Abstract paintings aim to challenge

00:20, Jan 30 2013
Rose Shepard
IN HIS DNA: Canadian artist Don Newgren, right, with Fullmer Gallery owner Steve Fullmer at the gallery in Tasman.

Don Newgren and his partner have been coming to the Nelson region from Canada every summer for eight years. Anna Pearson spoke to the successful graphic designer turned artist:

They live in a rural barnstay on the Ruby Coast for three months of the year, overlooking the sea, and spend half a year on an island in the Thousand Islands region in Ontario. For the remaining three months, Don Newgren and Elizabeth Barry call Toronto home.

"We get all cultured up and dust ourselves off," says Newgren, aged 70 "going on 45".

Newgren retired from York University in Toronto about six or seven years ago, after a two-year "rehearsal for retirement", his description of a sabbatical.

He promised Barry they would never spend another winter in Canada, and they had friends and family in New Zealand.

The pair spent a couple of weeks touring the country in a campervan, and "we just liked it around here".


Newgren graduated from university "3000 years ago", and half of the faculty reckoned he should pursue painting. The other half thought he should work as a graphic designer.

He chose design and his career subsequently took him around the world.

"I naively thought that if I chose design, I could also paint part time, but that didn't work out."

He has now left design "100 per cent", saying: "That's what retirement is about - you can go back to the fork in the road."

Newgren was born to Scandinavian parents and raised in the ethnically diverse South Side of Chicago, but he says he is "definitely a Canadian" after moving across the border 30 years ago.

The South Side of Chicago was "the tough side", but "fortunately guns were not a big deal when I was growing up". Instead, knives, baseball bats, and chainsaws were the weapons of choice. The plus side was "jazz and blues on every street corner".

Newgren was hauled into the principal's office one day when he was 12 or 13, and offered a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.

He went there on Saturdays for a couple of years, and "would be surrounded by rooms of Monets and Georgia O'Keeffe paintings".

"I kind of took it for granted, but I can see how it formed part of my interest in art."

He arrived in Toronto in 1972, tasked with setting up a design programme at York University.

"I thought it would take two or three years; 30 years later I guess it's established," he says.

He had already worked as a junior at a large design company, with some of the largest corporations in the United States as his clients.

As a 26-year-old, he was made the director of design at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. He had 60 staff and no communication skills, "but I learned fast".

He also did a PhD at Syracuse University, while running a group home with his former wife for half a dozen teenage boys who were under supervision "through no fault of their own".

One of the boys was named after the police officer who found him abandoned on church steps.

Newgren had always liked Robin and Steve Fullmer's gallery in Tasman, so he jumped at the opportunity to show work there.

His exhibition, Truth . . . As I See It, opens this Saturday.

Newgren likes the expression, "The truth is what one chooses to believe," he says, and his works are inspired by the four belief systems the late philosopher Charles Peirce defined - tenacity, authority, intuition and science.

"I'm also interested in the relationship between doubt, belief and inquiry. I think doubt is a really healthy activity. It challenges us," he says.

He hopes people will feel invited to make up their own "visual fiction" when viewing his abstract paintings, created in his woodshed studio.

"I'm wildly enthusiastic. It [painting] is a passion. I just have to do it. It's part of my DNA now."