"I didn’t have any close friends, I was quite alone ... that sense of aloneness is actually not an unhelpful thing. You learn at an early age to be an observer because you’re at a distance.
Words: Jack Barlow Photo: Loren Dougan
Robin White relaxes in the lounge of her cosy Masterton home, cradling a cup of coffee as a gentle drizzle taps on the window. It’s the perfect setting for a contemplative artist, and especially one who’s recovering from a bout of jet lag.
White is a hard person to pin down. Not because she’s difficult, but because she’s often on the move. This time she’s just come back from New York – ’’what an amazing city,’’ she exclaims – where she exhibited art as part of a United Nations conference on the ocean.
Finding a spot to hang her massive tapestries in a crowded lobby was evidently a bit of a mission. ’’The building wasn’t really geared up for exhibitions,’’ she says, with a hint of understatement.
Flying in and out is very much par for the course for White. One of New Zealand’s most well-known and distinctive artists, she has lived a shifting life, both physically and artistically. Originally coming to fame for her crisp, colourful portraits of small town New Zealand life – fish and chip shops, buzzy bees, green, hilly landscapes – she now spends a lot of time in the Pacific working on crossover, island pieces.
In a life of transience, the ocean has never been far away. White’s earliest memories are of wandering along the seaside in Mt Maunganui with her father, a man who ‘‘always liked to be within striking distance of kaimoana’’.
Most of White’s childhood was spent in Auckland, first in Birkenhead, then Epsom when work started on the harbour bridge. They were years marked by a lot of moving and an unconventional home life, and though she was generally happy, she was often lonely.
‘‘I didn’t enjoy school at primary,’’ she says. ‘‘With the kind of social milieu my parents moved in, and the ideas and conversations that went on in our home, none of the other kids seemed to be engaged in anything like what I was exposed to.’’
Looking back, she says being out of the loop proved influential. ‘‘I didn’t have any close friends, I was quite alone,’’ she says. ’’I know other artists have had this experience, and that sense of aloneness is actually not an unhelpful thing.
‘‘You learn at an early age to be an observer because you’re at a distance. You’re not in the thick of it, necessarily.’’
Moving around contributed to her isolation, as did her position as the youngest of a large brood. Her father was a World War I veteran, and her siblings had left home by the time she was a child.
Also making a difference was the family’s adherence to the Baha’i religion. White’s father joined the movement after his traumatic experiences in Western Front trenches. White still practises the faith today.
‘‘What undermined his (Christian) faith was knowing that the people fighting each other professed to be Christians, and it was clear to him that was wrong,’’ she says.
‘‘Dad talked about what he’d been through a lot, constantly. He wasn’t one of these guys who shut up and kept it to himself ... he would often talk about it in quite graphic detail.’’
Pulling her out of her world of isolation was art. Starting intermediate school in Epsom, she had access to both an art room and a top notch art teacher, promising painter May Smith.
‘‘I spent as much time [in the art room] as I could.’’
She never looked back. From Epsom, White went to the Elam School of Fine Arts, her arrival coinciding with a momentous time in the school’s history, when people like their then-art teacher Colin McCahon were there.
‘‘I remember walking in there on that first day and thinking, man, I’m home and this is my family,’’ she says. ‘‘Finally, here’s a bunch of people I can relate to.’’
Swept up in the intoxicating mood, she branched out, personally and artistically. At a poetry reading she met Sam Hunt, the two becoming firm friends. It was Hunt who persuaded her to head down to the thriving artist colony nicknamed Bottle Creek, in Paremata, at the end of 1968.
At Bottle Creek were future giants of the country’s cultural landscape. Michael King, Jack Lasenby, Fleur Adcock and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell were all residents.
‘‘It was fantastic,’’ she says. ‘‘We were all very engaged one way or the other in the arts, but in different aspects, so I guess we were able to fuel our interests without being competitive.
‘‘I worked hard, I really did. I was really serious about getting established somehow and being able to be independent of any other form of money earning.’’
In the heady atmosphere of Bottle Creek her distinctive style crystallised, and after three years she’d outgrown the colony. In 1972 she crushed herself and Hunt in her VW Beetle and headed south to Dunedin. Though the trip was sparked by Hunt’s fascination with the Mackenzie Country, when she hit the city she was hooked.
‘‘When I arrived I went for a drive out on the peninsula and thought, wow, this is a place I could live,’’ she says. She pauses. ’’I think it was a very nice day, mind you.’’
She settled into a life of domesticity, buying a house, getting married and having her first child while also pursuing her art. It was hard work, but rewarding: since moving to Dunedin she’s never been anything other than a full-time artist.
White spent nearly 10 years in Dunedin before her life took yet another turn. After a chance meeting with a man from Kiribati, a remote island republic in the central Pacific, an offer to move there eventuated. Despite having little idea what she was in for, in 1981 she went for it.
‘‘It totally rejigged the the way I went about making art,’’ she says. ‘‘I didn’t think, ‘how am I going to paint an oil on canvas here?’ I knew it wasn’t going to happen, so I did something completely different.’’
On Kiribati she began exploring woodcuts and Pacific motifs, ideas and styles she still works with.
The Whites were on the island for 18 years, only moving back in 1999 – by then with three children. They settled in Masterton, where they’ve been based ever since.
White’s globetrotting, however, has never stopped; she spends much of her time in the Pacific working on art projects. ‘‘I’m interested in working collaboratively ... it’s a kind of cultural crossover.
‘‘I think of it as working in the space between, between cultures.I see it also as a way of demonstrating something that communities everywhere in the world are having to learn how to do, because the makeup of society is changing so rapidly through the movement of people because of war and political disruptions and so on.’’
It’s a challenge, she says, that the world is facing. But instead of seeing it as a problem, White says it’s an opportunity to learn.
‘‘We’re living in the age of disruption,’’ she says. ‘‘But these sorts of things can be stimulating.
‘‘Take on a challenge, it’s the best way to keep moving forward. Do something different. Complacency is a killer.’’
She laughs. ‘‘Beware of comfort.’’