by Peter Carson
My earliest recollection is walking in grass that rose above my head, and crying because I was overwhelmed by it. I would have been about 18 months old. I remember my mother leaving the veranda and snatching me to safety.
I was brought up in a large wooden farmhouse. I remember water heated by a copper stove, and bucketed down into a near-by tin bath. This water was pumped by a windmill, which on one day blew down in a northwest gale. We were not allowed outside on that occasion, but we watched through a window. Inch by inch it bowed and leaned, and then suddenly crashed down, barely missing the edge of the house. The sound of the crash was tremendous. The remnants of the windmill were stacked behind a shed for all the years I lived at home, and I never did grow to be as tall as the giant tin wind wheel.
I remember another northwest gale during which a fire in the riverbed jumped the shingle road, igniting the gorse hedges on either side. The poplar trees behind the sheds caught fire, as did the elderberry trees, the pine tress, and shrubs of various kinds. The row of macrocarpa trees somehow escaped. The dry grass was ablaze with orange and red flames, and wet sacks were all we had to quell them. There was no fire brigade in those days, and we banded together with our neighbours, raising the sacks above our heads and then thumping them onto the flame. I remember Mrs. Penny saying of the fire that “we must fight it or it will ruin us.” Fire still creates in me both fear and fascination. It has beauty about it, especially at night. There is a beauty in destruction.
My father kept pigeons, and their cooing -especially when they were resting- created a calming and gentle atmosphere. In the half-light of the evening, the sound of sleepy pigeons added another dimension to the fading daylight.
One day a traction engine came and pulled out the apple trees to the west of the house. I can still see the flywheel turning, the wire rope encircling the trunk, the tree uprooted from the ground.
As a boy I would rise early in the morning to feed the fowls, and gather their eggs. I would also cut lettuces for the market. Many times | saw the sun rise and felt the warmth of its rays on a cold moning. On week days I would then walk three miles to school in rain, snow, or shine, checking the creek for cock-a-bullies on my way, and frequently wetting my shoes and socks in the process. The smell of gorse and broom flowers scented the air in the spring and summer months.
I knew where the various tramps slept at night before they started work on the threshing machines. There was one fellow who slept on the broom near the church, and he was there for many weeks. He never spoke to me, and I didn’t speak to him, but I raised my hand in greeting whenever I passed him. My father said they were remittance men who received money from their families in England because they were not wanted there. They did seasonal work – harvesting, picking potatoes, cutting gorse hedges, weeding. My father employed one of these men to weed his onions. I observed that the man kept a clay pot at one end of the onion paddock, hidden amongst the fat hen weeds that grew there. Whenever he reached that part of the paddock he would drink from it. My father said that it was full of beer.
One night our asparagus crop was raided, and all the mature asparagus were taken. We tried to retrace the footsteps of the thieves, but to no avail. Asparagus grows rapidly, and two days later we were able again to cut asparagus for the market. We never did find out who the thieves were, though my father had his suspicions.
I remember the cocksfoot cutters who cut the cocksfoot tops from the roadside for its seed. This grass grew to about a meter in height and looked very beautiful when the seed heads glowed in the evening sun. I still respond inwardly to such sights.
The household values were strongly socialistic. As a result of the American influence, we would have been considered communists. My mother’s brothers were pro-communist activists and played an instigating role in the troubles on the wharves during the 1950s. One of these -my Uncle Donald- worked for the department of education. After work he would go down to the wharves and exhort the men to strike and create trouble. He always argued that they were human beings who were exploited and under-paid. My mother was very much in favour of such actions. She was articulate and quick-witted and was responsible for persuading my father to switch his political allegiances from the right to the left. In the midst of this tranquil, pastoral setting my mother was a strident advocate of radicalism and unrest.
It was she who gave me my first subscription to The Studio, an art magazine of the day, and from its pages I learned what was happened in the international art world. Although I share many of my mother’s political sentiments, I have never become involved in politics.
Farm work was a prominent activity of my youth. Often I would lift my head towards the sky as I drove a horse or a pair of horses when ploughing, harrowing, or rolling. Grubbing between rows of cauliflowers or cabbages, there is a need to keep an eye on the grubber to make sure that it does not stray too far from the centre. Even ploughing requires concentration because the main wheel of the plough has to be kept in the furrow. But now and then I would look up to the sky where birds -especially skylarks- would be singing as they climbed. A feeling of freedom and exaltation would surge though me. It was thrilling to hear and see them. Often a lark would unexpectedly fly up from the earth as I patrolled the paddocks with my grubber or my plough. The sheen of the soil as the plough made a further furrow was also a heart felt experience and I still delight to watch ploughing activity, although it is a noisy with a tractor. Ploughing with a horse was quiet work, and a bird song would be easily heard, together with the whisper of the wind, and the sound of the soil on the mould board as it moved through the ground.
In those days I knew nothing about literature. As I worked, no lines of poetry came to mind, or descriptive passages of prose – my imagination was governed by what I heard or saw around me. It was at this time however that I began keeping a journal. Mainly this contained drawings of those sunsets and sunrises by which I was particularly impressed.
Night was another wonder to me. The way in which the moon rose and dominated the sky excited me, and as I viewed a moonrise I would experience an almost complete forgetfulness of self. The way the moonlight illuminates only certain objects enthralled me, and I continue to be enthralled by this. I learned by observing such scenes that light can transform the otherwise common place into something majestic and mysterious. These childhood impressions have stayed with me and have always influenced my view of creation. It was some years later before I came to realise that other artists have had similar experiences. I thought that Rembrandt must have had such experiences —and probably he did- but I now see his use of light as spiritual: even when he paints candles and lamps and fire, he makes light do things that it cannot naturally do.
There was a painting in the house by Robert Field Proctor. Over time it moved from room to room. Sometimes it was in my bedroom and I became very familiar with it. The subject was a canoe on a lake surrounded by hills. The sky above the hills tells that the sun is setting. There is a solitary figure in the canoe. When I looked at it from my bed, I would imagine myself n the canoe, and I would imagine gliding around the lake between the hills. Later I discovered that it was an early New Zealand work, painted in primitive style. There was no pre-Raphaelite detail in it. Looking at it today, I can see that the artist’s use of fading light is similar to my own. I inherited the painting when my father died, but for some reason have not hung it.
Aside from this painting, my artistic influences derive from the time after I left high school and began work at the Christchurch Public Library. It was there that I first saw original paintings by New Zealand artists, and reproductions of paintings of famous artists from other parts of the world. A number stood out from the rest. One by Franz Marc -a painting of a tiger- impressed me very much and still does.
Of the New Zealand paintings -a portrait by W Sutton- was a revelation. I had not thought of painting someone’s portrait. Also I started to attend group shows, and this opened my understanding as to what was being painted in New Zealand. The work of Les Benseman impressed me — his efforts were strong, well composed, and their colour attracted me- but the most powerful experience occurred when I was babysitting the daughters of a fellow librarian Mr. Lamb. (His wife was a German girl, brought up under Nazism, and she had many riveting stories to tell.) I sat down at the table to have tea, glanced up, and there before me on the wall was a painting by Colin McCahon. It was a free copy of the Entombment of Christ by Titian.
I felt as if I had been hit. Its impact on me was overwhelming. When tea was over, my friend and his wife left the house for their evening out, and with the children in bed, I took this opportunity to approach closely to the painting. I had never seen anything like it before. It seemed to have a life of its own, and my heart was thumping madly. This event more than any other made me realise that paintings can be relevant —can be life-changing- to the person who looks at them. Recently I saw the painting reproduced in a book, and its effect on me was still a profound one.
I was shaken again when I viewed a mixed exhibition of three painters from Wellington, shown I recall in Gallery 91. I was moved by the work Michael R Clark, a series of pastel and charcoal drawings. I had the same kind of reaction to these drawings as I had to the McCahon painting. I still have the catalogue and the titles indicate the preferred subjects: Setting Sun, Pathway Through the Trees, Pastoral Forest… There were ten works in all and they made a lasting impression. A note on the catalogue reads “bitterly cold with heavy rain from the south” and I was thankful that I braved these conditions to cycle to this exhibition. These were the two most dramatic artistic experiences of my life.
Another big influence dating from my late teens was the writing of Edward Thomas. Mr. Lamb introduced me to As it Was and World Without End. Thomas’s influence was not a visual one. But his writing had a directness that aligns it with the visual. It was not scientific analysis, rational argument, nor even narration of fact, but emotion and intuition; the world of the senses’ apprehension transformed by the light of the imagination. His is the poetry that haunts the memory and burns itself into the deepest layers of our consciousness. Although his medium is words, there is something visionary about these words. His moments of vision were often connected to the sunlight, and to what it can do to other things as it shines on them. And also the rain, and what it can achieve as it falls from the clouds. He could write of the “momentous thunder” and the “tempestuous mountain rain.” Of this rain he wrote: “It gives the grey rivers a demonic majesty… It scours the roads, sets flints moving and exposes the glossy chalk in the tracks though the woods…”
My development as an artist has been slow. It has taken me many years to be able to make something striking, something telling. In the beginning I lacked models to guide me, except for the painting in my bedroom. My reaction to the work of others has to do with their dedication to what they are creating. 1 was always impressed by the example of Van Gogh. Here was someone who was genuine and honest, a man who was not playing a part in a self-drama. I was drawn to such a character. Cezanne was another who was dedicated. A good Cezanne, I believe, possesses a unique quality. Another painting might as good in its way but it will unlike the Cezanne. This is something that cannot be said of every good painting. Cezanne’s love of nature of nature shines through his work and, like Van Gogh, Cezanne’s case shows how dedication can produce something powerful, something significant, something great. My first efforts are dated 1957 — 58 and were charcoal and pastel drawings.
The mother and child theme held a strong attraction for me. I still have these in a folder somewhere although no one but me has seen them. In recent years I have returned to that theme, but still I don’t seem able to achieve what I am looking for. Not long ago I discovered a drawing by Picasso that captures the essence of this subject, and I remain hopeful that in time I will make something worthwhile on the mother and child theme myself. That said, I am deeply attracted to landscape, and my response to it has produced the two or three paintings that I consider successful. But it was only when I moved to Cust that I managed to deal with landscape in a convincing way. The basis of much of my work is that it concerns what I have seen. One evening, for example, I went upstairs to check on something and looking out of an eastward window I noticed in the sky an orange band of colour. “What a sight”, I thought, and a thrill went through me. Also a visual idea came to mind. That encounter led to the creation of a painting (it is now in a private collection) that has a life of its own. Another such encounter involved a storm spreading over the hills in the form of a dark cloud. It was as if the hills were being eaten by the darkness, and then suddenly came a flash of lightning and the hills radiated light for a brief moment, aglow with light amidst the darkness. A painting came out of that experience too. Unless experiences of this sort are there, a work can be dull and commonplace. All my best work is the result of encounters with creation, and this is not just confined to the landscape. Other subjects also need something tangible underlying them. I am reminded of Wordsworth’s moment of vision when he met the daffodils “…fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” This is a poem that is vital and alive to this day because it is based on an unexpected encounter with a feature of creation. This moment of vision is so very vital in the making of a painting, or a poem. It gives the work freshness and life. Van Gogh’s best work is the result of an emotional reaction to the seen world. Cezanne also had encounters with the seen. He used to rise early before the light of the morning came and walk to a spot from where he would watch the harbinger of a new day appear. This was his moment of vision, something that stimulated his response to the view before him as he painted.
One thing I learned over the years is to maintain a humble approach to my creative work, and to avoid the cockiness that is common in artistic circles. The best that any of us can do is to find an area, cultivate a patch of ground so to speak, all the while giving glory to the God who has made this possible. It has become increasingly obvious to me that I am a late bloomer, and in spite of the length of time I have practiced my craft, I consider myself a learner with much learning still to do.