Murderer’s story lives on in Te Papa artwork
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.