By the art of the faith

Fisherman's Wife with preening gull
Fisherman's Wife with preening gull
Fisherman's Wife
Fisherman's Wife

Green hills studded with fences and open or closed gates rush past the car window and in the distance are the white cliffs of Pukearuhe, where John McLean and wife Chris live by the sea.

There are new things afoot at the McLean property.

After 10 years of dreaming, the artist has a gallery; a place to show his works beyond the paint- spattered realms of his working studio and the sun-drenched walls of the self-built home.

John McLean
John McLean

The corrugated aluminium Totalspan building, a flash of silver in the sun, appears to be anchored by stone. Around the base of the gallery are rumblings of rock from New Plymouth Quarries.

They also caused some mumblings of discontent.

John put down weedmat and then proceeded to put the rocks in place like a man doing a jigsaw.

"Then I realised I didn't have enough stones, so I had to pull them all out again and drop in the small ones first, barrow load by barrow load, but we got there."

Behind the gallery is an orchard of plums and apples, the trees feathered in the fresh greenness of spring, and the red-pink Magnolia "Felix Jury" stands behind a stone sculpture entitled Fisherman's Wife with Preening Gull.

Hewn from andesite, this work induces "wows" and the unbidden need to touch stone, to feel the rough, the smooth, and trace the shape of a face.

The artist responds to the "this is amazing" sentiment shared by today's viewers: "It bloody well should be - it's taken me about three years to get that finished."

Outside the old studio, beneath a tall lancewood and six palms of unknown species that began life as pot plants, is another stone sculpture called The Fisherman's Wife.

Around the house and garden that overlooks the white cliffs and beach there are a dozen andesite works from the man who is one of the founders of the Te Kupenga Stone Symposium.

At the entrance to the new gallery another rock beauty called Hush greets visitors with a finger- to-mouth message.

And so we enter a white space created using squares.

"Caroline Tyrrell was the architect and my brief to her was that I wanted a plain white cloud to float the paintings in. The call was to have everything very spare but stylish," he says.

The main part of the gallery is a square. This is echoed by tracklights set in chandelier-style square, and in the middle of the space are four white cubes that form a larger square for sitting on. The concrete pad is also four joined squares and John draws attention to the swirling and feathering set in the smooth floor.

"It looks like a stone floor and as one who loves stone you can imagine that delights me," he says.

The gallery came to be because, while the house that John built is lovely to live in, it's not a great space for showing his paintings.

As his studio filled up with works-in-progress and daubs of paint, it became increasingly difficult to show visitors his canvases.

These now drift across the new white walls and John can see his works with fresh eyes. And there they are - the white cliffs, the green hills, the fences and gates, the archetypal stories telling of the human condition.

He and Chris have been on this piece of land for 27 years now and living in the area for a further seven.

Oil-on-canvas paintings, many of them square like the gallery, are populated by characters John has come to know well and others he's getting to know.

There are still some from The Farmer's Wife series, the subject of a major show at Puke Ariki in 2010, but there are also new works.

There are five oils in The Whaler series.

One, featuring one of the large marine mammals, was hung the same day a humpback whale and a pod of orcas were sighted off the Taranaki coast.

That type of synchronicity delights John, who has learnt to live by the art of the faith or the other way round.

All his works begin with splatters. He hurls, whirls and swirls paint on to boards and then sits back, looks and listens.

Best of all he trusts that from the chaos of colours, forms will come.

"For creativity to happen it must not exist in a prior state, almost by definition," he says.

One of John's favourite quotes from Pablo Picasso adds to the picture: "What's the point in painting what you already know."

To uncover the unknown, John observes. As he looks, he will see the shape of a jaw, spy the eyes of a character or creature, discover the position of a body and its relation to another.

Purposely, he doesn't overly develop his splatter board, just finds the drawing and transfers it to canvas.

"If I get too complete at this level it doesn't leave the opportunities of revelation at the canvas level."

Again and again the stories - for they are powerful narratives that appear in his works - throw up challenges and decisions that all people face; whether to make change or stay within boundaries, to have adventures or remain static.

John's stone sculptures are born in a similar way to his paintings.

"I look at the shape, the shadows on the surface of the rock and I start seeing something that will occupy that space within."

And so those mythical characters found in the splatters have come to life in andesite.

Now they have stepped on to the pages of a book.

When people saw The Farmer's Wife show, they commented on the strong story flowing through the works and John became compelled to write it.

"The book came into being because it was a bucket list thing for me. I have always enjoyed writing but I have never had the spur to do it seriously."

Going to writing workshops run by Wanganui woman Joan Rosier- Jones gave him the impetus to have a good crack at it.

The finished story, complete with 22 plates from The Farmer's Wife series and a foreword from Warwick Brown, is now with Rob Tucker's publishing company.

"Now we are trying to raise funds to get it printed," John says.

While there is a strong storyline running through the oil-on-canvas series, he says he had to write the progression and the action to get from one place to another.

The result is a magical, flowing tale.

In the book, a tattooed man leads people through wilderness filled with bushwhackers, a blind boatman steers travellers through tunnels and fisher folk live in houses set into the cliffs that rise from his paintings.

"Someone said to me the other day 'this could be New Zealand's Tolkien, because it follows that similar theme'."

John's words, sculptures and vivid canvases all stem from the same place. "All of this is actually drawn from a position of listening."

To be true to himself, and the visions that come to him, he even has to ignore reason.

That's evident in a work-in- progress painting of two brothers piggy-backing two women across a river that hails from a four-wheel- drive jaunt up rivers in the South Island high country.

"There's no sense in this, but some paintings really sing," he says.

However, this fun, illogical, but slightly sinister work wouldn't have happened if he'd let his head interfere with what appeared to him. "You've got to honour that. If you cut across that with logic and reason, you can destroy the vision. Then the vision doesn't trust you anymore if you pour water on it when it makes its appearance. You have to realise its authenticity and travel with it."

John McLean's Gallery is open to the public from today until December 2 and after that by private appointment. Entrance to the McLean property is just past Mimi School in Pukearuhe Rd.

Taranaki Daily News