Mur­derer’s story lives on in Te Papa art­work

The Press - - Flashback -

Art, an aban­doned car, mur­der and a miss­ing man have in­trigued a na­tion, Jes­sica Long re­ports.

Nes­tled among Te Papa’s col­lec­tion of 800,000 art­works, botan­i­cal and zo­o­log­i­cal spec­i­mens and col­lected ob­jects, there’s a por­trait on an or­di­nary piece of pa­per.

Pen­cilled scratch­ings and squig­gles make up the face. Light­blue high­lights mark the man’s brow, cheeks and chin in crayon and a pair of deep-set eyes look at their ob­server.

The piece is a well-crafted am­a­teur de­pic­tion, not unique to the art world but the face is that of Arthur Al­lan Thomas, a man wrong­fully con­victed of mur­der.

The por­trait was drawn in prison some time dur­ing the 1970s by one of New Zealand’s no­to­ri­ous Bas­sett Rd ma­chine­gun mur­der­ers. ‘‘Jor­gensen’’ can be seen on the lower right – a slash through the ‘‘o’’ – the sig­na­ture of Ron­ald Jor­gensen.

Im­pris­oned for the mur­der of two men, Jor­gensen drew nudes and seascapes and used them to barter with his fel­low in­mates.

In early 2009, a paint­ing crafted by the same man was sold on­line to a cou­ple in Pic­ton for about $5000.

It was the fi­nal piece that Jor­gensen painted in prison, and it was later owned by a Christchurch man who said he had been in the cell next to him.

The art­work is a sim­ple still life, of cups and jars on a shelf, but the pieces that sur­vive keep Jor­gensen’s story alive, Te Papa mod­ern art cu­ra­tor Chelsea Ni­chols says.

The por­trait of Thomas, in par­tic­u­lar, shows the mo­ment two of New Zealand’s high-pro­file crimes in­ter­sected, she says. ‘‘It’s a re­ally im­por­tant piece of visual cul­ture around that.’’

In De­cem­ber 7, 1963, the bul­letrid­den bod­ies of Fred­er­ick Ge­orge Walker and Kevin James Speight were found in Re­muera, Auck­land, and a team of 32 de­tec­tives be­gan the hunt for the killers.

Walker and Speight were in­volved in il­le­gal al­co­hol trades and dubbed ‘‘sly-grog­gers’’, ac­cord­ing to New Zealand His­tory.

The house marked by the holes from a .45-cal­i­bre ma­chine­gun was nes­tled among a street of villa-styled homes.

The ev­i­dence led in­ves­ti­ga­tors to Jor­gensen and John Gillies by New Year’s Eve. The ‘‘ca­reer crim­i­nals’’ had pre­vi­ous con­vic­tions in both Aus­tralia and New Zealand but the pair de­nied the mur­ders at trial.

How­ever, Gillies had bought a ma­chine­gun.

The pair were found guilty and sen­tenced to life in jail.

In 1974, Jor­gensen was set free but found his way back to prison af­ter he was caught sell­ing mar­i­juana. It was 10 years later when he be­came the cen­tre of a mys­tery.

Af­ter be­ing bailed from prison to live with his el­derly fa­ther in Kaiko¯ ura, Jor­gensen dis­ap­peared and his aban­doned car was found at the bot­tom of a cliff near the South Is­land town. His body was never found.

Ru­mours swelled that he faked his own death and fled to Aus­tralia, where there had been sev­eral un­con­firmed sight­ings.

Jor­gensen was de­clared dead in 1998 but the mys­tery made his prison paint­ings sought-af­ter.

The por­trait of Arthur Thomas is one such art­work. It has been at Te Papa since 2000 and would make a fine ad­di­tion to a crime and visual cul­ture ex­hi­bi­tion one day, Ni­chols says.

For now, it’s kept in a cli­mate­con­trolled room, and made avail­able for pri­vate view­ings through the mu­seum.

‘‘High-pro­file and sen­sa­tional crimes, they cap­ture peo­ple’s in­ter­est. Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in the peo­ple who are in­volved in them and un­der­stand­ing more about their lives and per­son­al­i­ties be­yond [the crime].

‘‘I think a piece of work like this gives you a lit­tle glimpse into the in­ner selves of both the artist Ron­ald Jor­gensen but then also the sit­ter, Arthur Thomas.’’

It was cre­ated at a time when Jor­gensen was try­ing to teach him­self art prac­tice in prison and is a ‘‘sen­si­tive study of a per­son’’.

‘‘That’s what peo­ple find re­ally in­ter­est­ing. It’s a re­ally hu­man glimpse into their souls.’’

Ni­chols says it is th­ese men’s sto­ries that com­pletely changes the way some­one looks at the draw­ing. For Ni­chols, it is the eyes that stand out the most.

‘‘I find them re­ally pen­e­trat­ing. I’m not sure you get any an­swers from them but I think you search them.

‘‘Lots of peo­ple like to think they can read a sense of psy­chol­ogy from an artist, in the way they put lines down on pa­per, and that’s what’s re­ally so fas­ci­nat­ing about this work.’’

One of the orig­i­nal Ron Jor­gensen paint­ings done when he was in prison. Circa 1982.


Ron­ald Jor­gensen’s Por­trait of Arthur Thomas, 1970s. Gifted to Te Papa by Mal­colm and Michael Bar­rer.

Ron­ald Jor­gensen at his fa­ther’s house in May 1982 af­ter his re­lease from prison.


De­tec­tives leave the Bas­sett Rd house in Auck­land.

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