Joan Fear's been drawing for as long as she can remember. It was her favourite thing as a child and, during the no-frills years of World War II, she drew on any material she could lay her hands on. "Paper off the bread, or anything else that was wrapped in paper. Or wallpaper offcuts. We used crayons, whatever was available."
At the long-gone Kauroa School near Raglan, she drew on the blackboard. When she was about seven, she recalls her teacher put a circle around one of her drawings to indicate it should not be cleaned off. It was a signal to Fear that this was an OK work. "I think it encouraged me. I kept drawing."
She laughs. It was probably an image of a ballet dancer or an angel, entirely different from the evocative and meticulously executed Waikato landscapes, seascapes, birds, still lifes, characters and portraits she's become known for in more than five decades of painting in the region.
A retrospective exhibition of Fear's work opened last Friday at Waikato Museum, encompassing more than 50 years of her work and honouring a woman who developed skills and a reputation beyond anything she could ever have dreamed of as a youngster in rural Raglan.
Waikato Museum's Leafa Wilson, who has curated the show, describes it as "a small celebration of Joan and her oeuvre".
"Her life's work cannot be summed up in an exhibition because her works are living in collections across the country, in the National Portrait Gallery, in homes, galleries and collection painting racks." And as Fear herself says, her painting "covers a heck of a long time".
The show is called Fearless, a neat play on Fear's name and her commitment to art in an era when it wasn't necessarily considered the proper thing for a young wife and mother to be doing.
The title was suggested by Wilson. Fear says her immediate reaction was that Fearless sounded like she was "a really tough old girl". Wilson apparently replied, "Well, you are."
And here's the rub. Fear, now 80, a tiny wisp of a woman, hasn't been quite so tough lately, and for a while there it looked like she'd miss last Friday's opening soiree for her show. She had a stroke about a month ago, she suffered damage to the left side of her body, and she's spent the past few weeks in rehab and recovery at Waikato Hospital, missing her home and her art enormously.
Ironically, the stroke occurred about six weeks ago, on the morning of the funeral for Fear's dear friend and fellow city artist Heather Lomas. Fear – with disarming honesty – says she thought at first she was imagining the stroke symptoms. It felt like a huge weight upon her. She made breakfast, pondered ringing her doctor to make an appointment, fell off her chair a couple of times and decided this was an occasion to call 111 for an ambulance.
In the midst of all this, she remembers eating breakfast. "A pretty good effort" of cornflakes, stewed fruit and toast.
"But I howled like mad when I found I'd had a stroke and I've had to work like crazy to overcome paralysis."
The mental strength and intensity of spirit remain, and during this interview in Waikato Hospital's ward 55, Fear traverses the development of her work, she cracks a few droll jokes about the skilled staff who have helped her get back on her feet ("They don't let you lie about for a minute.") and she expresses her deep post-stroke fear.
"I've had the most marvellous life. I've enjoyed it all. I couldn't see how I could keep on going and enjoying it."
But hospital staff and family have told her: "You will. Just keep on going."
Joan Fear was born Joan Gibbison, the sixth of Frank and Jessie Gibbison's nine children who were raised on the family farm at Kauroa, near Raglan.
She wanted to go to art school, thinking you couldn't be an artist if you hadn't done this. But her mother wouldn't hear of it. Fear lowers her voice: "It was the nude models and the stories of goings-on among artists. One of our cousins had gone to art school and she gave my mother a highly colourful account."
So over the years Fear cobbled together her own training. As a pupil at Raglan Area School, she studied art by correspondence, and her sister Dorothy, also an artist, taught her to paint with oils.
Dorothy was a student at Auckland Teachers' Training College and studied art as a specialty subject.
As a young woman, Fear lived at home, worked on the farm and in the house, and her studio was a cordoned-off part of the homestead's veranda.
"I remember painting a landscape and being quite pleased with it. My father, being a farmer, said the land didn't lie that way."
She headed off on a working holiday in the South Island with a friend and attended evening art classes in Nelson, where she met Lawrie Fear, marrying him in Raglan in 1954.
They moved to Hamilton. Fear worked at Bonds Bookshop in Victoria Street and met the arty crew who did displays and window dressing at department store H & J Courts.
This opened the door to some artists who met in painter Ray Starr's studio, and Fear fitted into the Studio Group that got together each week for life-drawing classes and painting. The group included Starr, Maori artist Para Matchitt, Judith Clay, John Millar and Eric Simes. They critiqued each other's work, made their own acrylic paint because it was almost impossible to buy it and held a couple of exhibitions together.
Fear began to attend night classes taken by local artist and teacher Campbell Smith. She was also busy raising children Jonathan and Linda and, although she and husband Lawrie later separated, she remained in Hamilton, becoming what Waikato Museum acting director Andy Lowe described at her opening "as one of our most pivotal Waikato artists".
In her early years in the city, Smith encouraged Fear to join the Waikato Society of Arts and he brought renowned painters such as Kees Hos and Patrick Hanly to Hamilton to run workshops.
As well, there were older Waikato artists Adele Younghusband, Gwendoline Rogers, Ida Carey and others to draw inspiration from.
Everything contributed to her training and she trawled the library for information as well.
"Campbell would refer to different painters and I'd go and look them out.
"I read everything about painting I could lay my hands on."
In 1965, she won the prestigious Booth and Chapman art award with a watercolour of two children on ponies. The ensuing newspaper headline said: Art Prize of 50 to Woman, indicating it was rare for a woman to win this competition.
The same year, Fear held her first solo exhibition, and for this she painted scenes from her former Raglan life: "the places I'd loved, Whale Bay, the hill creeks, and the characters in the district".
Social niceties were observed at the opening: Fear wore a hat, and sandwiches were served with cups of tea. Her work sold and she was quite overcome by this. Drawings went for about two guineas, an oil might fetch 10 guineas. Today, a top oil by Fear might sell for $7000 to $10,000.
The exhibition was reviewed for the Waikato Times by art critic Haswell Paine, who called her "an industrious little painter".
In contrast, Fear's Acclimatised exhibition a few years ago at ArtsPost was described by Times reviewer Ann McEwan as showing "subtlety of colour, delicacy of line and assuredness of technique", and McEwan praised the artist's commitment to craft and the pleasure of vision.
Fear is typically modest about her paintings, getting a boost from the fact that they sell. In the 1980s, after years of teaching art at various Hamilton secondary schools, she was able to paint full time and earn a living from her work.
She is also modest about her support of the region's art scene through her own painting and extensive teaching, and her leadership of community arts groups.
She is a life member and the patron of the arts society and she was rewarded for her long contribution, being made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2005 New Year Honours List.
Hamilton artist Elsa Lye proposed that Waikato Museum hold the Fear retrospective in the year of her 80th birthday. Lye says it was well received, although there were some struggles to get a suitable amount of space. But Lye adds she is very conscious of the museum's funding restraints and believes the Trust Waikato Gallery, where the exhibition is hung, works well, even though Fear could have filled a much bigger space.
"It is a lovely tribute. It celebrates a lifetime achievement of capturing the essence of the Waikato. She has come through a time when women artists were not given a chance to succeed in a man's world. She plugged away and set a scene for women artists in the provinces to not be dissuaded."
Several of Fear's works are held in regional collections and there are untold paintings in private hands. Fear has never really kept track of what happens to them. She just likes painting. It makes her happy and contented.
Different people, at different times, have described her style as expressionist or impressionist. She doesn't put a label on it. "I just do it."
She has painted every day for the past 20 or 30 years in her home studio. "When you paint, you can't think about anything else. You don't feel your aches and pains. They are not there – you are busy with the work. It's like meditating on your toes."
Oil is her favourite medium – "It has delicious mellowness." – although she has enjoyed watercolour and gouache.
Fear is noted for her paintings of Waikato landscapes and she recalls the day she finally "got" what this was about.
She had travelled to Hawke's Bay for an exhibition with fellow Hamilton artist Ruth Davey, and they drove back through soft colours and arid scenery into the Waikato. "And there it was: sparkling, green, lush, and the light bounced back at me. I really thought I saw it for the first time. It had evaded me."
Green landscapes from the mid-1980s are prominent in the Fearless exhibition, and on opening night – Friday, April 27 – curator Leafa Wilson talked about Fear's skills with these, how she chooses the perfect hues to describe the land.
Wilson loves the way Fear manipulates the paint, creates optical illusions, integrates her images and "sees everything as a composition".
Wilson also admires Fear's knack for capturing gesture. "She has an amazing capacity to do this with a few carefully thought-out paint strokes."
Wilson greatly admires Fear.
"I want to be like her at her age, as young as she is, as tenacious as she is. She is a great painter."
More than 160 people packed into Waikato Museum for the private opening, and most had a connection with Fear. Her warmth and gregariousness were discussed almost as much as her art.
Friend Ruth Davey recalled years of a group of female artists meeting in the late Jean Fairburn's River Road garden to draw and encourage each other. They formed lifelong bonds. Fear was always part of this. Davey talked about the "rich ambience" of Fear's work. "You couldn't put her into a category".
Another friend, Dale Lethbridge, owns about eight of Fear's paintings, treasuring them for their sensitive colours and for the artist's ability to portray the natural world.
Jenny Scown, director and curator of Tamahere's Inspirit Gallery, shows Fear's paintings at her place and said these have drawn people from far and wide.
"She is a unique artist. I love what Joan leaves to the imagination and the way light plays on her paintings, changing them throughout the day. They challenge me to look closer and they don't reveal all their secrets at once."
During the speeches, David Fowler, president of Friends of Waikato Museum, praised Fear's lifelong devotion to the local arts community. "Her legacy will be enjoyed by generations to come."
Fear arrived in time for the formalities, her small frame uncharacteristically seated in a wheelchair steered by her daughter, Linda. She had come out of hospital the day before and it was uncertain whether she would be able to attend the opening.
She sparkles, surrounded by loving family and well-wishers. She is the queen of the show, and Fowler's speech ends with a rousing, "God save Joan," amid laughter, cheers and a few tears.
Fear holds a large bouquet of flowers, relishing the moment.
A few days earlier in hospital, she had recalled "lugging" her mother, Jessie, down to see one of her exhibitions in the Grantham Street gallery. She had asked Jessie at that time why she hadn't sent her to art school, that it would surely have saved her a lot of time and energy.
Jessie responded, "We knew you'd do it anyway."
Fearless runs at Waikato Museum until November 11.