Colin McCahon as Colleague and Friend


Thinking back to my impression of Colin McCahon as a colleague and friend, my mind's eye immediately produced a memory image of the first meeting I had with him.

It was a morning in the winter of 1953. I was working as secretary to the director of the Auckland City Art Gallery, Mr Eric Westbrook. A man came into the office and asked if he could see the director. A young, very thin, pale man, with dark eyes - worried eyes - a man who obviously had problems. It was Colin McCahon. He had arrived in Auckland the previous day to take up a job offered to him by the director while on a visit to Christchurch a short time earlier. Wintertime in Christchurch meant that there was not much work offering for gardeners; which was the job Colin was doing for a living at the time. No work meant no money to keep a wife and four healthy children, so what money he had he spent on transporting his family to Auckland to live. The staff at the Auckland City Art Gallery at that time consisted of the director, two office staff and the attendants. As it turned out, contrary to his expectations, there was no specific job waiting for Colin. The director had suggested that Colin should work at the Gallery but I think he did not expect Colin to take him at his word: anyway, not immediately. All that could be offered him was a job as a cleaner! This he agreed to take and started immediately.

Colin found a small summer bach - not nearly big enough, but at least cheap - in French Bay, one of the beautiful bush areas in Titirangi, and he, Anne and the four children settled in. He set about adding to the bach, which was built on a steep hillside among kauri trees, eventually making it into a delightful studio home.

Colin tackled the Gallery job with his usual integrity and soon became a tremendous asset, in that once his official 'duties' were done, he developed avenues of activities never before embarked on. As soon as the Auckland City Council decided that a professional curator was needed, Colin applied for the position and was selected from the other applicants and offered the post. He organised painting classes, encouraged individuals and groups to use the Gallery, and soon had poetry readings, music and drama as regular additions to the Gallery's programme. From the outset he made himself available to painters and sculptors who came to the Gallery seeking advice and practical help and was unstinting of his time and energy in every aspect of art and crafts: this, of course, as well as being responsible with the director for the selection of exhibitions, plus the hanging, packing and care of the temporary exhibitions and the permanent collections.

During all this time he somehow found time to paint and exhibit. Patronage and appreciation came mostly from the South Island where people such as Charles Brasch, Rodney Kennedy, Ron O'Reilly (to name a few collectors of New Zealand painting) and his old art school colleagues, were appreciative of some of the unique qualities of mind and spirit that manifested themselves in Colin's work. These friends, I am sure, sustained Colin at this difficult time because the reception his work received from the Auckland public was usually less than fair; in many cases it was hurtful and insulting.

Gallery visitors familiar with the predominantly nineteenth century European tradition of pretty scenery, galloping horses, ruminating cattle, leading-lady style women and literary based historical subjects were baffled and confused when confronted by Colin's uncompromising, uniquely personal philosophy, his way of painting the New Zealand landscape with Christian theology placed in a New Zealand setting. Unfortunately, they certainly were not speechless, and this led to Colin being subjected to endless interrogations demanding him to 'explain' his work and why he chose to paint the way he did. Eventually, when it could no longer be disputed that Colin's work was important, the adverse criticism died down and his work gained public acclaim and acceptance in the time-honoured tradition of all unique, visionary artists.

In 1964 Colin resigned from the Gallery staff to take up a post as lecturer at the Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. During the years I worked with Colin I enjoyed his stimulating company and I grew to admire his work and respect him for his quality of mind; a generous spirit, creative energy, loving sympathy and positive criticism - the qualities one seeks and hopes for in close friends but rarely finds embodied in one soul.

' . . .For these that you have given me, thanks indeed.' I share in these words by Charles Brasch, from his 1948 poem To Colin McCahon, which was quoted in the Manawatu Art Gallery's catalogue, McCahon: 'Religious' Works 1946-1952. I saw this exhibition in 1975 when it was shown in Auckland at the Barry Lett Galleries. It was one of the most impressive exhibitions I have ever seen and experienced.