In from the outside
There was an odd exchange at the Arts Access Awards in Parliament this week, when Robert Rapson, known for his little ceramic ships, graciously accepted the Gaudi-inspired ceramic trophy he had made himself.
How could he not. Outsider artist Rapson has been commissioned by Arts Access Aotearoa for the past four years to make the award trophies and Robert Rapson trophies are almost a tradition, though he never expected to be up there accepting one himself.
Last year, as winner of the country's most important ceramics award, the Premier Portage Ceramic Award, he scored no home-made trophy but he did earn a big cheque - $15,000 - and he had just returned, wearily, from spending it on travel when he learned he had won the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award for 2014.
Rapson reached the top of his game self-taught, working in a community space and dealing with clinical depression, and this latest award is meant to recognise "the outstanding achievements and contribution of an artist with a disability, sensory impairment or lived experience of mental illness".
"It's amazing how many people are coming out of the closet with depression. It needs to be addressed in public," he says.
Much, he says, changed for him in between the Portage and his Arts Access Award. After the Portage, he "took the money and ran", on a three-month trip round the world.
"It wasn't a ceramic trip. It was a late midlife crisis. I suddenly realised the passage of years. I'm 62. The Greek idea was a dream of youth and you realise, 40 years later, I've changed, everything has changed."
Rapson's biggest change, stumbling into ceramics, happened when he was about 40. He made his first ship at Vincent's community workshop, where art materials and support were available.
"It was very much an open workshop on the street. I went in and talked to someone and thought what should I make. I could make ships. I've always been interested in ships, always a passing interest, and now I've found other people in other parts of the world like ships as well."
What he made was a miniature of the Angelina Lauro on which he had first, youthful and optimistic, travelled to Europe.
"I was between jobs in the early 90s, government jobs in departments that no longer exist. I was at a loose end and I finally did something I always wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist or a writer."
He wonders how his life might have been if he had focused on art earlier. As a teenager, he'd been told by adults he admired: "There's no money in it".
At 40, "I wanted to prove him wrong. You should be so careful what you say to a child. They can be diverted from their goal by an adult's offhand comment. They were wealthy people with a million-dollar view and I thought they must be doing something right. It was a throwaway remark but when I went to Victoria and did a general arts degree I thought what a pity I hadn't done design or art. Then I wouldn't have been an outsider artist."
Rapson works at Mix, a Lower Hutt community creative space that provides artistic opportunities for people who have experienced mental illness.
His big break, he believes, came when he was approached to put his little vessels in the window of Exhibit A Framing in Wakefield St, where they have been since. He found he was getting calls from people from throughout New Zealand and overseas.
"People had seen them in the window and wanted particular ships and it took off from there."
In 2009 he was in a group exhibition of New Zealand art at the New York Art Outsider Fair where he sold all his work and got 15 commissions. Not long after, at a similar show in Paris his ships were all sold to a British collector before the exhibition opened.
Rapson has a studio at his Stokes Valley home but he finds working alone can be "a bit antisocial. I like the fact I'm working around other people. It's much more interesting".
Outsider, or folk art, is better appreciated in many other countries, he believes. "There's a misconception of outsider art [here], that it's done in front of the television, women knitting jerseys.
"There's quite a vibrant American primitive market. Folk art in America is obviously taken very seriously."
Rapson, who has had a residency at Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, would like to work at an overseas space.
"I think New Zealanders have to get out every so often, because we're an island. If you don't leave the country every now and again you can become xenophobic or insular."
Rapson says he sees his art as "an evolution of my managing depression and growing older" and something of an obsession - "though I like to think I've got the obsession under control".
The obsessiveness was one of the reasons for his trip. "I had to get away from it. Some people paint, or do jigsaws, something you do with the hands, a form of therapy, definitely a form of therapy."
Far from mere therapy, Rapson's ceramic ships win awards.
"When I won the Portage I couldn't really believe it. It was nice. When I started out it was thought they were pottery ships that didn't fit in.
"If you have a big enough belief, you can do anything."