Time spent in a bush-clad studio: Eve Armstrong and Colin McCahon

Time spent in a bush-clad studio: Eve Armstrong and Colin McCahon

Eve Armstrong’s practice draws on the local landscape – just as Colin McCahon’s did. Here, the Wellington artist discusses her residency at the McCahon House and how it inspired a work now in the national collection.

In 2009, as the McCahon House resident artist, I was fortunate to spend three months living at McCahon House in French Bay, Titirangi, just a few steps away from where Colin McCahon painted some of his best-known works.

McCahon House residency

Although the McCahon House residency is a luxurious abode for artists, the neighbouring house museum is a reminder of the reality for McCahon and his family. The tiny cottage McCahon shared with his wife Anne and four children must have been a squeeze. It’s hard to imagine how some of McCahon’s largest works were painted there and yet they were. Living next door was a daily reminder of the artist’s and his family’s tenacity and resourcefulness, as they juggled their lives with McCahon’s burgeoning art career. Having this strong sense of reality brings his art closer for me. Knowing the celebrated Northland panels were painted on a deck in Titirangi amidst the clutter and chaos of family life grounds them in a way no gallery can.

Colin McCahon, Northland panels, 1958, alkyd on unstretched canvas. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Purchased 1978 with Ellen Eames Collection funds and assistance from the New Zealand Lottery Board (1978-0009-1/A-H to H-H)

Like many artists, I’m used to working in spaces more akin to McCahon’s cottage, so I was initially quite overwhelmed when I started the residency. I had never had such a large studio, nor months to make art full-time or a dedicated budget for materials.

The idea of purchasing materials was particularly nerve-racking and unfamiliar. At the time most of my sculptural works had been created with salvaged materials. It took some help from my husband to get me started. He sat me down, asked me about the materials I had seen and wanted, and took me by the hand to buy them. A tall cluster of second-hand pastel peach retail display stands from Surplus Traders in nearby Avondale marked the beginning of new approaches to making during the residency.

New ideas, materials and processes

Unlike most residencies McCahon House doesn’t prioritise outcomes, but rather time, space, and support for the artist to develop their practice. This emphasis gave me the freedom to experiment with new ideas, materials, and processes.

The beginnings of several major projects were also spawned during the residency. A small collection of transparent plastic packaging later became two sprawling installations exhibited in Wellington with Letting Space and at City Gallery respectively. The peach retail stands found a permanent home at Te Papa as part of a sculpture called Experience tells us.

My previous use of packaging tape in collages gave way to signage vinyl off cuts, which in turn led to changes in format, composition, and colour palette. The developments I made during the residency were significant and sustained my practice for years.

Eve Armstrong, Experience tells us, 2011, mixed media sculpture. Gift of the Artist and Michael Lett & Andrew Thomas (2018-0030-1). Photo courtesy of Michael Lett, Auckland

The local

While I don’t have an obvious connection to McCahon as an artist, during the residency it struck me that we shared an interest in the landscape, with a recurring emphasis on the local.

Yet where McCahon’s landscapes favour the natural environment, I have always looked to the urban – the sights, materials, and experiences of the city. So instead of Titirangi’s kauri, bush, and hills, I turned to the light industry and discarded consumer goods of neighbouring suburbs like New Lynn and Avondale. I photographed and gathered materials from the local inorganic collections – kerbsides strewn with unwanted household items like washing machines, couches, sinks, and suitcases.

This led to a series of collages on found plastic trays. Taking visual cues from the pages of junk mail catalogues, I thought of the collages as reverse junk mail displaying domestic objects at the end of their life cycle.

Location is always important to my practice. During my time at McCahon House it wasn’t only the local landscape and materials that affected my work. I also noticed the impact of being tucked away in the trees. Not isolated but some distance away from the city, I would spend days on end uninterrupted in the studio, only stopping for walks and food.

At both the museum and residency there’s a sense that art matters, that what artists do is important and to be supported, and, that as with McCahon’s prolific time in Titirangi, perhaps time spent in the bush-clad studio might yield more art worth remembering.

More information about Eve Armstrong on the Michael Lett website

Colin McCahon at Te Papa

To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.

More information about Colin McCahon at Te Papa

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