.
The early eighties saw me occupying a studio in Karaka Street in Auckland. Graeme Cornwell was printing lithographs below and Don was one of the artists who worked there but we didn’t connect. Graeme had trouble getting his lithographs dark enough and Don was more demanding than me in this regard. My life was very distracted and tentative at the time. I had no money and no proper dwelling. Don’s life seemed pretty secure, or that was the impression.
There is a gap after that with big changes in my life. A time at Whitecliffe art school teaching a few classes where Elam seemed miles away. There was even a kind of conflict between the two institutions which I found nasty, not that I was a fan of private art schools but I had maintenance to pay. In the two thousands Don and Greer Twiss came into my life when I was living in Southland. I had been involved with the American Michael Tobias who owned land on Stewart Island and ran some talk festivals with the likes of Don Merton, Rod Morris, myself etc.
This time it was in Invercargill but very poorly supported. Don was actually on the same flights down from Auckland but not that chatty and indeed seeming to want to be left alone. I found no one was there to meet him so I drove him to the Ascot Hotel. Later at Southland Museum Sue and I were among the few to attend his talk, which we found embarrassing. Don’s talk was very tedious and consisted of him reading out his statement from a Barry Lett catalogue of his from the sixties. It was only of interest in the sense that it showed his forward, possibly prophetic attitude to things environmental at that time. He looked a bit defensive and edgy. In contrast Greer Twiss showed images and was more comfortable.
I can remember with Don’s touring retrospective that the number of venues was not good enough, nor the size of the book on him. I felt the system wasn’t delivering. It’s as if our system was slack and missing a real opportunity to connect with as many New Zealanders as possible.
The last memory of Don is his work at Gore which was a touring show of colour pencil works of Te Henga area which in its own way was typical of him in its quiet and carefulness. No sensational flourishes or grand finale, just a craftsman-like, humble methodology. Not that Don was particularly humble himself! Beyond the man the place is the thing.
With the passing of Don comes the end of an era and of a theory A bright hard light and God’s own country. Don was aware he was working in cowboy country, as he once described New Zealand to me. The crisp, healthy no-nonsense approach may have been a reaction to that rough she’ll be right attitude. Birds raised to levels they deserved. A love of birds shared by many New Zealanders. All this on a deteriorating planet.
So here’s to Don’s sharing of his hours and hours of birds and landscape that’s there in the work for all to enjoy for years to come.
Cosy Nook, September 2012