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AT HOME WITH ARTIST RACHEL HIRABAYASHI

AT HOME WITH ARTIST RACHEL HIRABAYASHI

What to do when Central Otago huddles under its infamous inversion layer? Wanaka Fine Art Gallery consultant MARJORIE COOK asks Cromwell artist and sculptor RACHEL HIRABAYASHI how she whiles away the winter days.

“You have freezing fog? Yes, well it’s a lovely high of 5 degrees here.”

Rachel laughs and immediately the warmth of her character brightens the grey day.

She has lived in her 117-year-old wooden cottage in Cromwell for about 20 years and over time her colourful studio has become something of an artists’ drop in centre.

Most days, around 4pm, just as Rachel is getting into her creative flow for the day, artist friends such as Nigel Wilson, Jillian Porteous, Luke Anthony or Judy Cockeram might call by to share a wine or a coffee.

Rachel doesn’t view her friends as an unwelcome intrusion. “We just sit around and solve the problems of the world, have a drink and paint,’’ she said.

Mornings are her quiet time. When the air is cold enough to transform birds to lead, Rachel enjoys sitting by the fire and doing the puzzles in the Otago Daily Times.

She’ll walk her dogs, potter about and perhaps visit her mum Vanja Jensen or her twin sister, structural geologist Sarah Jones.

Both live just up the road in their own houses. Another sister, museum curator Amanda, lives in New Plymouth.

Mornings are not really Rachel’s thing. She’s a night owl.

“I start at 4pm. That’s my time. It is quite social. People call in and it’s quite funny because sometimes there will be four or five people all squeezed into my studio.’’

Rachel grew up in a creative family and has been pursuing a creative career all her life.

“My father [David Jones] was a painter who exhibited in the 60s and 70s. I grew up in Auckland and still have all these tickets to exhibitions by Colin McCahon and other well-known New Zealand artists. And dad’s father was a classical composer who came to New Zealand from Wales at the age of 12. He was called Gwilym Llewelyn Jones.

 

FROM GOLDFIELDS SERIES (SOLD)

From Goldfields Series (sold)

Her mother’s ancestry is Scandanavian and Rachel finds it interesting that in recent years she has been unconsciously gravitating towards painting little churches in big landscapes.

“Apparently they are like the ones in Iceland but I didn’t know that.’’

Another important cultural thread in her life is Japan. Almost half a lifetime ago, living in Auckland, Rachel fell in love with a Japanese man, Yukio, and went to live with him in Japan.

Although divorced now, amicably, the things she learned about Japanese art, culture and creativity strongly resonate with her.

But back to Rachel’s early beginnings.

“With Dad, we would just draw every day. Sarah, my twin sister, and I would be up at his big drawing desk, just sitting with him. And we would go on drawing trips. Having doodle books is a habit I got into and when I travel around now in my truck, I stop and sketch up little thumbnails, which I use later for painting.

“Dad left, but we reconnected again when I was a teenager and we picked up the art trips again. It was really quite fun. His were quite abstract works, oils, landscapes. He would ask Sarah and I when we were young what we thought he should do with this one or that one and it taught us not to have judgment.”

David Jones was a full time artist who supported himself with income from his paintings or from little jobs he picked up here and there.

Rachel also worked other jobs. For a while she was a printer, graphic designer and a book illustrator but she now focuses on pleasing herself, painting and sculpting when the mood takes her

Her decision to commit to art was prompted on a trip to Mexico, when she and two friends visited the studio of an American-Jewess artist.

“There were paintings everywhere. She had a little cot bed and was just surrounded. It was really inspiring, moving. It was phenomenal, a hair-raising experience. She showed me that if you want to do art, you have to live it. There is no pussy footing around.’’

“She did have a following. She was painting magical realism and her family would sell her works in New York to sustain her lifestyle in Mexico. It was so long ago I can’t remember her name now, but the memory is imprinted. It happened to all three of us. We were just – wow.’’

BLUFF HARBOUR

Bluff Harbour (38 x 100cm acrylic on canvas, $2800)

 

Rachel is one of the eight founding members of the Indigo Art Group, which organises travelling exhibitions around southern towns. She has been represented by the Wanaka Fine Art Gallery for two years.

Her landscapes are not done from life. She prefers to paint from “emotional memory”, creating something recognisable, but with imagined elements of the unreal embedded in them.

For example, Tiwai Point (30 x 90 cm acrylic on canvas $2200), is a perspective of Bluff’s aluminium smelter, sitting under a leaden sky streaked with tears.

“It depends on what I am feeling at the time,’’ she admitted.

“That was a theme that came through in my father’s painting too. The loneliness and quiet – that’s for me too. I enjoy being alone. I definitely seek solitude but it is really funny because I really enjoy being social in my studio too. However, if I have to do work on something, I have to do it on my own.’’

TIWAI POINT

Tiwai Point (30 x 90 cm acrylic on canvas, $2200)

Tiwai Point emerged after she took a trip in her house truck to Bluff and stayed at an old school, now converted into a camping ground.

“The outlook was really neat, at Tiwai Point, with the big ships coming in and out. That just stuck in my mind. It just sits with me and I let it percolate. I may take photos or draw thumbnails and it is artistic licence. I just make it up. But with Tiwai PointI did a thumbnail for reference because I enjoyed it so much.’’

Travelling is in Rachel’s soul. She grew up in Auckland, went to high school in Australia for a while, worked in Auckland then travelled, before going to Japan with her husband for a full immersion in Japanese culture and language.

At 28, newly single, she returned to New Zealand, eventually deciding to study art history and religious studies at Otago University, before heading overseas again, travelling in South America and living in Mexico for a while.

 

OTAGO PIONEER

Otago Pioneer (25 x 50 cm acrylic on canvas, $850)

Rachel settled into her Cromwell cottage in 2000 and chose the front room, with its big windows, high ceiling and great fireplace, as her studio.

She has renovated her laundry so she can do metal work and brazing there, and created  a sculpture garden, which is open to the public in the summer.

After a six week trip to Bolivia a few years ago, Rachel now feels quite content to explore New Zealand in her house truck.

“I started out with an old Ford Econovan, and old ex-rental but I decided I wanted something bigger. So I’ve got a four berth truck, you can sleep over the cab, it’s got solar panels, a TV, and I’ve had a wee fire put in.’’

She will jump in her truck and head up to Poolburn Dam or over to the West Coast spending several nights in one place to absorb the environment and get a feeling about a painting.

At the beginning of last year, Rachel took part in an Avis rental car travel advert series, The Art of Discovery, which resulted in her being filmed for a week at home and in some of Rachel’s favourite southern locations.

The film crew then bought three paintings and flew Rachel to Sydney, where the works were auctioned for charity.

 

AT HOME WITH RACHEL HIRABAYASHI

At home in Rachel's Cromwell studio.

As soon as New Zealand’s pandemic lockdown lifted in May, Rachel was off travelling the country again, spending a couple of beautiful sunny weeks on the West Coast.

But what was there to greet her on the way home, just as she came around The Neck between Lakes Wanaka and Hawea?

“Oh dear. I got to the lookout at Lake Hawea and it was all in mist. I couldn’t see a thing!”

By Lyz Dozzi
18 July 2020

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