“What I remember most about Jack Knight was his little dog, some kind of chihuahua type thing whose little claws made a weird scampering rat-like sound on the lino floor. When we heard the sound coming down the hall towards the studio we knew Jack wasn't far behind.”
I attended the School of Fine Arts from 1970 to 1973. At first I majored in printmaking for one year (failed), then swapped to sculpture. I eventually chose sculpture because at the time it seemed the department most open and in tune with contemporary developments. I went to art school wanting to be a painter but the painting department, at the time, seemed out of touch with contemporary ideas. For example, Rudi Gopas hated American art – a big gap considering post-war developments. In retrospect I realise I could have learnt some good traditional painting skills from Rudi and Bill Sutton but at the time other issues seemed more important. I realise now these issues probably didn't matter and were just fashion as much as anything else.
In my first year I had Don Peebles (design), Doris Holland-Lusk (drawing), Dick Lovell-Smith (painting) and Laurence Karasek (sculpture). I enjoyed Karasek most and he seemed to like what I was doing. I later helped paint his house over a summer break. Printmaking year – Jack Knight. He was obsessed with holidays on, and retiring to, Stewart Island, as well as with Piranesi and Daumier. One day I overheard Jack talking to the then librarian, in the school's library, that the day, hour, and minute his retirement time arrived he would be out the door and down to his beloved Stewart Island. I figured from then on that his heart wasn't really in his work.
We didn't get along. I remember I made some prints of Hitler and he was outraged – probably one of the reasons he failed me. What I remember most about Jack was his little dog, some kind of chihuahua type thing whose little claws made a weird scampering rat-like sound on the lino floor. When we heard the sound coming down the hall towards the studio we knew Jack wasn't far behind.
In my student group Paul Johns, Richard McWhannell, Merylyn Tweedie, John Hurrell and Jim Vivieaere are the ones that immediately come to mind and who are still on the scene in one form or another. I think Julia Morison was a year behind me but I do remember her. (I should point out that only Paul Johns and Merylyn Tweedie where in my sculpture group. The others are people I remember from that time.)
In terms of the social scene I remember Skub (sketch club), sketching parties where everybody who was interested went off for the weekend and sketched landscapes at Cass or somewhere. I never wanted to sketch landscape so I never went. Staff members such as Bill Sutton and Doris Holland who would accompany the students, for on-the-spot tuition, would soon disappear to the nearest pub. Apart from these sketching excursions like-minded students tended to form their own groups largely based on your music, drug or sexual preferences.
At the time I was largely interested in Marcel Duchamp, introduced to me through a recommended text Ahead of the Game by Calvin Tomkins set by Laurence Karasek (this text also included Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, among others – all new to me), Art Povera and early conceptual art were two other areas of interest and I largely learnt about them from texts that Tom Taylor owned and would allow me to borrow. The Structure of Art by Jack Burham was another interesting text that was discussed and taught by Tom. Through the influence of Leon Narbey I also became interested in experimental film-makers like Stan Brakhage as well as feature film-makers such as Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. Andy Warhol was another favourite. I originally took printmaking because I thought I would be able to make silk-screen work like Warhol and Rauschenberg, but the department proved to be ultra-conservative.
The only New Zealand artists who interested me then were Boyd Webb (doing his honours year during my first year, I think) and Tony Fomison.
In practical terms art school didn't teach me a lot. Dick Lovell-Smith told me how to fold in the corners of a stretched canvas. Leon Narbey taught me about depth of field on a camera. Leon also told me how to read film, not so much directly but through his descriptions and understanding of film and cinematography. His observations of Bertolucci's The Conformist were a revelation to me. Tom Taylor I liked and respected, but he did seem more preoccupied with designing seats for the 1974 Commonwealth Games and sorting out his back tax and relationship problems than teaching.
I remember one day in first year Professor John Simpson filled in for Doris (drawing) and spent the entire morning discussing how paper was made and the correct way to sharpen a pencil (with a penknife). By the time he was finished the pencil looked like a hypodermic syringe. Believe it or not, it was really interesting.
Through magazines and books I think we had a fair idea of contemporary developments overseas. There is, of course, a vast chasm between seeing pictures in a magazine and seeing the real thing, and you could only guess at the kind of culture and thinking that was producing the art.
I guess I hoped I would make a living from making art. I ended up working in bookshops, looking at the end of my shoe and doing freelance graphic design (a practice made palatable by the fact that Warhol had started out that way). Remember, there was no art scene like there is today. The Robert McDougall Art Gallery had a staff of about three, which included a one-armed technician. The first real dealer gallery in Christchurch didn't open until a couple of years after I had finished art school. Before that the greatest local accolade was to be asked to include work in The Group's annual exhibition – a very closed scene.
Although I continued to try and make paintings, experimental films and take photographs, by the time I reached the age at which Vincent van Gogh died, he had probably sold more paintings than I had.
At art school I made good friends and some initial inroads, if only at the periphery, into the local scene. Having a qualification of some sort appeared to be helpful in the art world (even more so now). The art world doesn't seem to look too kindly on the self-taught. Although this is understandable in some ways as anybody who can draw a tattoo on their own arm seems to think they're an artist these days. Art is essentially an intellectual and élitist activity, in spite of a psychopathic need by many educationalists to dumb it down for public consumption. I do feel some sort of training in art indicates you have at least been made aware of the basics, in the same way that we take it for granted that a budding novelist can read.