Charlotte Wilson visits the studio of John Walsh - the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Māori art at Te Papa - to ask about the role of music in his life and work.
Dream landscapes inspired both by contemporary events and mythology: thundering waterfalls, wind-blown trees; imaginary beings with the faces of ancestral tiki, marakihau (mermen) or manaia (helpers and bringers of knowledge)...
The paintings of John Walsh, with their bold colours and distinctive brushwork, are utterly unique and incredibly moving.
Of Aitanga a Hauiti and New Zealand Irish decent, John grew up in Tolaga Bay on the East Coast and was part of the early Māori arts movement Ngā Puna Waihanga, before becoming this country’s first Curator of Contemporary Māori Art at the National Art Gallery, now Te Papa Tongarewa, in 1993.
John Walsh is also largely self-taught, and after a brief period at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University (1973-4) he started to make a name for himself painting portraits of the local community around Gisborne. That led to a number of early awards – the BNZ Portrait award in 1977, the Royal Overseas League Art Award, and the first of several Te Waka Toi grants that saw him working on the Pathfinder International Mural project in New York in 1989.
But it wasn’t until he moved down to Wellington for the Te Papa position that he first thought of art as a professional career. He held his first solo exhibition when he was 40, and after 10 years at Te Papa had enough momentum going to paint full-time. Still based in Wellington, in Island Bay, his works are now sought-after for collections around NZ and the Pacific, and in 2007 he travelled to Antarctica as part of Antarctica New Zealand's artist-in-residency programme.
He grew up with music all around, and describes his work is a dance to music. His choices here include the famous 'Poi E' – Ngoi Pewhairangi was an early mentor, Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club are old mates, and ‘that always brings a smile’.
PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf - Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Bohm
Ngoi PEWHAIRANGI: Poi E - Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club
Karen HUNTER: Let the Spaces In (Private Recording)
Karen DALTON: Katie Cruel - Karen Dalton (voc), Bobby Notkoff (vln) (from the album ‘In My Own Time' 1971)