Virginia Winder: Linda McFetridge finds art in the natural world

Linda McFetridge paints leaves at an old pub lean-to table outside under cover at Oakura.
Warren Smart

Linda McFetridge paints leaves at an old pub lean-to table outside under cover at Oakura.

Have you ever examined a fallen pohutukawa leaf? Turned it in your hand and noticed red and green splotches, black dots and even white stripes?

Linda McFetridge has and so have her boys, Harry, 10, and Logan, 7.

Piled up on her work bench at Oakura is a tumble of leaves, but these ones aren't the real thing, though they look it.

Cicada husks have been collected, pinned and varnished for some future artwork.
Warren Smart

Cicada husks have been collected, pinned and varnished for some future artwork.

Using a jigsaw, Linda has cut out about 400 leaves from MDF wood and painted them in every design possible, all inspired by fallen leaves.

Logan keeps telling his mum she needs to be more creative with her leaves and has even given her a lesson on how she could branch out.

"Ever since they were born I have let them play in my paints and use canvas boards and be free to do whatever they like."

Flax and rocks tumble on black sand in this painting by Linda.
Warren Smart

Flax and rocks tumble on black sand in this painting by Linda.

She shows fine work by Harry from when he was younger. One painting is of the life cycle of a butterfly and another is a zoo.

"I try really hard not to get in there and alter."

Linda says she tries hard not to change someone else's creative process and says that comes from her background in dance and acting.

The pohutukawa leaves begin with undercoatings of red or orange.
Warren Smart

The pohutukawa leaves begin with undercoatings of red or orange.

She and sister Raeleen Luckin have a company called Two Left Feet Productions, it's a one-stop outfit that creates productions from start to finish.

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Its repertoire could include a flash mob, a wedding dance, a Christmas work-do skit, or even a large-scale production like a water ballet starring 120 performers for St Cuthbert's College in Auckland. 

"We work really well together," Linda says of her sister. 

Hand-cut and painted leaves hang under the stairwell.
Warren Smart

Hand-cut and painted leaves hang under the stairwell.

Both sisters grew up on an Okato dairy farm.

As well as Two Left Feet, Linda works as a casting director and choreographer. For five years, she choreographed the water ballet group, Wet Hot Bitches, which starred in the Auckland Fringe Festival.

Now she is an artist, which is the focus of today's story because her works are so nature inspired.

Looking past a red-orange climbing rose is a large work that is the beginnings of a hydrangea painting.
Warren Smart

Looking past a red-orange climbing rose is a large work that is the beginnings of a hydrangea painting.

The 44-year-old began painting in Auckland during her mid-30s. "I did a course in painting and drawing to give me a little push off the cliff."

Her tutor, Matthew Brown, told Linda: "You are a person who is going to pick up a paint brush and never put it down."

Linda thought he was mad. "But he was right."

Now, she's always looking for designs in nature and in the landscape, often with her camera in hand.

When Harry was four, through one summer while living in Auckland they collected cicada husks. 

In the studio shed of their rented home at Oakura are containers of golden carcasses. Linda has started pinning them to a board, bottoms out, and spray varnishing them. She will then turn them over to do the other side. "If they crumble, that's all part of their life cycle as well."

She's not certain what will happen with the intricate creatures, but something will come. "That's the basis of my art, I like to take things that people would never celebrate or take time to notice and work with that and making it the subject. Hence my series on power lines."

These involve the stark lines against bright blue sky. "A lot of my work comes from walking the streets in Grey Lynn and now here in the streets (of Oakura) and the beach. My art tends to change as I'm picking up new inspirations."

Plus she captures the past. Linda photographed Messenger Terrace before the power lines were taken out and has a large photo file of pictures.

Beside the cicadas is a power line painting and other works, including of the mountain in mist, flax and rocks with black sand, a green colour code work from snow to the sand, plus pohutukawa and the coast. 

Linda has painted quite a few of the pohutukawa works and is delighted to know that one is on a wall in a house in Switzerland.

These pictures have also been to Paris, along with Linda and a group of Taranaki artists. "I lugged over my two-metre by two-metre paintings in carpet tubes and hung them up. We have been invited back this year."

This time, she will be lugging leaves. 

Outside her back door, under cover, is the leave-painting place. First she undercoats them in red or orange, then gets cracking on the details. 

There's a pile of leaves on her table, which is an old lean-to from a pub, and she sits perched on a high stool or paints standing up, a red-orange climbing rose brightening her view.

Her fascination with pohutukawa leaves began in Auckland, where there would be red carpets of leaves. She and her children began to collect them.

"That's what I like is watching the kids notice the little things and start picking up on them and picking up pohutukawa leaves for me."

She doesn't just paint at her high table. "My leaves are like knitting for to me – I sit in front of the TV and paint them. I want a whole pile of them and I'm going to suspend them so they look like they are caught in the wind."

There's a scattering of leaves under the stairwell and a collection in a similar spot inside a house on Pitcairn St. "They dripple down the wall into the stairwell and they look fabulous.

"That's one of the things I love, it's when you see your work in someone else's house."

Other paintings include the river code, which features blues, and beside it Riverside Tui. 

A huge orange canvas featuring an Apache helicopter is an homage to Banksy and also Harry's Christmas present. She also did a summer fruit series, and shows us a tumble of peaches and a scattering of green apples. 

Also on show is the beginnings of a new painting, which zooms in on the flowers that make up the head of a hydrangea bloom, says Linda, who is inspired by the works of Karl Maughan and Neal Palmer.

"I don't plan and I don't sketch, I paint straight on to primed board or canvas. I like seeing how it evolves over time. It's never the image I plan in my head; it takes on a life of its own."

To help her with art, she uses power tools. For Christmas she went to Mitre 10 and bought herself a scroll saw and an electric sander. "It was the perfect gift for me. I came home and spent the rest of the holidays playing with my power tools."

Not long ago she sanded one of her fingers. "I lay on the ground for 10 minutes because I was a bit woozy. The next bit of safety equipment is a pair of gloves. That was numb for days," she says, rubbing a finger.

Linda is content with her life, enjoying everything she does. "I do a lot of street casting. That means driving around the countryside and giving ordinary people an opportunity to be part of the industry."

For a Steinlager ad, she was given one day to find rugby players for a re-enactment of the first All Black test against England. She went down the coast and found seven men, but two couldn't make it. The other five went on to be in the team from days gone by. 

Taking them to Auckland was also a treat because the builder in the group watched how the art department worked and the farmer had never been to Auckland, but nikau palms on K-Rd were from his farm.

Linda is all about giving things a go, especially in regards to her art.

"The biggest thing in the world is not being afraid of failure – then you will go a long way," she says.

"I always ask my kids for their opinions because they are so brutally honest."

She remembers once working on a painting of a block of ice from Antarctica, and then when she started putting black in, it didn't work. Harry told her it was good, emphasising the "was".

"It started off as a block of ice and ended up as a bright green pohutukawa painting. If you go wrong, you just start again.

"It's the cracks that let the light in," she says quoting the words of musical poet Leonard Cohen. "I live by that."

 - Stuff

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