• 12 February 2024

What do you do? What sort of things do you make? Or capture? Or select?

I create paintings about people and place. There are no people in my paintings but they are always uppermost in my mind when working - the people who have lived on the land over many years, who have walked, loved, and worked there, and what they leave behind. Georgia O’Keeffe summed it up well for me – she never painted creatures: “I’ve always believed that I can get all that into a picture by suggestion. I mean the life that has been lived in a space.”

I have painted the places I have visited and found that I had to have visited a place, to have experienced it, to be able to paint it. I have taken many photographs, and then studied all of them before painting - but not directly from photographs - back in the studio.

Over the last 3 years, I have been exploring the Hauraki Plains after learning what was there before the dairy farms that my family owned for 3 generations, and this has meant working from historical photographs, reading descriptions by early European visitors, and those of the local Māori people.

Labelled 'A sure sign of progress: The first cattle sale on the Hauraki Plains, Thames District, Auckland'. My great-grandfather is in this picture. 

How do you make decisions during the process of your work? How and why do you select the materials, techniques, themes that you do?

I use collage to indicate the layers within a land - the layer of history, of all the people that have lived and walked on that land; plus the physical layers of the land. I paint on paper, A1 size, in watercolour of one particular item e.g. river bank of the Piako River, and then use that painting for collage. I rip the painting, either to indicate layers of land or rivers or plains; or to indicate trees in a forest. The rips, horizontal or vertical, refer to brokenness. I also use a knife to cut paper - this is a new process in my work on the Hauraki Plains - indicating the flatness, the barrenness in comparison to what was there before the drainage of the wetland

Pine boards are the main substrate I use to collage on, referencing the white pine, or Kahikatea. In the future, I am looking into obtaining some kahikatea wood to paint and/or collage on.

I also collage on paper without a board. In both cases, I don’t like to use glass over the top of the paper as I feel it hides the work. Instead, I use 2 or 3 coats of wax medium on the surface to protect the paint. I like the idea that viewers can touch and feel the layers in the work.

I'm currently investigating using opalescent paint to indicate the damage to the drains and rivers on the Hauraki Plains - to use on selected parts of the painting. It needs to look oily and not pretty to be the effect I want.

What are you valuing in the work?

I value the materiality in my work, especially working with watercolour and charcoal. The uncontrollability of the material. It feels related to wetness, swamp, and the wetland. I also value the materiality in the artworks themselves; I coat my work with layers of wax medium rather than use glass, and invite the viewer to touch the layers.

What are your sources, do you refer to existing images?

I take many photographs of the area that I wish to paint. I refer to these before beginning a series but do not paint directly from them. I prefer not to be able to view them, enabling me to use my memory of the physical scene and its main structural forms, but also the feeling being in that place gave me.

My recent work on the Hauraki Plains area and its ecological history, has meant that I now use historical images as a reference point, along with descriptions and words used in historical writing e.g. Joseph Banks’ log notes describing the Waihou River banks in their untouched state.

What are you trying to say or infer in the work?

I’m questioning the decision-making of colonialism and its superior attitude toward the inhabitants of New Zealand, but also my shock as an older adult finding out the history of the land I grew up in, a new narrative replacing the one I grew up with.

The destruction of wetlands we now know has caused immense damage to our climate, to our birdlife, and fisheries. They are a vital part of the interconnectedness life needs – for people, for flora and fauna.

I am also looking at how changing an environment to suit modern-day practices i.e. farming, leisure, and city planning, needs very careful planning so it doesn’t come back to bite us.

Nature always wins in the end. But successive generations, and different cultures, think they know best at the time – and it’s often small voices that oppose the plans. I have no answer or knowledge of how future generations can go forward carefully but I hope to stimulate conversation, critical thinking, and reflection.

How is the way you are saying it, with the materials, techniques and relations of emphasis between elements, the best for the idea you want to present?

Watercolour paint seems an appropriate medium to use for a swampy wetland. I use pine plywood panels to note the Kahikatea (called white pine by the Europeans) forest that once grew on the Hauraki Plains, and pine frames when framing. Using oak does not feel like the appropriate material.

What is it you’ve been trying to do to make the work relevant in relation to ideas, cultural circumstances or contemporary issues?

My interest lies in making work that questions our colonisers' decisions. A majority of those decisions were made because of money, making that a priority rather than people or wildlife, and nature. We now know how important the interconnectedness of flora and fauna and land is, and yet we continue to make decisions with money as the primary decision-making point.

How does this work fit into a larger body of work or overarching project of ideas (if it does)?

I have worked on a larger Hauraki Plains project for 3 or 4 years now. Under the umbrella of the Hauraki Plains, I have painted the imagined forest, and the river, and their banks, and also focused on the kahikatea trees and fruit.

Are your ideas changing and if so how?

I hope so. The work to date has focused on painting the forest on the Hauraki Plains as I imagine it was before it was cut down. But I would like to focus - on the forest and swamp and all it entailed, or the destruction and desolation? Before and after? Or my family story in particular? Or the story of the drainage of the wetland on the Hauraki Plains? My ignorance or blindness for many many years? I am still deciding this.

Has anyone done this kind of work in the past?

Artist Toni Hartill has also worked in this area, concentrating on the deforestation, milling of timber, and the history of the Kahikatea swamps of the Hauraki Plains. [1]

Artist Kate van der Drift has worked in the Hauraki Plains area, focusing on the damage the deforestation and resulting farming has done to the waterways on the Hauraki Plains.[2]

Artist Michael Shepherd lives on the edges of the Hauraki Plains. Living in close ‘proximity to the sites of pivotal events in New Zealand’s nineteenth-century history fuelled a decades-long fascination with the complexities of the colonial era and its legacies.’ [3] I will be visiting Michael further, as we have communicated and met, having a similar regard and research over the environmental changes on the Hauraki Plains.

Bill Hammond was concerned with the destruction of New Zealand's birdlife and its forest and bush home, and his paintings depicted the desolation.[4]

Bill Hammond The Fall of Icarus (after Bruegel) (detail) 1995. Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te  Puna o Waiwhetū, purchased 1996

Does anyone else do it now? Who are the artists that occupy this terrain?

Asleigh Taupaki is currently working on the Hauraki area for her Fine Arts PHD. Her doctoral research looks into Ngāti Hako (Hauraki) connections to wetlands, and the associated colonial histories.

Laura Donkers is a multi-media visual artist, exploring 'the legacy of deforestation as a consequence of colonisation'.[5] She currently has an exhibition at Northart Gallery called Subsume, and an artist's talk coming up which I will attend.

Who are the writers on these subjects? What specifically have they said, which then potentially motivates your own thinking for your work?

Geoff Park has written on the Hauraki Plains in ‘Ngā Uruora’. The first book recommended by Julie Downie, my context supervisor is another book by Park called ‘Theatre Country’. [6] [7] Park writes about the interconnectedness and necessity of the wetlands from an ecological point of view, but also outlining the colonial attitudes and the resulting Crown laws that have led to the destruction of the wetlands.

Paul Monin writes about the history of the Hauraki area (including the Coromandel Peninsula and gold) under colonisation, and how the resources and land slipped away from the local Māori iwis, and contributed to the demise of some. [8]

I have yet to start this book ‘The forgotten coast’ by Richard Alter-Shaw. which appears to have a story close to my own. A Pakeha who grew up on family land in Parihaka, but never knew the history of that land until much later in life.

My reading has continued to shock me, to discover from an ecological point of view what existed on the Hauraki Plains before the drainage in the early 1900s; and alongside that, the dismissive attitudes of the colonisers, no matter how well-intentioned and ardent some of them were, to the inhabitants of the land they had decided to 'own'.

How to get this destruction of both the flora and fauna, and consequently the harm to the inhabitants, across in my paintings is a constant question for me as I work.

What histories are you contributing to within this field of practice?

Colonialism is defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people. During my research, I discovered the attitude of the colonisers of Aotearoa New Zealand in the written language that was used toward the existing inhabitants. I did know through art history study at University about the 'noble savage', and the theory of pureness of the native 'savages' before colonisiation. But the writing of colonisers about the inhabitants that stood in their way in Aotearoa New Zealand did not hold the natives in high regard, and did not think they had rights, especially if it stood in the way of 'progress' for the colonisers.

I mention Landscape painting here because I have called and been called a landscape painter. But I am painting about land and people, land and whenua. They are so interconnected that I think of them almost as one, even when the land is bare.

Environmentalism runs through my work, a concern for the importance of the environment within society. The felling of the forest and the draining of the Hauraki Plains is a sad example of environmental change and the effect it had on the people connected with that area.



[1] Hartill, Toni. "Artful Narratives and the Destruction of the Kahikatea Forests." Heritage Et Al. Auckland Library, March 16, 2022. https://heritageetal.blogspot.com/2022/03/artful-narratives-and-destruction-of.html.

[2] Van der Drift, Kate. "Listening to a Wetland." KATE VAN DER DRIFT. Accessed March 4, 2024. https://www.katevanderdrift.com/listening-to-a-wet-land.

[3] Two Rooms (n.d.). Michael Shepherd. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://tworooms.co.nz/artists/michael-shepherd/

[4] "Laura Donkers Subsume." NORTHART. NorthArt, Accessed March 9, 2024. https://www.northartgallery.net/-exhibitions.

[5] Simmons, Laurence. "The Edge of the Sea." Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetū. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetū, August 27, 2021. https://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/bulletin/201/the-edge-of-the-sea.

[6] Park, Geoff. 1995. Ngā Uruora. Wellington New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington.

[7] Park, Geoff. 2006. Theatre Country. Wellington New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington.

[8] Monin, Paul. 2001. This Is My Place : Hauraki Contested 1769-1875. Wellington New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books.

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