11 Sep 2016

Art, Life, Music - John Walsh

From The Sunday Feature, 2:00 pm on 11 September 2016
John Walsh in his studio

John Walsh in his studio Photo: RNZ/Charlotte Wilson

Dream landscapes inspired both by contemporary events and mythology: thundering waterfalls, wind-blown trees; imaginary beings with the faces of ancestral tiki, marakihau (mermen) or manaia (helpers and bringers of knowledge) – the paintings of John Walsh, with their bold colours and distinctive brushwork, are utterly unique and incredibly moving. Of Aitanga a Hauiti and New Zealand Irish decent, he grew up in Tolaga Bay on the East Coast and was part of the early Māori arts movement Ngā Puna Waihanga, before becoming this country’s first Curator of Contemporary Māori Art at the National Art Gallery, now Te Papa Tongarewa, in 1993.

51 Percent Smoke (2013)

51 Percent Smoke (2013) Photo: John Walsh

John Walsh is also largely self-taught, and after a brief period at the Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University (1973-4) he started to make a name for himself painting portraits of the local community around Gisborne. That led to a number of early awards – the BNZ Portrait award in 1977, the Royal Overseas League Art Award, and the first of several Te Waka Toi grants that saw him working on the Pathfinder International Mural project in New York in 1989.

After Italy (2016)

After Italy (2016) Photo: John Walsh

But it wasn’t until he moved down to Wellington for the Te Papa position that he first thought of art as a professional career. He held his first solo exhibition when he was 40, and after 10 years at Te Papa had enough momentum going to paint full-time. Still based in Wellington, in Island Bay, his works are now sought-after for collections around NZ and the Pacific, and in 2007 he travelled to Antarctica as part of Antarctica New Zealand's artist-in-residency programme.

He grew up with music all around, and describes his work is a dance to music. His choices here include the famous 'Poi E' – Ngoi Pewhairangi was an early mentor, Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club are old mates, and ‘that always brings a smile’.

Images reproduced courtesy of Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington

Music Details

PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf - Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Bohm

Ngoi PEWHAIRANGI: Poi  E - Dalvanius Prime and the Patea Maori Club

Karen HUNTER: Let the Spaces In (Private Recording)

Karen DALTON: Katie Cruel - Karen Dalton (voc), Bobby Notkoff (vln) (from the album ‘In My Own Time' 1971)


Art, Life, Music is a series in which Charlotte Wilson explores the connections between music and art, visiting celebrated NZ artists, in their studios, to talk about their work and their life and their love for music – because each of these artists has a connection to music, in some way. Here, they choose their favourite pieces, and explain in their own totally unique and various ways, what makes them tick.