US horses keep Kiwi artist on track

Last updated 05:00 10/11/2012

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He has spent the past few decades rubbing shoulders with America's captains of industry, movie stars and singers, but there is still a lot of Ruatoria shepherd in Peter Williams.

Standing beside his 1972 Holden Premier and wearing a tatty old woollen jersey with holes at the elbows, the 78-year-old yells out a greeting as he carries an armload of washing toward his house.

The house, high above the Hawke's Bay coastal settlement of Waimarama, is something of a bolthole for the artist whose success in America has meant he is widely known and usually in demand.

Raised on the family farm, the young Peter split his time between shepherding and painting before deciding to take his first wife and three children to the United States in 1971 to spend a year travelling in a campervan and painting.

They made the trip again in 1981 so the kids could attend art school, and on that trip he was taken on by a New York gallery and eventually commissioned to paint at racetracks.

He has spent half of every year in Kentucky ever since. He hasn't seen a winter for 30 years.

An hour's conversation with Williams elicits little. He appears much more animated when asking questions or querying his interviewer.

At one point he stops mid-sentence, narrows his eyes and focuses on one of about 40 paintings he has lined up around his studio.

"I've just realised there's a horse in that painting without a shadow," he says of a piece with about 10 horses.

It's not until he turns the pages in his just-released book that he reveals anything of his life in the US, and even then it seems unintentional. It's mostly because he appears to consider it of little interest, but occasionally, when quizzed, because he says "that's classified information".

It's also his response when asked if he has ever painted a nude of his close friend, Bo Derek, the actress and 1980s sex symbol.

"We've been good friends for a long time and have done quite a bit of charity work together. It does your credibility no end of good when Bo walks up and gives you a hug," he says.

Other friends and acquaintances are the late thriller writer Dick Francis - who turned the first sod of Williams' house at Waimarama 10 years ago - George Bush Sr, Tony Bennett, the Queen, Ivana Trump and numerous billionaire heads of multinational companies who have contracted Williams to paint portraits of their properties, gardens, families, superyachts, or wives.

There is a clip of him on YouTube at a racecourse, painting one of his scenes. No airs or graces, just Williams in his tweed cap and short-sleeved shirt speaking in a thick Kiwi accent. It's as if someone picked him up from the Gisborne A & P Show and plonked him among America's rich and famous.

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The US racetracks are a world away from the North Island's east coast hills and their flocks of dusty sheep. While one gets the impression he'd have been just as happy to have spent the past 30 years whistling at border collies and huntaways, with the occasional cold beer and perhaps the odd bit of painting, he say he has loved his time in the States.

"Not much I would have swapped. It's been a wonderful country to me, it really has," he says, turning back to the book and his memories of days at the world's great tracks.

He's not quite a household name in the US, but he's certainly much better known there than he is here. Every year during the Kentucky Derby - watched by more than 14.5 million people - television makes a point of covering his progress on a painting over a day.

When he took on the commission to paint at racetracks he thought he would be one of many artists painting from life at the venues. "And do you know in 30 years of doing this how many other artists I've met doing the same? Two," he says.

He had not painted many horses before getting the commission, and equine art is something he stumbled into, rather than longed to do. He is just as happy, or happier, painting landscapes, portraits or nudes. Anything really, so long as it's not abstract.

"I'm a bit old-fashioned, I suppose, but I like to know when I've finished a painting whether it's any good or not.

Abstract art is fine, it's just not my thing. "Picasso summed it up pretty well when he said, ‘The measure in one's success is in the number you fool'."

He usually spends his springs and summers in Kentucky, where he manages to finish about 100 paintings over six months, and then in Hawke's Bay, where he tries to relax and catch up with friends and family.

His debut book, Peter Williams Retrospective: Paintings and People Dear To Me, was launched last night at the Hastings Community Arts Centre, where his work will be exhibited until November 24.

As well as his works there are some by his children.

The book, which features 160 of his works, is published in the US. He flies to the States next month to promote it.

- The Dominion Post

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