Bronze comes first for sculptor

DIANA DEKKER
Last updated 08:23 01/10/2012
Paul Dibble
WARWICK SMITH/Fairfax NZ
Paul Dibble, right, with his tuatara sculpture in Palmerston North.

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Paul Dibble, possibly best known for the important New Zealand Memorial at Hyde Park Corner in London, tells a funny story about his early struggling youngish artist days.

When he left Elam Art School in the 1960s with honours in sculpture, he had little hope that he would make a living at it.

Those were the days when a New Zealand house might have "a wedding photo and a picture of a racehorse on the walls, not a lot, and never sculpture", he says.

"There were no artists in the country to speak of. You didn't have expectations."

It wasn't until the 1980s that he thought "maybe, just maybe, I could make a living at it". He was teaching art in Palmerston North. The story illustrates, he says, that there is a lot of luck in life.

"In the 1980s, there was a bit of wealth around, or a bit of artificial wealth. Everyone was interested in the stock exchange and chugging champagne.

"I was at teachers' college thinking I might leave and I did, and had the first exhibition of my new career.

"Gary Langsford invited me to have an exhibition in the Strand in Auckland. I'd had several works in other exhibitions and I thought it was an opportunity.

"I had no money and I went to the bank to borrow a few thousand to put on the show.

"They'd find out how much you earned and what security you had and they weren't totally impressed by an artist. I put the family home up for security.

"It was a really big show and, come opening time, I was there and nobody came. I was pretty devastated. And suddenly the door opened and people trickled through. They'd been below in a cafe watching the Melbourne Cup.

"That exhibition sold out and it was the beginning of my career."

That was nearly 20 years after he had graduated. He has shown regularly with Langsford since. In Wellington, he shows at Page Blackie in Victoria St.

"To work as an artist is never easy. It's always quite problematic how to do it in this country. It's getting a bit easier. People are largely more switched on to art."

Dibble still lives in Palmerston North, where he gratefully took up a teaching position all those years ago because it left him free two days a week to do his own work.

The city has been the beneficiary of several of his commissioned or donated sculptures, including a massive bronze tuatara and a lithe dancer, the two eternally linked by the tuatara's gaze in front of the Regent Theatre in Broadway Ave.

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Dibble plans to move to Auckland's North Shore at the end of next year and is fixing up a studio there. He's been in his present warehouse, bought about 12 years ago as a derelict shell in the city's industrial area.

He's waiting for son Daniel, one of four children, to finish university. It makes sense to move to Auckland, where he has family, friends and clients.

"Nothing's wrong with the provinces," he says. "I quite enjoy the provinces."

Dibble was almost lost to Australia years ago. After the death of his first wife, he was left a solo father with two small children. He decided to make a new start and tried and loved Australia on an extended trip. He returned to Palmerston North to say goodbye and met Fran, also an artist. They have two children together.

Daniel is helping his father part-time with his often massive works. Today, Dibble is part-way through creating a giant bronze kowhai flower. It's four metres high. He's making it because he suddenly decided kowhai blooms "are the best gold there is".

"Kowhais are big in flower now. Maybe if you go to your window you might see one.

"I thought I might cover it with gold leaf, but it would be too expensive. I'm thinking about another patina.

"I've used gold leaf once or twice and it's terribly difficult to use. You breathe on it and it crumples up and floats away. It's a real skill."

Like most of his work, he's making it because he wants to, and will find a home for it later.

He's not just making the kowhai flower. He has a lot of projects going at once. It will be done in about six months.

Dibble's Wellington sculptures include Fruits of the Garden in Frank Kitts Park and Under the Harbour, with its giant bottle, leaning woman and massive fish head, a work commissioned for Moore Wilson, on the site of a former soft-drink factory and over an artesian well.

His big Woodpigeon on Ring perches in Upper Hutt.

He has always favoured sculpture as a means of expression. "I like it. It has presence," he says.

He traces his preference back to his childhood. He grew up on a farm fashioned on old peat land in Waitakaruru on the Hauraki Plains. School was 10 kilometres away.

"I remember when I was quite young coming across the big bronzes that sprang up after the war, plonked around the place. We weren't geared for that sort of thing. I remember thinking they were like something from Mars, being gobsmacked looking at one at the back of a football field.

"People wouldn't know where to place them. It seemed so exotic and quite strange."

His father didn't want him to have the hard life of a farmer. There were artists in the family, and he was good at drawing, so art school was not a radical choice.

"I loved it, actually," he says.

He followed artists like Don Binney, studied with Gretchen Albrecht and Terry Stringer, and was inspirationally taught by Jim Allen. He graduated from Elam in 1967 with honours in sculpture and worked alongside Colin McCahon, who had been a tutor at the school, designing church fitments for a group of architects.

"We were never really close friends. He was the master and I was the boy. He was a very intense man, very intense indeed. He was marvellous to work with. He was quite inspirational."

Dibble was awarded an NZOM in 2004 and an honorary doctorate, the first in visual arts from Massey University, in 2007.

Fran Dibble wrote the text for the lavish new book on Dibble's larger works. "She's made it very accessible. It's not meant to be full of extravagant art-speak. It gives a sense of what it's like to be a sculptor in New Zealand."

THE DETAILS

Paul Dibble: The Large Works, David Bateman Publishing, $125, will be released tomorrow.

- The Dominion Post

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