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'That art guy’

Gisborne artist and retired art teacher Richard Rogers’ exhibition The Sculptured Wall is an eclectic selection of works he has created over a lifetime. He tells Mark Peters about his life in art.

In the 1970s a trio of high school students known as the “arts guys” included Richard Rogers. Made up of John Walsh, the late Daryl File, and Richard, the trio were also members of Gisborne's breakaway arts group, the Flying Moas. Now retired from teaching art, Richard's exhibition The Sculptured Wall at Tairawhiti Museum showcases the huge variety in the work he produced over the decades, and even his own studio space.

Richard has always been associated with the Gisborne visual art scene, and taught art full-time for 40 years at Lytton High School, but says he never consciously decided to be an artist.

“Other people have said ‘you're an artist' and through them I've taken on the mantle.”

He always used to draw as a child though and filled his mum's recipe books with his doodlings, he says.

“But I didn't know what art was until high school which is when I started to get interested.”

Gisborne artists Norman Maclean and Graeme Mudge, who were also art teachers (Graeme, reluctantly, to be fair), galvanised that interest.

“They created a different room from the other classrooms. It was a different space. It was different and they made you think about things in a different way.

“That's where it started . . . but even when I left school I didn't know what the hell I was going to do. It was Norman who suggested teachers' training college.”

Richard majored in art with PE as a secondary subject at Ardmore Teachers' Training College but continued to paint, sculpt and visit museums and galleries wherever he and his family travelled.

Born in Te Karaka and raised on a farm where his father worked as a shepherd, one of Richard's earliest loves was to roam around farms where his family worked. Helping with the stock, hanging out in the sheds during shearing, building huts and eeling were among his favourite pastimes, he says.

“I remember going to Oil Springs at Whatatutu. The machines were still laying around.”

Too young to explore the ironworks' sculptural potential in the manner of American sculptor David Smith who created the Voltri-Bolton series — 25 sculptures from implements found in an abandoned steel mill — the sight of the hulks of big rusting machines made an impact on him, he says. Where Smith created primordial forms from 20th century steel, Richard's sculptures are based more in the mechanics of nature — pods, seeds, the armoured claw of a crab, a Giger-like shell of a stingray. A more organic environment could have something to do with that.

Having been schooled in Te Karaka Primary, Richard later attended Awapuni School. The family lived in Anzac Street which is no more than a kilometre from the sea.

“The thing that impacted me there was the beach. It instilled in me a love of the beach lifestyle. Thank God we didn't have phones with games or parlour machines.”

While at Awapuni School, he had his first carving lesson.

“I remember carving a pou figure and carving the nose inward,” he says.

He began experimenting more and with George Walford as his art teacher at Gisborne Intermediate, he created a Maori pa scene which was reported in the popular pictorial magazine Gisborne Photo News.

He had started surfing, of course, and, in those days this entailed repairs to surfboards and working with fibreglass and foam. He enjoyed the sculptural form of the surfboard. Hanging out at the local surfboard factory with its fibreglass smell and where glassers and shapers crafted the sleek forms by hand was a weekly highlight.

Practicality, working with different materials so they are part of the intended form, is a major part of what it is to be an artist, Richard says.

“Solving the problem requires creative thinking whether you are a painter, sculptor, printmaker or designer. It's just the media and process that varies and the possibilities they might suggest.

“I'm not technically efficient enough, or able to invest the amount of time to make works that are perfect. Having the media talk in your work is part of the process. Being able to decipher how an artist created the painting is one of the joys of viewing work.

“I like seeing how artists work. I go right up close to see the brushwork and how they mix their colours. Getting up close gives you more insight into the artist's technique.”

Now he has retired from teaching, he enjoys watching documentaries about artists.

Living by Makorori Beach, Richard had an art-imitates-life moment there last summer.

“I built a whare with a palm frond roof at the beach. People used it for everything. One day this family of island women and kids sat under it. I was buzzing because it looked so much like a Gauguin painting. I wish I'd got my camera. Hopefully they'll be back next summer.”

Richard reconnected with the Flying Moas when a retrospective of the group's works was held at Tairawhiti Museum two years ago.

“When you're in a group like that you fire each other up. It triggers things when you see a work of art by someone else.

“That's how it was for us.”

THE SOUND OF THE SEA: Gisborne artist and retired art teacher Richard Rogers visits his serenely smiling sculpted head on a bush-clad slope above Makorori Beach. Picture by Dudley L Meadows
AND THIS IS MY PICTURE: Richard Rogers and Paul Evans display the clay plaque they made as students in 1967 that depicts life in a Maori village. Picture from Gisborne Photo News, December 6, 1967

  1. Mary Martin (Tong), Sydney says:

    So sad to hear about the late Daryl File and Graeme Mudge. I sat for one of Graeme’s art classes at the local library. I went to Gisborne Intermediate School with Richard Rogers, Daryl File and Paul Evans. They all were good at art even from such a young age. The Passing of Time . . . and we were so young!