Virginia Winder: Unlocking potential in the garden and the studio

Ceri Chisholm in her art studio, which will be open during the Taranaki Arts Trail on June 10 and 11.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

Ceri Chisholm in her art studio, which will be open during the Taranaki Arts Trail on June 10 and 11.

A painter in the upcoming Taranaki Arts Trail focuses on well-proportioned botanical works. Virginia Winder meets a well-educated woman with a borrowed landscape.  

There are two places that Ceri Chisholm feels totally lost in the moment – in the garden and in her painting studio.

"If I'm working on a painting I can spend three to four hours at a trot without realising the time is passing," she says. "I'm completely absorbed into the action of painting and then I have to step back and look at it from a distance."

At Bell Block, she has a small garden with a big outlook.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

At Bell Block, she has a small garden with a big outlook.

Her concentration is absolute. She puts this down to living with Asperger's Syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum.  

"Because I have Asperger's I'm able to focus on my painting 1000 per cent, so it's an asset in some ways."

Ceri (pronounced Kerry) is just as single-minded when her hands are in soil. "I cannot focus on anything else but what I'm doing."

Even though you can't see the grids behind this painting of flax, they are there.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

Even though you can't see the grids behind this painting of flax, they are there.

It was only in 2009 that a counsellor thought she may have the syndrome. After a life time of feeling like she couldn't understand others and they couldn't understand her, the diagnosis was a huge relief. 

"It was like a key that unlocked everything."

She has since realised it's a condition that runs in her family. 

This native reserve, lush with planting, is part of Ceri Chisholm's "borrowed" landscape.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

This native reserve, lush with planting, is part of Ceri Chisholm's "borrowed" landscape.

For her, the syndrome also comes with depression, which she continues to battle by staying stress free. She reads a lot, goes to advanced yoga and practises tai chi, which reminds her of growing up in Hong Kong. "When I was a kid the servants would get up and do tai chi on a little road level with my bedroom."

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Her view is also soothing.

At Bell Block she has a small garden with a big outlook. 

A remembrance hedge of rosemary below the lounge window.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

A remembrance hedge of rosemary below the lounge window.

She gazes out on a green field, a large expanse of sky and a distant ridge bristling with flaxes, toi toi and cabbage trees. 

A man with a dog walks along the hill line, which is, of course, the Coastal Walkway.

"I see pukeko running across the field and there's the harrier hawks constantly wheeling around looking for little mice to munch on."

This flying angel was made by an artist from Eketahuna.
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

This flying angel was made by an artist from Eketahuna.

She also sees swans, geese, pheasants, ducks, kingfishers, seagulls, magpies, wax-eyes, tui and even quail in the borrowed landscape beyond her lounge window. Or even closer.

Quails have run up and her deck; one keeping watch while the other hunts. 

Frogs are another visitor. "We must be on a migration path from the wetlands. There have been 20 clinging to the windows and they get inside and leap about."

This acrylic painting of a rhododendron and the mountain follows the Greek concept of the "golden section" and she has ...
SIMON O'CONNOR/Fairfax NZ

This acrylic painting of a rhododendron and the mountain follows the Greek concept of the "golden section" and she has botanical reference photos on hand.

One day she pulled open a draw full of art equipment and one of the amphibians jumped out.

From her place of refuge she can often hear but not see the Tasman Sea roaring like a taniwha.

"We do get the planes come over, but you get used to it."

On cue, an aeroplane roars overhead.

Chisholm's property adjoins a native reserve lush with more cabbage trees, ponga, kawakawa and huge flaxes sprouting red-brown flower stems. 

Her own garden mirrors this "borrowed" land, which looks as if it is part of her own property.

Right by the reserve, the self-proclaimed sporadic gardener has planted Phormium "Veneer", which is a flax that looks like wood, renga renga, a puka, astelia and a nikau palm.

It appears the only plant that isn't native, is a rosemary remembrance hedge, which is planted with poppy seeds that will never see the light of day because the fragrant herb is so dense.

When Chisholm began researching the impact of World War 1 on her family, she became extremely interested in poppies, particularly those grown by her next door neighbour, and she painted a series of 11 paintings focusing on the life cycle of that plant. 

"It opened on the 11th of the 11th 2011 at 11am by the RSA and they played the last post and we all cried and I handed out Anzac biscuits and we all felt better."

Each of these acrylic paintings fits, like a jigsaw, to the one before and the one after. Even the last one links to the first.

All of these works reference different war poems and follow the progression of a day, from dawn to dusk. 

Standing before a canvas that is the same colours as the rest – reds, oranges and greens – but is empty of poppies, Chisholm explains that this is called Elected Silence after a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. 

"They ended the war in a particular moment," she says. "People were being killed up until that moment."

Her works have geometric backgrounds based around on the "golden section", which is the Greek concept of perfect proportion. "Most of my paintings combine this with botanical elements."

In real life, she has planted miniature coprosma to make a hedge and by a pink hebe, has placed a flying angel made by an artist from Eketahuna.

A Metrosideros carminea is her self-decorating Christmas tree in December, and by the garage is the ever-flowering pohutukawa "Tahiti". 

She also has native daphne as an effective ground cover, a dwarf kowhai that gets eaten by moth larvae and two corokia bushes in green and bronze. These are planted at the edge of a concrete circle sliced by tiles of her favourite colours – blues and purples. 

There's a titoki here too, while across the path she has planted two hebes to replace a beautiful plant of the same type that got destroyed by workmen. 

Along from here, are flaxes that began as black or purple species, but are reverting to green. Perhaps they know that Chisholm doesn't use black in any of her artworks. 

Her decision has been inspired by post-impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, who noticed that shadows weren't black, they were many colours. 

Chisholm knows her art history and theories, which she also puts into practice using a realistic-but-not-quite style she calls representational abstraction.

She has a degree in interior design and worked for the New Zealand Government for 14 years designing international trade fairs. When she was made redundant, she had worked in her own graphic design company, but decided to go to teacher's college.

In her first job she had to teach art history and found it so fascinating she went to Victoria University to do a degree in the subject, finishing with an honours year. She graduated in 2002. 

"Everything else was like preparation to doing my art history degree," she says.

After teaching at Waitara High School for a number of years, Chisholm is now a full-time artist, but has to be in the right mood to paint. 

Her latest project is a painting of the pink rhododendron "Coronation Day" and also features Mt Taranaki. She went to Pukeiti to take pictures of rhodos and the mounga is captured from the lookout at Waitara.

She has a shoe box full of botanical pictures and six more filled with other reference images. 

"One of the things I like to do is something new. If I'm not learning something I can't see the point," she says.

"My inspiration is in the process of doing it."

And when she does paint, Chisholm has to have silence, so she can lose herself utterly in the act of painting. 

The Taranaki Arts Trail is on June 10 and 11 throughout the region. Chisholm will have her studio open.

 - Stuff

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