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Observation + imagination

Works of imagination, works of observation and the spillover of painting into his bespoke furniture designs — Wairoa artist Chris Wilson’s oeuvre is nothing if not eclectic.

“I like the variety,” he says.

“I like working with wood and I like working with paint.”

A selection of Wilson’s paintings and furniture from 1978 to the present are now on show in his Painting and Furniture Exhibition at Wairoa Museum.

He hesitates to call the selection a retrospective.

“I felt you have to be dead for that. This is a representative show with an overlap of furniture and painting.”

Having begun his furniture-making trajectory with a commissioned work, a chair, he went on to make hundreds of chairs, he says.

“When I started making chairs in the ‘80s, what was in New Zealand then wasn’t good and cheap chairs designed in Italy became available. With my early chairs, I was finding my way.”

Over time, each set of chairs evolved but these days he is more interested in creating one-off works as “kind of collector pieces”.

He studied fine art for a year and part of his study involved the history of design.

“I love the design process and I love modernism in which form follows function but I’m not opposed to bringing colour and sculpture into my pieces.

'It’s the Arts and Crafts movement idea mixed with modernism'

“My pieces are solidly made. It’s the Arts and Crafts movement idea mixed with modernism.”

An international trend in the decorative and fine arts that began in the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement began as a reaction to what was seen as a decline in the decorative arts.

Wilson focuses on the practical, well-made, and aesthetically-pleasing works.

“I can use driftwood but I also use plywood. I don’t care what the material is. With driftwood I know what I’m looking for. I can find things with compound curves in them.”

He does not create the rickety driftwood furniture often seen on beach-homes’ back lawns but uses only a part of the driftwood he has sought.

Wilson’s Painting and Furniture Exhibition includes oil paintings as well as a collection of pen and watercolour works Wilson produced over two years as he made a living as a street artist in Europe in the 1980s.

He began in Crete, wintered in England and restarted back in spring in Crete. The life of the street artist was never going to be free of misadventure: he was robbed in Italy.

But he also painted — and was not robbed — in Ireland, Portugal, Turkey and Amsterdam.

Drawing and painting scenes from the street is immediate, says Wilson. The use of watercolour, too, is a suitably immediate medium to work in and it’s portable.

“What appealed to me were the intimate scenarios of narrow streets, very different from New Zealand. I didn’t realise how you could do it as an observation on a daily basis, sell it and do another one.”

Marketing involved putting down a mat on the footpath and selling his paintings in the street, occasionally reluctantly.

“Sometimes you’d think a work is too good to let go,” he says.

He produced a series of pen and watercolour paintings and had them commercially printed into calendars and sold them on the street too. If there had been a door on the pavement, the calendars would have flown out of it, they sold so fast. He sold about 100 a day.

“In a way, that’s the story behind the paintings in the exhibition. Because I did so well with the line drawings I could save some of the paintings because I didn’t need to sell them.”

Chris Wilson — Painting and Furniture Exhibition, Wairoa Museum, until September 4. Winter hours are Tues-Fri 10am-2pm.

THE WORLD IN WAIROA: An eclectic selection of works, including curved furniture pieces created from materials as diverse as plywood and driftwood, complement watercolours painted in various overseas city streets, oils and acrylics from a career that spans four decades in Wairoa artist Chris Wilson’s painting and furniture exhibition. Pictures supplied