Life Story - artist and textile pioneer Avis Higgs dies, 98
Avis Winifred Higgs, artist: b September 21, 1918, Wellington; m Douglas Jocelyn (Jock) Beere, 1d; d October 14, 2016, aged 98.
Once described by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins as a "rock star" of the textile world, designer and artist Avis Higgs' designs have stood the test of time.
The modernist fabric designer's work in the rag trade was the subject of a retrospective exhibition and book five decades after the work first appeared.
Her designs have inspired fashion collections and her original Australian surf fabrics continue to influence the popular genre today.
Higgs produced work for more than 80 years, starting at the age of 10. Her textiles and paintings have been exhibited all over the country. Her works are in private collections and in institutions such as Te Papa, which holds Deserted Farmhouse, a watercolour that won the National Bank Art Award in 1964.
Though art school-trained, Higgs became a textile designer quite by chance, in her early 20s while convalescing in Sydney after contracting a serious illness during the war.
She translated into patterned cloth the exuberance of 1940s life across the Tasman and later produced a collection based on Maori motifs and New Zealand nature themes.
At a time when fabric was strictly rationed, she somehow managed to acquire enough of the cottons, rayons, silk and fine merino printed with her own designs to have a friend make up dresses for her to wear.
Avis Higgs was born in Wellington. Her father, Sydney Hamlet Higgs, was a prolific and accomplished amateur watercolour painter and a patent attorney by profession. Her mother, Winifred (nee Paterson), worked as one of Wellington's first bank tellers.
Avis grew up by the sea at the family home in Karaka Bay with her younger sister, Marie.
Educated at St Anthony's School in Seatoun, Seatoun School and Wellington East Girls' College, she went on to train as a commercial artist at Wellington Technical College.
At 19, she left art school to begin a design career in Wellington, starting as a poster designer for grocery shops at commercial art studio National Distributors Ltd.
When World War II broke out, Higgs retrained as a nurse to help the war effort but while working at Wellington Hospital in 1941 she contracted diphtheria from a patient. She went to Sydney to convalesce with her mother's twin sister and, while recovering, was inspired by a magazine article on fabric designing for printing. She started to make her own patterns with a new aim of making textile design her career.
She found work with Silk & Textile Printers Ltd (STP), a screen printing factory for dress fabrics, working as head designer from 1942 to 1945. At the time the focus was on replicating designs from Europe. Higgs instead designed textiles inspired by her environment, including weekend visits to Bondi Beach, resulting in prints of sailing boots, water skiers, surfers, seashells and sun umbrellas.
From 1946 to 1947, Higgs worked as chief fabric designer with Edward Malone, who had set up a textile designs printing works, before deciding to return to New Zealand.
At home, she switched her focus back to advertising art, designing cinema advertisements for Screens Advertising Ltd in order to save money for a boat passage to England.
There, Higgs initially did freelance work but finally secured paid positions, first in Manchester at W.E Currie & Co., and then in London as an agent to French designer F. Williams Gobeaux, acting as a consultant on New Zealand and Australian women's tastes and what type of designs should be sent to the Antipodes.
But Higgs' textile design career was abruptly terminated by a car accident during a trip to Italy. Her friend, who was driving, was killed and Higgs sustained a fractured skull and a badly smashed leg that saw her recuperating for many months in a Rome hospital.
She was in a coma initially and doctors thought she might not survive. The accident left her with permanent hearing damage in one ear, which inspired her to learn to lip read.
Sailing home from England in 1952 to recover, she met her future husband, Douglas Jocelyn (Jock) Beere, a young architect returning from a period of work in Britain. They married in 1955, making their home in a house at the bottom of Tinakori Hill, Wellington. In 1958, she gave birth to their only child, Marguerite Beere.
Back in Wellington, Higgs wanted to change direction, so put textile designing aside, and spent the rest of her life pursuing a successful career in painting.
Each year, she was involved in organising works for art exhibitions, either sole, or in association with groups of artists. She was involved with the Architectural Centre Gallery, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Watercolour Society of New Zealand.
Higgs' textile design achievements were largely forgotten until 1999, when design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins stumbled across her early work. Avis Higgs: Joie de Vivre – his book celebrating the contribution she made to New Zealand design – was produced alongside a travelling exhibition of Higgs' textile design work.
Lloyd Jenkins called Higgs a major 20th century designer and one of the top postwar designers in New Zealand.
Recalling his first meeting with Higgs, during his research for the book, he asked if she had anything from her early days as a designer.
"Most designers discard most of their earlier work but she took me to her spare room and there was all this stuff! She kept an amazing portfolio of hundreds of drawings in such good condition – it was a goldmine of exceptional work."
Higgs essentially invented the Australian surf fabrics that are still so popular today, Lloyd Jenkins says.
"In the 1940s she was the first person to do that. These days those fabric still ring true with contemporary design, which is probably why people keep reinterpreting her work."
Claire Regnault, a senior curator at Te Papa, who worked with Lloyd Jenkins on the exhibition of Higgs' work, remembers the artist pulling out home-sewn dresses and a pieced quilt, all of which were made from fabrics she had designed in the 1940s, from a trunk in the attic. The prints included bikini-clad water-skiers and young woman dressed smartly for a day at the races or out on the town.
"Although Avis was in her early 80s at the time, it was easy to imagine her as the young, dynamic woman we saw in the prints," Regnault says.
"She was a little puzzled at all the interest in her textiles as she was focused on her painting at the time. But all the new interest in her work gave her a new lease of life."
The exhibition and book caused a flurry of interest in her work – Christchurch-based Dilana Rugs chose six of Higgs' designs for a range of wool rugs that featured the work of leading New Zealand artists.
And Wellington fashion designer Laurie Foon of Starfish reproduced a limited edition of Higgs' 'Duckpond' design, which had been inspired by a visit to Wellington Zoo, and was renamed 'Black Swan' by Starfish for her 2005/06 summer collection.
Higgs' collaboration with Foon featured in The Dress Circle New Zealand Fashion Design Since 1940 co-written by Lloyd Jenkins, Regnault and Lucy Hammonds.
Higgs was a pioneer in the textile trade, Foon says. "She was well before her time with her modern take on prints that reflected New Zealand life and culture. Avis's prints reflected the lives of New Zealanders that seemed retro and modern at the same time."
Until 2012 Higgs, who was named one of the five most important Australian designers in the 20th century by the Australian Ministry of Culture, continued to be involved in the New Zealand art scene both as an artist and promoter of modernism in art and design.
In 2010 she was recognised for her work and inducted into the Massey University College of Creative Arts Hall of Fame. Still the rock star artist at 92.
Sources: The Dominion Post (Carolyn Enting/Ann Packer); avishiggs.com; Douglas Lloyd Jenkins; Laurie Foon, Claire Regnault.