Cory Mathis is the only son of a Coromandel dairy farmer. He had it made. But when his dad said, "Do you want the farm, Cory?" his answer was: "No. I might go to Auckland and try and be an artist."
It was a dream, and he's pursued it ever since, thinking drawing, learning drawing and hardly able to sip a coffee in a cafe without drawing someone or something nearby. Now it's paying off.
Earlier this year he won the first Young Cartoonist Award sponsored by the New Zealand Cartoon Archive and the Listener. The 28-year-old was one of dozens of entrants.
He's doing an art course at the Learning Connexion in Taita and submitted his three-cartoon portfolio after a notice about the contest went up on the art school noticeboard. Cartooning wasn't something he had concentrated on, but he won, carried off the $5000 prize and, before he knew it, was planning to spend the money on a classical drawing course in Florence.
"Florence, where Leonardo was born," he says. "That's so incredible to be going there. I want to learn skills you can't get in New Zealand and bring them back and teach them, or just work using them, really classical, old-style European drawing skills."
In the meantime, he was one of several contributors commissioned to draw a clutch of cartoons for the Dominion Post, and became even more firmly hooked on the idea of cartooning.
"It was brilliant. I love working to a brief and a deadline. It's something that happens as a cartoonist. You can't rest on your laurels. You have to have a battery of your own little half-baked ideas and be open to new ones, a juxtaposition of old and new."
Mathis has no illusions about the rarefied world of editorial cartooning dominated by long-established cartoonists like the Dominion Post's Tom Scott. He knows he needs to be flexible as a commercial artist, and he knows he doesn't know it all. "I'm still as green as they get. I love cartooning but I'm not sure I'm savvy enough to carry the brunt of it like Tom Scott. I've seen cartoons of his way back from the 1980s and he's still keeping tabs on the media and having opinions on things and society. I can start now and grow."
In fact, he started a long time ago, leaving school in Waihi and taking a three-year course in classical animation in Auckland. The idea, in animation, of "drawing aspects of a person standing still and where they've come from and where they're going lends itself to cartooning so, so well".
When he finished the course, there was nowhere to put what he had learned into practice. He spent several years as a bookshop "periodicals -ordinator" in Wellington, paying off his student loan and cutting cartoons and sketches out of unsold magazines such as The New Yorker before they were dumped at the end of the month.
He then worked for a small design company in Wellington "as a storyboard artist, a foot in the door – I had people with a lot more experience guiding me".
His student loan diminished further.
And he drew comics, painted, sketched and shifted on to more art studies at the Learning Connexion. "There are some really classy internationally renowned tutors hanging out there."
At night, he goes to a small private art school in Newtown. His modest flat is in Newtown too, where he draws, and counts his meagre student allowance. The idea of the starving artist might be a cliche, he says "but it drives you, to be hungry. I think it's quite good to stay a bit hungry."
He'd never had as much money as he won in the cartoonist competition. After the award ceremony in Auckland, an established cartoonist came up to him, patted him on the shoulder and said: "Enjoy the ride."
The implication was the cartoon industry was small and the rewards usually elusive. "It reflected that I don't know anyone who's got into cartooning. That's the thing in cartooning, no-one recognises it as a modern vein of commercial art ... but in a way it's probably the art form that will last longest. It's humour, it's satire."
Cory Mathis' cartoons are included in in Line, an exhibition of the work of up-and-coming cartoonists at the Turnbull Gallery from September 30 to December 7.
- © Fairfax NZ News