Drinking up Island life
IT'S BEEN a long time between drinks for artist Robin White. Between 1968 and 1971 she made her home in Paremata as a member of the Bottle Creek community that featured poet Sam Hunt and writer Jack Lasenby among its members.
Now Island Life, three decades of her work from New Zealand and Kiribati, is on show at Pataka, Porirua's Museum of Arts and Culture, as part of the 2002 New Zealand Festival.
Many changes of time, place and subject matter are represented in the 120 works, curated by Linda Tyler from Dunedin's Hocken Library. But one constant factor is the people in her work. "They are people I know: my mother, my son, my friends."
Another constant is White's clarity of image, the use of strong, clear colours and clean lines. White says her style is reminiscent of the work of Gothic and early Renaissance artists.
Those who know White talk about her as a woman with focus, well organised and determined to achieve.
While growing up in Auckland, art became an important part of her life. Regular visits to Auckland City Art Gallery introduced her to the work of Rita Angus, who became a role model. "She was a single woman working in a challenging environment. She proved it could be done."
The idea of making a living as an artist first came to White when she attended the Elam School of Fine Arts in the mid-1960s.
She became focused on her work but realised she needed a backstop while getting her name known as an artist. So she enrolled at Auckland Teachers College, a decision that changed her life.
"There in 1968 I met Sam Hunt and he suggested I come to Wellington. I was then offered a job at Mana College. Sam found me a cottage that was next to his at Paremata. That was the beginning of Bottle Creek."
Once Hunt, Lasenby, Fleur Adcock, Alastair Te Ariki Campbell and others had produced their poetry, White screenprinted covers for each volume.
"Bob and Honey Andersen operated a printing press. We'd go over to Wainuiomata College, where Bob was teaching, and publish broadsheet editions which they would sell.
"We did it for fun."
In many ways, White was the odd person out at Bottle Creek. The name was a reference to the remnants of the group's rather liberal consumption of alcohol. For most of the group, the creative process was usually a precursor to visiting the pub. White stood out for being having little interest in alcohol.
This temperamental difference eventually took its toll and at the end of 1971, White put everything in a trailer and headed south to a new life on the Otago Peninsula, just out of Dunedin. She stayed until 1982.
A change of scenery was just what she needed. "I chose to live in an isolated place. Where you live is not an issue as long as you produce work that matters."
It's hard to find a more isolated place than Kiribati, where White and her husband Mike lived for 17 years from 1982.
"Both Mike and I were Bahais (a religious faith) and were asked whether we would consider living in Kiribati to be of assistance to the Bahai community there."
After finding out as much as they could about a nation comprising of hundreds of coral islands spread across thousands of kilometres of ocean, they said yes.
"But nothing can prepare you for arrival in a place where the highest point is 3m above sea level."
While her husband got a teaching job, White began establishing a studio, and becoming familiar with the surroundings and the people of Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati.
"All my work in Kiribati has a strong focus on human beings. There's not much else when you live on a coral atoll."
During her 17 years away, White overcame the disadvantage of isolation, regularly exhibiting to rave reviews in both New Zealand and Australia.
Her determination also helped her overcome the effects of a 1996 fire that destroyed her studio. "It was a transforming element. It prompted me to explore new materials. In Kiribati you can't go to the local art store and restock. So I decided to use the materials the local people used."
Kiribati has no tradition of painting or sculpture but the women are skilled weavers. White designed patterns which the women produced.
Three years ago, White came home to New Zealand with her family and bought a home in Masterton. The change was prompted by the educational needs of her two teenagers.
"There was only only one school on Kiribati. There aren't many choices about what you can study."
In the last two years, White has made several trips back to Kiribati. She's also completed several paintings of Wairarapa, although they are not in the Pataka exhibition.
She doesn't rule out a return to Kiribati. "I'm borderless. I'm a drifter."
* Island Life: Robin White in New Zealand and Kiribati. Toured by the Hocken Library, Dunedin. At Pataka, Porirua Museum of Arts and Cultures, February 22 to May 26. The exhibition then moves to Masterton, Palmerston North, Wanganui, Napier, Oamaru and Dunedin.
©Copyright 2002, Evening Post - Wellington (New Zealand)