Remembering Ralph Hotere

New Zealand Listener, 28 February 2013. 

Grahame Sydney, artist, friend: “Many friends and admirers will remark on Ralph’s innate humility and generosity, and as a student at the University of Otago University in the late 1960s I had first-hand experience of both.

There was no art school at Otago in those days, but the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship had been established, bringing to the campus environment major names in the New Zealand art world as it then was – almost wholly amateur – and allowing frustrated painters like me (plodding sullenly through an English and geography degree) to get to know and observe some of these envied figures.

Tanya Ashken sculpted her elegant forms in a small room beneath the archway; the youthful Derek Ball occupied an old villa close to the Student Union during a year in which he turned from painter to sculptor; and Ralph Hotere was given another Victorian villa on Castle Street. During his tenure there, my final year at university, Ralph rescued from his job at a Christchurch drapers the shy and rather other-worldly young painter Jeffrey Harris, bringing him south to Dunedin and installing him in a room out the back of his Hodgkins studio, I suspect unbeknown to the authorities.

My painter mate Ross Jenner and I were eager to draw from a life model, but neither of us were comfortable with asking the parents if they would look the other way while we enjoyed the naked female form in our studio bedrooms at home: even finding a willing model was difficult enough, without confronting the oldies! But we did find a willing helper, and promised the enticing sum of $4 per hour for her to sit for us – if we could find a suitable location. Ralph came to the rescue. He offered Ross and me a room in the Hodgkins villa studio for Saturday afternoons, no charge, and we eagerly accepted. For several months, we drew our model, just the three of us in a cold and curtained Dunedin room, drawings I have still. It was a relief: prior to our ‘professional’ model, Ross and I had been drawing each other.

On those Saturday afternoons, Ralph popped in to draw, too. That was the arrangement: he gave us the room, said nothing, and was free to join us at any time. He did, often. I was fascinated by how different he was to me. Me, bent over a sharpened pencil, looking hard and drawing hesitantly, anxious to be accurate; Ralph confident and fearless, drawing rapidly and boldly with a biro pen. Always unassuming, he never said much. But I do remember clearly, having looked over the studied ‘classical’ drawings Ross and I were slowly creating, his urging me to, ‘Free up! Free up !’ I couldn’t then, and I still can’t.

Two other observations. First, never underestimate Ralph’s devotion to – obsession with – golf. He loved golf with a passion, and was always willing to stop work for a few holes. The same with fishing, out on the Upper Harbour from Port Chalmers. If he wasn’t at work in the studio, he’d likely be on the golf course or out on the harbour. (Rumour has it that the rather conservative Balmacewan Golf Club in Dunedin made a special dispensation for Hotere to be able to wear his ever-present hat in the golf house!) And I am aware of Ralph’s discreet and generous funding of the golf programme for the young players at Otago Boys’ High School. Second, Ralph’s natural and easy use of blue-collar workman’s tools is a very significant indicator of his lack of pretension, and his attitude towards making work: car-painters’ spray-painting guns, laqueur paint, hand-held electric grinders and polishers, blow torches … with all these tools of the skilled tradesman, Ralph made works that transcended the workshop and emerged as sophisticated art. But the workshop, the skilled workman labourer, was essential Hotere.  Doing your work, making things, and looking forward to nine holes before heading for home.”

To read other tributes from Cilla McQueen,  Jeffrey Harris, Shane Cotton, Bill Manhire, Marti Friedlander, Mary Kisler and more go to: