Maori artist uses colour to communicate

Maori artist Darcy Nicholas, also general manager of community services for Porirua City Council, is having an exhibition at Expressions, Upper Hutt, over Rugby World Cup.
Ross Giblin
Maori artist Darcy Nicholas, also general manager of community services for Porirua City Council, is having an exhibition at Expressions, Upper Hutt, over Rugby World Cup.

Darcy Nicholas, one of the best known of early contemporary Maori artists, is preparing for his most comprehensive exhibition. He talks about the history of his art to Diana Dekker .

Brilliant colour washes the surface of Darcy Nicholas' wide-ranging paintings. Of course colour is important, he says. "Colour is a universal form of communication. It's colour that seduces you and pulls you into the painting, and then the textural quality of the painting and its subject. You have to be confident with colour. I remember Ted Francis at a summer school of art in Auckland saying 'be unafraid and use colour intuitively'."

Nicholas's most comprehensive exhibition in more than 40 years of painting is to be shown at Expressions Gallery in Upper Hutt. There will be some of what he considers to be his best early works, but most have been painted in the past 14 months.

"The subject matter is consistent with my early artworks," he says, "self portraits of my knowledge and intellect, not only Maori things."

He intends his work to evoke the physical and spiritual nature of existence and the universality of Maori experience, as well as their attachment to their own land. His exhibition, Land of My Ancestors, will include sculpture and jewellery as well as painting.

All the work has been done while Nicholas holds his day job as general manager of community services for Porirua City Council, including responsibility for Pataka Museum.

He doesn't, he says, sleep much. He keeps a notebook beside his bed in the Roger Walker-style Stokes Valley house he shares with his wife, Anne, and wakes up three times a night to draw in it.

"We've been married 40 years, so she's used to it. I've cat-napped since the early 1960s, sit down and have a very deep sleep for three minutes. I sit up in bed. I can't stop my brain. My brain keeps working. There are always ideas and I have to get them out. On the odd occasion I sleep right through, it surprises me. I've done that most of my life. You get more out of life."

That life, and the people he has met in it and who came before it, informs his art. Nicholas was the eleventh child of a family of 12 in Waitara, Taranaki. He did charcoal drawings on newspaper, or on the walls of the house. "It was all we could afford. I was one of the youngest, wandering around occupying myself."

He was 9 when he sold his first painting for 30 shillings. It had childish inklings of the expression of human experience he would later explore - "a sailor waiting on the wharf for a ship to come in. "I've always been doing and thinking art . . . thinking and experiencing life and reflecting it back."

Nicholas showed a talent for art at school. He scored 95 per cent in School Certificate art at Waitakere High School, then decided to join the police, "because the careers officer said there was no future in an art career". He has never regretted his 10 years as a policeman. "It was wonderful. It gave me the self- confidence I needed and an ability to spend long hours working, and an ability to study and to concentrate on issues."

He painted and exhibited while he was with the police and in 1973 decided to do art fulltime. He talked it over with artist Peter McIntyre. "He said 'you're a very courageous young man'."

Nicholas studied with Elva Bett and Sam Cairncross and went to summer schools with Paul Olds and Colin McCahon. He also read every book he could on art, particularly Monet and the Impressionists.

In 1984 he won a Fulbright Cultural Award to study African American and Native American art. "I've never looked back since then. I learned on the spot in the United States, plus I'm an avid reader of art, poetry, philosophy and history. I've built up quite a comprehensive knowledge about a big range of things as well as my own culture."

Soon after he left the police he opened a gallery in Lower Hutt and was hanging 30 paintings for his first exhibition when a passing American car dealer, heading to the fish-and-chip shop over the road, saw him through the window. He entered the gallery and bought one, went off to get his fish and chips, and returned to buy the rest. It was a good omen. Much of Nicholas' work is sold to overseas buyers.

Thirty years ago, Nicholas studied management. "I decided with Buck Nin [who died in 1996 and was also an early contemporary Maori artist] that Maori art was going nowhere. All our art was condensed to marae decoration."

Subsequently he became director of the Wellington Arts Centre, director of the Central Regional Arts Council and worked with the Iwi Transition Agency.

As manager of cultural services for Porirua City he was instrumental in the establishment of Maori Art Markets. He was creative director for Toi Maori: Eternal Threads and Maori Art Meets America, which opened in San Francisco in 2005 with a waka paddling under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nicholas continues to produce about 50 major paintings a year. Maori art, he says, is "extremely healthy". "There's a huge demand internationally for particularly contemporary Maori art, for Lewis Gardiner, our best jade carver and Roi Toia's magnificent carvings. You have Shane Cotton, John Walsh, Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt, all men because a lot of good women artists are weavers. Then there are younger artists such as Star Gossage.

"There are extremely good men and women in the under-40 bracket, highly trained in art schools, very sophisticated in the world."

The Details

Land of My Ancestors, paintings sculpture and jewellery by Darcy Nicholas, is at Mount Marua Gallery, Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Fergusson Drive, Upper Hutt, until October 17.

The Dominion Post