Remembering Avis Higgs: painter, designer, and ‘a truly awesome woman’

Remembering Avis Higgs: painter, designer, and ‘a truly awesome woman’

Last week, we received the sad news that Avis Higgs had passed away just a few days after celebrating her 98th birthday.

Avis Higgs was known to many as a painter. She was actively involved in the Architectural Centre Gallery, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Watercolour Society of New Zealand.  She is also remembered, in both Australia and New Zealand, as an outstanding, modernist textile designer.

Avis Higgs in  Sydney wearing a dress made from one of her own textile designs.

I first met Avis with design historian Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, at her home in Wellington in 1999. At the time I was working at the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery. We were there to view a portfolio of textile designs that Avis had put together in the late 1940s, as Douglas had proposed a small exhibition.

Avis had trained at the Wellington Technical College as a commercial artist, and in 1941 had secured a job as a textile designer at the Silk and Textile Printers (STP) in Sydney.

While Avis unexpectedly found herself designing camouflage patterns for New Guinea and promotional fabrics for Victory Loans, she also designed a range of prints that reflected her own life as a single young woman, living life to the full under the cloud of war.

From a trunk, Avis pulled out a range of home-sewn dresses and a pieced quilt, all of which were made from fabrics she had designed for SPT. The prints included bikini-clad water-skiers and young woman dressed smartly for a day at the races or out on the town.

Although Avis was in her early 80s at the time, it was easy to imagine her as the young, dynamic woman we saw in the prints. The designs, like Avis, exuded joie de vivre. Even her a design inspired by Australia’s wartime blackouts, When the Lights Go On Again (1944), pulsated with vibrancy.

One of Avis’ textile designs from her time in Sydney, a beach lover’s paradise.

While the portfolio’s cover was battered and aged, the designs inside were as fresh as the day they were painted. They included stylised Māori motifs viewed with a modernist eye; lush depictions of Australian and New Zealand flora, and beach scenes including surfers, sailing boats and seashells.

Avis had compiled the portfolio in the late 1940s, when she had decided to look for work in England. She left for the UK in 1951 and found work in Manchester, and then in London, with the French designer F. Williams Gobeaux, as an advisor on ‘what type of designs should be sent to the Antipodes’.

Her career, however, came to an abrupt end following a car crash in Italy. Avis ended up in hospital for a year. On the return voyage to New Zealand, she met her husband to be, Jack Beere, and a new life as a wife, mother, and painter beckoned. Her design portfolio was consigned to storage.

That afternoon in Avis’ lounge the idea for a small exhibition morphed into a much larger exhibition. There was so much good material. When the exhibition opened in Napier in 2000 is was appropriately called Avis Higgs: Joie de Vivre. Avis shone at the opening.

The exhibition and surrounding publicity introduced Avis and her spirited textile designs to a new generation. Hugh Bannerman of Dilana Rugs was the first to see the potential of Avis’ work in the 21st century. He transformed five of her dress fabric designs into large scale rugs.

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Hugh describes Avis’ designs as ‘beautifully thought through in both colour & composition’.

‘The integrity of her work speaks for itself. Designed in 1948, reworked into rugs using the original colour palette and pattern in 2001, selected and selling into current interior schemes in 2016. They still have a decorative context seven decades on… amazing’.

Hugh’s approach was followed by another from fashion designer Laurie Foon. Laurie and her co-designer Carleen Schollum met with Avis over tea to seek permission to use her Duck Pond design in a collection. Avis deemed the pair ‘lovely young ladies’, and gave them the go ahead. The design became the signature print of the duo’s 2005 collection, Black Swan.

Several years later, Laurie recalled that the print still received ‘an incredible response’ when worn. Avis and Laurie both proudly wore items from the Black Swan collection to Avis’ induction into the Hall of Fame at the College of Creative Arts, Massey University, in 2010.

Swan Top, from Laurie Foon's 2005 collection Black Swan. The textile design was created by Avid Higgs in the 1940s.
‘Cygnet Singlet’ from Laurie Foon’s from Black Swan Collection, 2005/06. The textile design was created by Avid Higgs in 1949. Collection of Te Papa.

Avis’ designs have not only inspired textiles. In 2015 Sara Hughes and Gregor Kregar drew inspiration from Avis’ floral designs, and a collection of 19th century pin cushions, to create Pin Wall. A large wall sculpture comprising 5000 porcelain glazed balls mounted on stainless steel rods, Pin Wall adorns the exterior of the MTG  (formerly the Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery), which holds Avis’ design archive.

‘I have wonderful memories of a week down in the old Hawke’s Bay Museum & Art Gallery storage area, and coming across Avis Higgs, who’s work I had not known prior. Her sketches for the fabrics were so fresh and vibrant… she was a strong influence on the Pin Wall work that Gregor and I created together’. Sara Hughes

Pin Wall by Sara Hughes and Gregor Kregar on the side of the MTG, Napier. Photo courtesy of the artists.

This year Persephone Books chose one of Avis’ textile designs to adorn their reprint of Robin Hyde’s novel The Godwits Fly (1938). The London-based company specialises in reprinting the work of women writers from the mid-twentieth century, and are renowned for their beautifully crafted books. Uniform grey on the outside, each book features a burst of colour and pattern inside – a ‘fabric’ endpaper chosen ‘to match the date and mood of the book’. The publishers enthuse:

‘Fabrics are as much a part of our daily lives as furnishing and dress materials, yet we rarely see them used in any other context. However, fabric design should be celebrated for its own sake; and because it is a field in which women designers have been particularly prominent we would like to use their work whenever possible.’

The Godwits Fly opens to reveal one of Avis’ bold Pacific-inspired patterns from 1941.

Each of the above projects is a testimony to the strength and ongoing relevance of Avis’ work. I hope that people continue to draw upon Avis’ design legacy with the same passion and care that these designers and artists have done.

Of Avis’ own indomitable spirit, I will leave the last words to Hugh Bannerman of Dilana Rugs:

‘I recall her being lost in action towards the end of the Auckland launch only to be found secretly extracting another cork to continue the party. A truly awesome woman.’

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