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AT HOME WITH ARTIST JOHN TOOMER

AT HOME WITH ARTIST JOHN TOOMER

Working from home, Wanaka Fine Art Galley consultant MARJORIE COOK experienced lonely old buildings through the eyes of contemporary realist JOHN TOOMER.

Here was my work from home brief: study the history of landscape art in New Zealand, include some late famous artists, keep it informative, write a story.

Straight up, I apologise. I tried to stick to “brief’’. But John Toomer and I talked for over an hour.

John, 63, lives in Dunedin and is a fully subscribed fan of American artist Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009), a rural realist painter whose perhaps most famous painting was Christina’s World (1948), featuring Wyeth’s crippled neighbour dragging herself across an expansive field towards a wrecked skeleton of a house in the distance.

When Wyeth died aged 91, the New York Times obituary described him as “one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive lynchpin . . . whose precise realist views of hardscrabble rural life became icons of national culture and sparked endless debates about the nature of modern art.’’

For John, Wyeth “sits up there as a bit of an iconic artist’’.

“I have his books. He opened my eyes when it came to looking at a subject.

“It was probably the 80s when I started looking at his work.

“He had two main subjects, Keurner Farm and Olson Farm.

“He did a whole body of work from these two sources over three decades.

“I just enjoy reading his books and looking at his subject matter.

“He did so much research work before doing a painting, whether in sketches, watercolours, or in pencil.’’

John would have liked to have met him. “If I’d met him, you’d have never heard the end of it.’’

Another artist John would dearly loved to have met was his grandfather, Dunedin signwriter Arthur Bruce Toomer (1897-1954). 

“Grand-dad died about a year and a half before I was born, so I never met him.

“He was a medic in the New Zealand Army Corp and went to World War I.

“He was subjected to gas on the front line and my father said his lungs were never the same. He died aged 57.’’

John rates his grandfather as a very good artist and drawer and he is proud to have inherited several of his pencil drawings and oil paintings.
A landscape by John Toomer's grandfather, A B Toomer. A portrait by John Toomer's grandfather, A B Toomer.  Artwork by A B Toomer. 
Artworks by A B Toomer

“Because he was signwriting as a profession he never really sat down as a serious artist, as such.

“My grandmother (on mum’s side) showed in her early years she was a very talented artist but once motherhood came along she never had time to develop it and never continued.”

John’s parents didn’t paint but John believes art “is in my DNA’’.

Being surrounded by his grandfather’s drawings at home gave him a very early grounding in drawing and his talent was apparent by the time he got to school.

“My diagrams and maps were always immaculate.

“I spent more time on illustrations than on text.

“My workbooks were outstanding, all coloured and neat. My teachers would let me show them in show and tell.

“I had a very neat printing hand . . . even in primary school, other kids used to ask me to help them do their illustrations.’’

JOHN'S QUEST TO BE AN ARTIST

After leaving school in 1973, John began working at Hamel & McKenzie Menswear.

“It was a very traditional up-market menswear store that was very strong in suits, hats and silk ties on one side of the shop.

“On the other side was Cookham House, a retailer of quality imported mens’ leather shoes.

“A lot of professional businessmen shopped there.

“I can remember in the early 70s there would be some 15 to 20 ashtrays scattered around the shop, even in the fitting rooms.

“It was my job to empty them at the end of the day.

“No wonder I never touched a smoke in my life.

“In 1981, I took over the shoe side of the business and was involved in retail until 1989. At that time I left to take up painting professionally fulltime.”

John Toomer in Bookham House, 1983  John Toomer in his home studio, Henley Co-op Cheese Factory on the easel.  
Toomer began painting while working as a shoe salesman in Dunedin.

About the same time John began working, he was gifted a small set of European oil paints. Thus began his quest to be an artist.

“I worked in Princes Street. Moray Gallery,which was owned and operated by Shona McFarlane (1929-2001), was just around the corner.

“As I was taking my painting more seriously I started buying all my art supplies there.

“I got to know Shona very well. She was very supportive of me.

“She persuaded me to get involved with the Otago Art Society and I became an artist member at the age of 15. She was the first person to promote me.

“When I was 18 I had a show at her gallery and sold all 20 paintings I had on display.

“It was unbelievable. Looking back they were pretty raw – or more correctly, bloody awful really, but that was the first pat on the back and a kick start for my career. I was teaching myself as I went.”

Landscape painting has been strong on New Zealand’s art agenda ever since the 1850s, when colonial surveyors, settlers and tourists began trying to make sense of the new land before them.

For the first 80 or more years after New Zealand’s discovery and colonisation by the British,  people and places were idealised or romanticised by artists using the only traditions they understood: European traditions.

Landscapes were given a picturesque or sublime treatment, while Maori people were depicted as “exotic’’, “noble’’ or “a dying race’’.

In the 1930s, a New Zealand tradition of “regional’’ landscape painting began to emerge, influenced by artists determined to paint what was real rather than ideal.

The objective depiction of rural scenes, farms, towns, ordinary people and other local subjects also appealed to a wider market of ordinary people.

New Northern hemisphere traditions of modernism crept into New Zealand at a glacial pace.

By the 1950s, Colin McCahon had made his mark in this genre, while Ralph Hotere had got into his stride by the mid-1960s.

But realism remained popular and by the 1970s New Zealanders were embracing exhibitions by contemporary realist landscape artists such as Don Binney, Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Peter Siddell and Robin White.

Determined to learn from scratch, John collected a large stash of art books and began studying and painting at his leisure.

“Luckily, there was a big core of artists who were producing books: Douglas Badcock, Peter McIntyre, Brian Halliday, Austen Deans.

“So there was imagery available to me and landscapes were strong on the public agenda.

“Our family was often holidaying in Central Otago so landscapes became a soft spot.

“Badcock was the talk of the art circle. They were all influential, so I took note of them.

“I wanted to paint like them but fell short. I had no other way to learn.

“Art school was never considered in those early days, so everything was trial and error.

In the early 80s, John came across Jonathan White, an artist renown for his impressive Fiordland paintings. He had also produced a couple of books.

“I switched subject matter. I loved what he was doing, so I went through a bushy period in the later 80s.

“I was very influenced by the artists of the day.

“By the 90s, it was Andrew Wyeth, Brent Wong, Raymond Ching . . .  They were painting highly detailed, realistic paintings. I wanted to paint like that so I upped the realism.’’

John had found his niche. He began to refine his technique.

“The more information I could get on my canvas or drawing board, the better it became. In the 90s, it was all about more detail. It was not about being a traditional landscape artist with a broad brush.’’

CENTRAL OTAGO'S ABANDONED BUILDINGS

Ohai Railway Board BuildingJohn's muses are old and run down buildings, homesteads, country stores, churches, railway yards, abandoned houses and barns, anything he can find within a two or three hour drive from his Dunedin doorstep.

“Anything to do with the Maniototo, Central Otago, Otago, Southland. I would have to say I am a regionalist. I don’t tend to go beyond a certain territory,’’ John said.

 His oil painting Ohai Railway Board Building– Wairio (50 cm x 50 cm, $2,500) is a study of an rain-soaked weatherboard building that belongs to a rare set of structures built between 1882 and 1947.

But for the sign in the old sash window, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a house. The fence is gone, the lights are out, blank windows reflect dully on wet tarmac outside.

Listed as category 1 with the Historic Places Trust, the building stands as a ghostly sentry to the 100-year-old dreams of an ambitious coal-producing town, waiting for decisions from the Southland District Council and KiwiRail about its future upkeep.

John’s painting can be viewed at Wanaka Fine Art Gallery, upstairs at 4 Helwick Street, Wanaka or on www.wanakagallery.com.

It hangs near another of John’s oils, Old Drapery Store – Orepuki (49 cm x 59 cm $3,00)Old Drapery Story - Orepuki  The old shop is on an empty road that seems to lead to infinity and is one of several abandoned buildings in Orepuki, a former Southland goldmining town. In its heyday, the town supported 3000 people. Now, the population is about 100.

The stoies of old buildings appeals to John. 

“I enjoy that historical feeling, of the man’s influence on the land.

“There is that little need for connection that has always niggled away at me. I like to know about the subject, when it was built. I will do research, ask the locals, read library books. I love to learn.

“About two years ago, I did a mill painting for the Aspiring Art Prize in Wanaka.

“At Luggate, the Upper Clutha Transport depot, there is this old mill [built 1881, Historic Places Trust category 2].

“In its heyday, there used to be about 20 people working from there. It was to supply all the Upper Clutha Valley with flour. It was all go.

“At the outbreak of war, they lost all their labourers. A number of them didn’t come back and they were forced to close it.

“Knowing all this, when you are painting a painting, makes a real connection. It is nostalgia, a bit of story telling, a bit of history.’’

John is by no means the only artist to fall in love with the south’s old buildings. Oamaru artist Colin Wheeler [died 2011 aged 93] also excelled in the genre.

“You can see why there are not many artists painting buildings in the landscape as you have got to be able to draw buildings correctly, mastering angles, scale and perspective.” 

“In the last 20 years, I don’t know how many buildings have been lost forever.

“With farming now requiring every inch of the land to be productive, they take the buildings down, or use them for storage.  

“All those historical railway sheds, only now are people looking at preserving them.

“They used to let the fire brigades use old buildings for practice. That was the done thing.

“Or they would knock them over or put them on a road transporter.

“But to see some of these old buildings in the original location is a bit of a rarity now.

Now, when John goes out walking, he asks farmers and locals for clues on where to find new subjects.

“I am getting to the stage of hunting them down now. One never knows. There could always be an old barn or house hidden down the end of a road behind a row of macracarpas.’’

(By Marjorie Cook, 29 May 2020) 

By Lyz Dozzi
29 May 2020

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