Evening at Sam’s | Writing

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Steve Braunias on a great collaboration

What does history look like when it’s being made, when some of the best minds of a generation are shuffling through Maori creeks at dawn looking for a party, looking to get high, looking to make art from their strange little country on the outskirts of the world? New Zealand in the late 1960s sparkles with fun and excitement, as shown in the new illustrated biography of one of our greatest living artists, Robin White: Something’s going on here.

Much of the book focuses on her final period as a painter and printmaker in Dunedin and the Kiribati Islands. There is a range of essays and a detailed overview of his work. It’s serious, correct. But the book comes to life most cheerfully and loudly in the section devoted to his crucial few years on the pretty tidal coast at Paremata, Wellington.

White graduated from Elam School of Art and got a job in 1969 teaching at Mana College in Porirua. His students included Geoffrey Crombie, who joined Split Enz as Noel Crombie, and Greg Flint, that gentle, doomed soul who later settled as an art dealer. She also met someone who became a profound influence: Sam Hunt.

Sam Hunt, Bottle Creek (1970). Oil on canvas. The University of Auckland Art Collection, purchased in 1971.

The two were lovers, briefly, then friends, deeply. Hunt was at the center of things. He was connected, extremely social. He knew the poets Meg and Alistair Campbell at Pukerua Bay, and Denis Glover at Paekākāriki; Hunt lived in a boathouse on Pāuatahanui Cove and called this stretch of shoreline Bottle Creek in honor of the constant partying. Friends came and went, including painter Don Binney and writer Jack Lasenby. A guest recalls in the book: “The party moved between Porirua, Paremata and Paekākāriki, largely coordinated by Sam who at the same time found time to write prolifically.”

A common and snobby misunderstanding of Hunt is that his poetry is somehow crude – the shouting bard, alien to the civilizing influences of the English departments. In fact, he always acted as a fine and sensitive artist. Like White, he was drawn to small towns, quiet afternoons, long shadows; in his poems and images, the two visionaries formed a kind of collaboration, both capturing New Zealand with the same affection, the same intention. They were on fire during those Paremata years. White painted Hunt and turned him into an icon. He was the hero of his job, a super bohemian in a bright white singlet. She painted Mangaweka, Maketū and Mana, and turned them into icons, too. During this time, Hunt was writing some of the best poems of his life. White: “He was working – well, he was working and he wasn’t working, but his mind was still working. I had that encouragement and that nourishment. He came down the path calling, ‘I’ve got a new poem.’ “

Robin White in his studio in Portobello, 1977. Photograph by Marti Friedlander, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

White’s book makes you want to be there, to be part of the scene. More so, it makes you want to watch her create her now famous images with such brilliant clarity – the flat surfaces, the beauty of form – that it would have been like seeing New Zealand for the first time. Her gift was that she showed you a land that you immediately recognized but which was put together in a totally different way. As art critic Patrick Hutchings described her work, “She will chillingly show you what you already know but haven’t allowed yourself to realize.”

White herself says, “I saw Bottle Creek, and I saw the house and the hills, and Sam, and I got them all together.” Trying to imagine the New Zealand culture of the time as a wilderness, a void. It’s true that not much happened anywhere for long periods of time – every day was like a Sunday, silent and RSA – but Hunt and White both had their teachers, their traditions and both practiced their own idea of ​​regionalism. In a 1973 interview with Landing, Hunt (“I Think I Have $8 in the Post Office Savings Bank”) spoke admiringly of the open road, “the pool tables, the hills, and the horses”, and said, ” That’s why I’m a big fan of Allen Curnow. People always knock him down, but I totally stick to his theories on regionalism. Here I am in 1973, pretty much in agreement with what he said in the 1930s.” But outside the English departments no one had ever heard of Curnow. Hunt and White were popular, little-known artists. They drew a crowd and along the way created a new kind of New Zealand culture.

Sam Hunt and Hills Across the Harbor (1976). Oil on canvas. Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, purchased with assistance from the Hamilton Motorcycle Club.

It was fine to discuss regionalism in a classroom, but White and Hunt preferred to experience it. They shared a passion for a New Zealand institution: the road trip. “Leaving in her VW Beetle, they visited friends on the North Island, stopping by the roadside so she could photograph scenes that jumped out at her. That’s how she conceived the idea for future Mangaweka paintings… Much of Robin’s early work takes a slice of a small New Zealand town and turns it into an archetypal image, a painterly parallel to Hunt’s practice as a poet. “

On the road, stopping to take the temperature of the horseless town they liked, two performers no one had heard of before – again, there’s that sense of excitement and discovery. Hunt had gone through the University of Auckland and White was taught at Elam. But they were more important and durably educated by each other. Their friendship reads like such a beautiful romance. What would it really have been like to be there, to be part of the scene? Beer in crates, Dylan (Hunt’s lyrical muse) and Rod Stewart (Hunt’s vocal muse) on the stereo, $8 in a savings bank… By the end of 1971, White was “packing his bags, put the cat in the back seat and catch the ferry to Lyttelton, on its way to Dunedin.” The Paremata years were over. New Zealand culture was on its way.

Robin White: Something’s going on here edited by Sarah Farrar, Jill Trevelyan and Nina Tonga (Te Papa Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, $70) is available in bookstores nationwide. ReadingRoom devotes the whole week to this beautiful book. Tomorrow: Justin Paton on his classic image of a fish and chips.

A major retrospective exhibition featuring over 70 works from White’s 50-year career is currently on display at Te Papa, followed by the Auckland Art Gallery in late October.

Joseph K. Bennett