A life sentence, in instalments
Being criminal is a selfish life, says artist Simon Kerr, the former leader of the notorious Hole in the Wall gang that cracked safes and ripped ATMs out of walls during a year-long crime spree in the 1990s.
“I lost a lot. Being an artist is more selfish. It's more self-absorbing.”
Having developed his creative talent for painting while in prison, Kerr now paints full-time. An exhibition of his paintings opens at Miharo Gallery tomorrow night.
“I was floating around, painting at Waima and Tokomaru Bay and walked in,” he says.
“(Miharo owners) Rosie and Hera want people to have an opportunity. That was a real head-butt. They gave me this opportunity. They're focused on the art and what they can do for people.”
Kerr paints in a naive style that brings to mind the raw energy of Jean-Michel Basquiat's graffiti art, New Zealand artist Nigel Brown's solidly black-outlined figures, and even in at least one work in the Miharo show, the muted light of Star Gossage's paintings.
But Kerr generally does not look at other artists' work, and his nomadic lifestyle means he doesn't own paintings by other artists.
“I want to make my own mistakes,” he says.
“I just love to paint.”
He embraces the term naive to describe outsider art.
“I don't mind the term. I'm not a technician. I have great respect for artists and technicians but for me, I want to be untrained completely. I don't want to do anything that's not self-discovered. It's not an arrogance. It's a way.
“I'm f....n humbled my paintings are selling.
“People will say, ‘Look, is he a painter or is he a story-teller?'' All I know is people say ‘without your backstory, are you a painter?'
“I have that backstory. That's my sketchbook. No one can take that from me.
“I don't think there's any particular reason — I like bright pastels. I'm not good at explaining this stuff.
Because so many people have trained to be artists he hesitates to called himself one. He's just happy if people wake up in the morning and see a piece of his work on the wall and like it, he says.
In a 2017 Stuff story, Sarah Catherall says Kerr's lightbulb moment came in 2013, while he was serving a 6½ year jail term at the Northland Region Corrections Facility for breaking into an ATM machine.
“During a lock-down, he went into the art room and asked if he could paint something but was told there were no spare canvases. He found an old board and the tutor said he could use it. Furious and angry, he began painting a Ned Kelly, writing on it: ‘This is just what my life is'.”
Asked about the Ned Kelly motif — which inevitably invokes the work of Australian outsider artist Sidney Nolan — Kerr says he did a lot of solitary when he was young.
“You were allowed two books. One had to be the Bible. Books were supposed to be screened. Screws would give me books on Ned Kelly and Jesse James.”
He didn't give up crime because he feared the consequences, he says. He gave it up for his passion for painting.
“Inside me is the creative thing. I love to paint. I was even creative as a criminal. The hole in the wall gang was tagged with being creative.
“I did 18 years (inside) after a 35 year long career. Not all at once. It was a life sentence in instalments.”
Now he is free, and painting full-time, he is not based anywhere, he says.
“I'm a New Zealander, I don't belong anywhere.
“I've always been an outlaw. I don't own any paintings I'm so nomadic.
Kerr makes it clear the life of the outlaw is different from that of the criminal. Those years are behind him.
Now, his life is all about painting, painting, painting.
He doesn't even sketch an idea before he commits it to canvas.
“I pick up the brush, I pray, then I paint. I ask that painting to come to me. I know that sounds rich to other people.”
He has no religious affiliation, but he believes in God, he says. So there's calling on a higher power, one that accords with his own lights, of course, then there's pure, bloody, doggedness.
“There's a saying ‘go hard or go home'. To me, it's ‘go hard, go hard till you haven't got a home to go to'. You have to give it your all or it's not going to work. I'd still be robbing banks if I wasn't doing this.
“Painting is my home. I lost everything else.”