Where to begin when writing or talking about Colin McCahon? I remember seeing one of his paintings for the first time, a North Otago landscape painted deep green with a sunless white sky on a piece of hardboard, hanging at the Forrester Gallery in Ōamaru while on a family trip when I was a young teenager. I felt like I recognised the landscape depicted from what I saw around me growing up, but I hadn’t seen it reduced to something so stark and primal before.
James K. Baxter’s 1952 poem ‘To Colin McCahon’ is an important marker in the long and sometimes tempestuous artistic relationship the two men shared. On an immediate level, the poem is a response to McCahon’s painting There is only one direction (1952), which he presented to Jim and Jacquie Baxter to mark the birth of their daughter Hilary after they had named McCahon her godfather.