A Tale of Two Artists
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
In October 2020 I moved into a rented house in Wellington. I had been working in a bedroom in my flat during the first lockdown and was desperate to find somewhere with a studio.
The week I moved in I came across two small handmade pottery items in the basement studio tucked almost out of view under the wooden ceiling beams and covered in dust. One looked like a small candleholder and the other a lid of some sort. The basement studio is a rugged space with a rough concrete floor, plywood cladding to the walls, and a bush and stream outlook and soundscape that belie the ten minute train ride to the CBD. Close to the back door stand the remains of an old brick kiln, partially damaged in recent earthquakes and now with a deck built over the top.
I had been told when I signed the tenancy agreement that for about fifty years the house was the home of Wellington artist couple Juliet Peter and Roy Cowan. Two weeks after I found the pottery items I happened to pop in to the New Zealand Portrait Gallery (where I now volunteer as a Gallery Host) on an intuitive whim to view the exhibition that was current at the time – Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists. There on the wall was a beautiful portrait of Juliet Peter and Roy Cowan quite probably in the garden of the property I had just signed for! I was moved by the synchronicity, and spent the next few weeks immersed in researching their lives and creative practice.
During the 1970’s they were the hub of a close-knit arts community. The Dowse held an exhibition of their work “A Modest Modernism” in 2014, four years after Juliet’s death in 2010. Roy had died four years earlier in 2006. Mary Jane Duffy in her 2014 article about the exhibition describes their work thus: “less concerned with formalism, it’s modernism applied across a range of media and local content, about two artists making their life together in art”.
I find something deeply grounding about their work and lives. The focus on the domestic and the local, the idea of building a life around creative practice, and of being part of a creative community all have strong appeal, and are something to continue working towards, especially in current times when I feel we are being called to draw in a little, to notice what is right here under our noses and in our current communities and to build creative connection with one another on a more local scale.
One of my favourite works from all my research is Juliet’s 1973 lithograph “The World of the Night Kiln Firers” which shows the kiln in operation in the garden, surrounded by images of the flora and fauna of the Ngaio bush and even an aeroplane! The large tree behind the kiln is still there.
The candleholder is currently being used to hold a beeswax candle and is positioned in the bathroom for candlelit baths. The lid, dusted and cleaned up to show its beautiful dark reddish-brown colour, has remained in the basement studio where I discovered that Juliet used to have her printing press. It is positioned in the light on the windowsill as a reminder of the history and legacy of the house. I hope they would approve.
(This blog post was published on the New Zealand Portrait Gallery website on 6th September 2021)