In full flight

21:17, Sep 21 2014
Juliet Best painting
BEST ON SHOW: Juliet Best with her painting on display at Air New Zealalnd's domestic Koru Club at Wellington International Airport.

Travellers taking to the air via Air New Zealand's domestic Koru Club exit Wellington past the work of Juliet Best, the airline's 2014 Wellington guest artist. They see super-sharp, super- vivid birds, sea, skies, rocky shores and cabbage trees, subjects so imprinted on Kiwi minds and in countless images as to beg the cliche label.

They probably are cliches, says Best, and there are many prolific artists who would not go near them as subject matter. But many do, and she does, and she makes no apologies.

"I'm passionate about these things and I'm grateful about how wonderful New Zealand is. It really is. It's the joy of what we have here, and the colours. So many people paint native birds and cabbage trees. Maybe it's because we feel so lucky to have these things around us.

"You don't go to work each day thinking the fantail is the most beautiful bird in the world - but generally I do think it is, and you develop a series. And a few weeks later it's the tui, when they're banging away around the art gallery, going for it."

Best is co-owner, with fellow-artist Jane Blackmore, of the Blackmore Best Gallery and Studio at Wellington's Shelly Bay, opened four years ago. The gallery is only minutes away from the airport, where 20 of her paintings hang in the Koru Club exhibition.

Best paints on board, canvas, hand-pressed papers and tapa cloth.

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Her interest in tapa cloth was sparked in the seven years she worked in events management at Te Papa, where her delight in native birds was also deepened.

"I got involved with native birds there and had access to the taonga treasures behind the scenes, where ornithologists were moving stuffed huia too fragile for display. Some of the things in the collection rooms are there to be cared for and protected, and sometimes there's a need to move them. I was allowed to sketch or photograph them, and saw these beautiful treasures that sometimes can't go on display. The tapa cloth there too reminds us that we're not just bicultural as a nation, we're multicultural."

She appreciated "the beautiful texture of tapa cloth and that it came from the hands of women singing as they beat it. Basically it's a handmade mix of paper and fabric. I do my thing and feel quite privileged."

In 2011, she donated her largest, 1.7-metre by 1.3-metre bird-studded painting on tapa cloth to raise money for Samoa after the devastation of the 2009 tsunami and it now hangs on public display in the Todd Corporation tower.

"That was a pivotal work about tapa, enjoying it, loving it and respecting it and knowing we're broader than just New Zealand."

Her paintings are not intended to be realistic, photographic or abstract. Largely, "they're about the joy of colour, cobalt blues, reds and scarlet". The closer birds are observed, she has found, the more vibrant they appear, so she finds herself "over-expressive and lush with the colour". That, she says, was epitomised in a series of oval works, in which green and blue tuis were painted in her hard-edged fashion on a red background.

"A trick of the eye makes the tui pop out of the red. I quite like that trick. It goes back to my training as a graphic designer."

This year, Best became a "preferred supplier" of gifts for the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry. In 2015, she will be guest artist again for Air New Zealand in Wellington, this time in the international Koru lounge. She sees both as a conduit to people taking a little bit of the country with them when they leave, like a woman posted to France.

"She said she needed a tui in Paris. I enjoy what's here in New Zealand - the tuis, the rocky shores, the flora and fauna. I don't claim any of it as my own. They're painted beautifully by many artists. They are perhaps a cliche, but perhaps one that's liked.

"The more you examine a subject over and over, the more you reveal your own ability to enjoy the beauty of just about anything. I'm lucky I constantly see art and beauty everywhere. The more I paint, the more I paint."

The Dominion Post