Shifting perspectives

John Emery
John Emery

American trompe l'oeil artist John Emery has been making sketches of life in the Sounds to be turned into his unique watercolour paintings.

Mr Emery stayed at Lochmara Lodge as the artist-in-residence from January 27 to February 4, he sketched the landscape, flora and fauna of Lochmara Bay in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Speaking in the secluded artist studio behind the lodge, he explained his style as trompe l'oeil, French for "to trick the eye" and, as a keen fly fisherman, he likened it to using feathers and fur to create the illusion of a fly lure.

Watercolour by John Emery
Watercolour by John Emery

"The artist sometimes spends a lot of time trying to fool you and trick you into seeing something you're not."

He uses thick Arches paper to sculpt simple objects, such as book covers or rocks, and uses them as guides to paint three-dimensional works using watercolours.

He plans to leave some pencil and water colour sketches behind for visitors to enjoy.

The paintings come out as a mix of eye-catching three-dimensional objects mixed with a more-traditional two-dimensional painting style to create a surreal storybook narrative within the work.

"You're not sure what was real and what wasn't. It used to bug me when people didn't want to know the story behind a painting but these days it's nice to just let them see what they want - especially when they recognise the old objects and it triggers a memory for them."

His 2005 work, They Open the Door and We Run, shows an old bookcase full of old books sitting in front of a door. The papers and door appear three-dimensional, and are based on New Zealand author Janet Frame's letters about her time in a psychiatric hospital where she explained that she and other patients would be beaten if they ran outside, he said.

"I spent hours exploring my grandparent's forgotten trunks. Old notebooks, faded papers, postcards and bits of string attracted me.

"But it was always the undefined fragment of an object or the battered leather cover of a journal that fired my imagination."

The former designer divides his time between homes in Ohio, America, and Burkes Pass in South Canterbury.

Lochmara Lodge spokeswoman Allanah Robinson said artists stay for various periods from a few days up to a maximum of three weeks in the small studio surrounded by bush.

"It's a way that we can support our artist community in New Zealand, and a great way of allowing visitors, New Zealanders, international, and children - some of whom wouldn't usually visit an art gallery - to get access to talk to an artist and see them work."

Lochmara's next visiting artist will be Golden Bay print-maker Kathleen Reilly, onsite from February 11 to 16.

People interested in applying to be an artist-in-residence email

John Emery's work can be seen at

The Marlborough Express