Whitianga artist, Raewyn Helms-Davis, has been highly commended for her painting of Māori master carver, Peter Plumb, in the prestigious Adam Portraiture Award held in Wellington last Wednesday evening.
Raewyn’s work, named “Kahu and the Carver”, was one of five portraits selected for special mention by the judges, Associate Professor Linda Tyler, convenor of Museums and Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland and artist, Karl Maughan.
Winner of the $20,000 first prize was 18-yearold Jessica Gurnsey from Auckland, chosen out of 351 entries nationwide which was whittled down to 45 finalists, with the $2,500 runner-up prize going to Gwyn Hughes from Christchurch
Peter, who carves both pounamu and wood at his Kahu Art studio in Thames, accompanied Raewyn to the award ceremony. “Peter was approached by so many people there who knew he was the subject of the portrait and the judges were very keen to meet him,” said Raewyn.
Raewyn had a highly successful career as graphic designer before returning to her initial passion for painting. But it could all have been very different due to her flair for numbers at high school in Auckland. “I think my parents had me earmarked to be an accountant because I was really good at accountancy and maths at school,” she said. “Then I decided to take art as an extra subject for my school [qualification] and discovered that I really liked that way more, and lost interest in the idea of being an accountant and went completely down the art track in the last two years of high school.”
While her parents were not particularly happy that she had her heart set on being an artist, they compromised and channeled Raewyn into graphic design as a career option, as they realised by that stage she was interested in a more creative kind of career. So accountancy’s loss was the fine art’s gain.
After getting her diploma in graphic design from Auckland Technical Institute, Raewyn got her first job working with children’s book publisher, Wendy Pye, but left after a year to become a freelance designer. She worked for ACP Magazines, including on their flagship Metro Magazine which she said was “a lot of fun”, and was also art director for Air New Zealand’s inflight magazine, through ACP.
In the fullness of time, Wendy Pye asked Raewyn to go back and work for her again on a new magazine and designing children’s books, which she did for about 12 years, becoming the publisher’s senior designer.
Raewyn said that at that time she was focused on her career, but the arrival of her son, Jonathan, was the catalyst for a series of decisions which brought her back to painting, both portraits and landscapes (or more correctly, seascapes or “rockscapes”). “When my son was little, I felt very strongly that I wanted to be working from home, so I arranged to work three days a week for Wendy Pye and two days a week doing portrait work from home, which was a great balance,” she said. “I had made portraits of my son and used these to advertise in a couple of parenting magazines, including Little Treasures which was published by ACP as well and I knew the editor at the time quite well.”
Consequently, Raewyn started getting more and more commissions for portraits, mostly of children which she loved doing, and decided that she wanted to change the balance and work only one or two days a week with Wendy Pye. Eventually this changed again to working fulltime in her new studio at home.
Raewyn also started painting seascapes and rockscapes and sold her first painting through Fishers Fine Arts in Auckland to two doctors visiting from the UK. She also sold a number of her early paintings through the Upstairs Gallery of Fine Art that was situated in Albert Street, Whitianga. “They sold a lot of my paintings at the time to tourists who were [in New Zealand] for the America’s Cup,” she said.
Being partly of Ngāti Tahu descent, Raewyn often painted Māori kuia (elderly women) and felt she wanted to focus on doing some portraits featuring her tribal affiliations. She said that the idea for painting Kahu and the Carver came to her three or four years ago after visiting an exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery of Māori portraits by the artist Gottfreid Lindauer. She noticed that none of the portraits showing at the exhibition featured Ngāti Tahu subjects. She has since discovered, however, that Lindauer did actually create two Ngāti Tahu portraits during his life as an artist in New Zealand.
“I saw Peter’s Plumb’s profile on the Creative New Zealand website,” Raewyn said. “He is of Ngāti Tahu descent and it turns out that we are related through the same ancestry.”
Raewyn said that the process of planning the composition and the design of the portrait involved an enormous amount of work, especially to include the background vegetation and the tall wood carving which was scaled down to fit into the painting.
The portrait also features the all-important kahu, or hawk in English. Hence the name of the work. “The portrait took over six months to complete, it wasn’t a quick sketch,” Raewyn said.
While Raewyn uses pastels for portraits, something that the judges noted was a difficult medium to work with, she uses oils and mixed media for her other paintings.
As well as continuing to paint commission portraits, Raewyn is planning more portraits like Peter’s to form an exhibition down the line. “It could be three or four years further down the track before I finish with a particular project, but that is my aim at this stage,” she said.
Raewyn, whose parents had a property in Hahei when she was young, came to live full time in Whitianga about eight years ago. She has been a member of the Mercury Bay Art Escape for the past 10 years and also belongs to Pastel Artists New Zealand. “I always knew I would live and work eventually in this area because so much of my work has been of the coast on the Coromandel,” she said
Pictured is Whitianga artist, Raewyn Helms-Davis, with Māori master carver, Peter Plumb, at Raewyn’s portrait of Peter that received a special mention at this year’s Adam Portraiture Award.