A splash of colour for our world

02:31, Oct 20 2009

It is just another morning at the office. And what a morning; and what an office.

The sun warms his back. Beneath his feet, the water laps gently. The for-now still gentle light sparkles and twinkles on the office wall, refracted from the grey-blue sea which, as always, reflects the mood of the day.

He is Christopher Finlayson – not to be confused with the current minister of the arts, who shares his name.

The office has just one wall, which bears the much photographed and admired environmental mural Aotearoa, circa 1984.

The task, scheduled to take six weeks, has its mission statement on the white van parked, as ever it seems lately – weather permitting – on Rocks Rd. "Refresh Aotearoa" is tagged on the front bumper. The vehicle has that well-travelled, slept-in look, but a peek inside reveals the multifarious pots of paint, the brushes and tools of the trade. The travelling palette, drawn large, for the artist whose canvas can be anywhere, any time.

Though his mid-50s have arrived, the energy and look are younger and yet to succumb to middle-age dread and lassitude. There is, however, a touch of the curmudgeon – brought on, perhaps, by exasperation that his passion for inclusive, large-scale, community civic art projects has been picked up at times but not exuberantly embraced over the past two dozen years.


There is a touch of disdain towards those potential art patrons who throw big money at small oils in order to adorn their bedroom walls, or who even more securely hide their acquisitions from the public gaze. "Rich people have no taste," he declares, more than once. Though taste is, by nature, subjective, he makes a good point, if he is in fact suggesting that art with a message is most powerful when given full voice on the street rather than being hidden away and muted.

By way of a backstory, it is worth recalling that Finlayson was employed, briefly, as Nelson city official muralist in 1984. The landmark Aotearoa mural, on the Nelson City Council-owned Plant & Food Research building, emerged during that time.

He has since gone on to produce – whether working solo or leading groups of children, community volunteers, patients and even prison inmates – numerous works of public art around New Zealand. Between projects, he lives in an old farmhouse in Golden Bay. Another city council-commissioned work is the Knowledge mural along the entrance wall at Nelson's Elma Turner Library.

For now, he is based at Tahuna Beach Holiday Park, just down the road from his "office" – and he asks if I know of anyone with a spare sleepout he might use for a few weeks.

"Not a house with a family, not around other people, just a sleepout or something."

I suggest he might have a pretty powerful bargaining chip – a mural masterpiece on a fence, for example – and promise to ask around. "Maybe," he agrees.

Though history is not to be second-guessed, imagine what our city might have looked like had he been able and willing to continue his association with the council.

Even one major project a year, perhaps partially greased by the wheels of commerce, might have done much to reinforce Nelson's claim to be the arts centre of New Zealand – a suggestion that seems more difficult to support by the year.

The council's public art spending has been dominated by sculptures and festivals in recent years, and the region is richer for it. But in terms of making a statement, adding colour and vibrancy to the city and breaking the stultifying influence of utilitarian slab-wall buildings, the well-designed and located mural is hard to go past.

In newspaper front page terms, I see the likes of Grant Palliser's High Flyers as the "Weird World" oddspot – quirky, worth a smile and perhaps a little reflection at times – and Finlayson's Aotearoa as Saturday's Masked Parade photo – bursting with look-at-me energy and life.

Imagine, perhaps, fuel tank ST10 and its mates at Port Nelson tarted up with an in-your-face environmental message hidden within bright splashes of colour. It mightn't alter the huge tanks' contents but could surely be used to make a wry statement about Peak Oil and earn some climate change credibility for the port and the multinationals based there.

Might not the stark ugliness of Rebel Sport or other corporate-coloured image-making outrages (Countdown, Mitre 10 et al) be softened a little if the council's planning rules actively encouraged the inclusion of public art within the cityscape?

How they could achieve this, I'm not sure – a quid pro quo over planning fees, recognising the public good in wrenching Nelson from the Anytown aspirations of the big chains? A wink-nudge promise to send around the least anal of the building inspectors at code-of-compliance time? A guaranteed free spread on the cover of Live Nelson? There will always be arguments around taste and design – but that's the sort of discussion that's healthy for any community.

And, yes, it might upset the likes of Grey Power, who have a voice and have used it loud and often – but the money involved would be a mere drop in the ocean of council spending. Think of how much could be achieved by employing one fewer parking warden and spending the salary on annual commissions for a wide range of public works.

Meanwhile, back at Aotearoa, a woman walks purposefully up to the artist.

"Hi, I'm Chris and I live just around the road from here," she says. "It's my turn to help."

"Well, I'll remember your name easily," says Chris(topher), and explains what she is to do.

More than 40 people signed on to help restore Aotearoa – a task Finlayson describes as being like a "paint-by-numbers working bee for adults", no previous art experience or expertise required. But what an opportunity to make your own mark on one of the city's best-known artworks, to help bring a splash of colour to our world.