Thorndon artist driven to paint

16:00, Oct 18 2012
Piera McArthur
‘‘The great challenge is to produce an individual style you know in your heart of hearts is how you should be painting,’’ says 83-year-old Wellington artist Piera McArthur.

Bishop Pompallier. Imagine his exalted fervour causing him to rise several feet into the air when preaching. Thorndon artist Piera McArthur has, and captured him in the act in his splendid purple robes, much to the fury of William Colenso and other more down-to-earth colonial missionaries.

McArthur is working on an exhibition and a book from her observations of the peripatetic Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier who brought God to the poor souls of New Zealand from 1838 for almost three decades.

''This is partly to illustrate my theory that drawing can be like a hieroglyph, in fact an extension of your handwriting, involving deep sub-conscious patterns. Of course it's also to illustrate this colourful character,'' she says.

McArthur, 83, is self-taught, and this year was awarded the ONZM for her services to art. She is giving a guided tour of her finished Pompallier paintings, leaning brightly and haphazardly in her Thorndon studio.

''See the flash of his purple robes against the green of the bush. And here is Bishop Pompallier practising levitation. On the way up he passes Icarus on the way down to the underworld. The Anglican missionaries are furious to hear the Bishop  has been practising levitation to impress his new flocks.

''I've taken things out of his life that lend themselves to marvellous use of paint. Here's the Bishop telling Hone Heke to come down off the flagpole and this is a cross-section of the bishop's coach. He's on his way to Kaitaia on his last pastoral visit in 1868 before he went back to France. Here's the poor old Bishop overnighting in the bush. Travelling was difficult in those days. And here's the Bishop facing a situation he's unprepared for, a Maori doing a poi dance. He doesn't know what to think about that.


''And this is the first painting. It's the bishop saying to me, 'Who will tell my tale?', and I'm saying, 'I will be your chronicler and your friend'. It's part fantasy and part things that happened.''

McArthur's paintings have most often been about remembered images of events and people from her years as a diplomatic wife. She and her husband, John, spent three terms in Paris where he was twice New Zealand's ambassador. After he retired and they returned, in the 1990s, to live on a verdant patch of Hawke's Bay, she happened to ponder on a couple of cars driving past at about 5.30pm.

''I thought 'That's the rush hour' and wondered what it must have been like in the 1840s and thought of the colourful Bishop.''

The idea gelled over the years. She feels qualified to embark on a paint-and-pen picture of Bishop Pompallier,  ''knowing France well, understanding the 19th century and perhaps, above all, loving New Zealand. My own roots here go back to the 1840s''.  In the early days, she adds, her grandfather, Charles Monro, introduced rugby to New Zealand.

McArthur was born in Britain where her New Zealand father was studying medicine and where he stayed to practise. She was one of five children. Her father promised to take them back to New Zealand one day. ''I remember his talking about the bush and I thought there was one bush. Dad loved the bush and longed to get back here. When I was 8, we came back to our family home, Craiglockhart, outside Palmerston North, built in 1880. Now it's part of the Massey University complex.''

She boarded at Erskine College,  ''and was the first girl from a private school to get a junior university scholarship''. She always drew ''and I remember having to go to Reverend Mother to be ticked off for doodling in my maths book''.

She met her future husband - ''my darling John'' - at Victoria University. ''I went back to the university recently and missed the dim dowdiness and the smell of tobacco coming out of the rooms.''

The couple's first diplomatic posting was in  Paris.

''We set off into a most marvellous diplomatic life and wonderful postings. He was wonderful at his job. It wasn't one long cocktail party. It was jolly hard work. We had to bring up a family [of six children, now parents to her 18 grandchildren]  and keep them on an even keel. But is was wonderful. In Moscow I could go to the Bolshoi whenever I liked. There was a special row for diplomats. I could just ask at the desk what's on, so lots of my work is about performance. There's me at the Bolshoi, painted after I came back.

''Painting is about taking in something and getting it out in your own terminology and for me it's about use of paint and colour.''


In Paris, McArthur met expatriate artist Douglas MacDiarmid. She was already painting but he advised her not to do formal studies. ''He said 'Christ no, they'll ruin anything you've got'. He was an educator in the true sense of the word. He helped me realise my potential. I had a studio at the top of the residence, big, with skylights, with snow on them in winter and pigeons in summer. I'd work, and he'd come, and we'd talk and discuss things. It was an exchange of ideas.''

She first exhibited in Paris and later in Moscow. She is, she says, ''driven to paint'' and a painter of people.

All of her paintings ''hark back to experience. I think your painting is a composition of everything that's happened to you. If I was a minimalist or abstract painter there probably wouldn't be a trace of my past. I enjoy people and colour and excitement of events, and that's what my painting's about, really. I'm always interested in throngs of people and the energy of things happening. It's got to be carefully thought out and given out in your own idiom.

''The great challenge is to produce an individual style you know in your heart of hearts is how you should be painting. I've reached a stage of life I can know absolutely what I don't want and always looking for the next step of what I want.''

McArthur's husband died nearly seven years ago and she now lives in Thorndon in a house crammed with books and paintings, with an overflowing garden in the front and a big, light studio in the back. There, she maintains, she can spend 48 hours a day painting.

''Painting is a love affair. Sometimes you're not getting on at all well and other times you're engrossed. It would be terrible to be complacent and have got there. Every time you do a painting it's like pushing a door open and it's the next step.''


Piera McArthur's exhibition, Part Fact, Part Fantasy, A Painter's View, is at Exhibitions Gallery in Wellington. The limited edition, large format book accompanying the exhibition is published by Steele Roberts and costs $100.

The Dominion Post