Back in February, South Sea Spray saw a collection of Aotearoa’s finest urban artists congregate in Bluff. As one might expect, the outcome was an array of stunning works produced around the Southern town. We were lucky enough to get our hands on pictures courtesy of photographer Brian ‘Rowee’ Rowe, with permission from the festival organisers – so, in case you can’t make it down to the glorious South, here is our latest postcard…
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Mr G has had an adventurous few years to put it mildly. His monumental portraits, such as his Prince tribute in Minnesota, and his depiction of Kiwi hoops icon Steven Adams in Oklahoma, have raised his global profile. While his 100 Portraits project has seen him paint up and down New Zealand (including a stunning portrait on a vertical cliff face). His refined style has adorned surfaces in an array of locations far outside the normal resume of a New Zealand mural artist. He was recently commissioned to paint a large portrait of Kiwis (the New Zealand Rugby League team) coach David Kidwell here in Christchurch, building excitement for the Rugby League World Cup by honouring a local lad ‘done good’, while also adding to the city’s collection of murals. The work illustrates Mr G’s dazzling technique, and his ability to imbue a sense of personality in his subject’s likeness. Kidwell’s portrait exudes a warmth, even as the grey-scale palette perfectly plays off the exposed concrete surface. We caught up with Mr G at the site of this new work, the intersection of High Street and Tuam Street, to chat about the mural, his technical approach and his connection with the communities in which he paints.
RW: So Mr G, first things first, how are the Kiwis going to fare in the Rugby League World Cup?
Mr G: (Laughs) Yeah, you know, I’ve always backed them and stuff bro, and I guess for me I’ve kind of been a league fan off and on throughout my life. I played league for a bit when I was in Intermediate in Kawerau, for the Kawerau Raiders. There was a period there where I was a full-on follower. I’ve just come back from Sydney as well, living there for 5 years, and you know, it’s like a religion over there…
Especially in Sydney right?
Yeah, I followed the Doggies (the Canterbury Bulldogs club) over there, and I have done some work for them, and the Wests Tigers as well. Friday nights were pretty customary to stay home and watch the games!
Well, after such a controversial build up, the Kiwis made a good start last night anyway against Samoa… [The rest of the tournament did not bode so well, but that’s another story…]
Yeah, it was a good game!
But let’s get back to the main reason we are chatting, you are here in Christchurch painting this tribute mural to the coach of the Kiwis David Kidwell, how did that come about?
I got approached by ChristchurchNZ, they were looking at doing something quite unique to help as an activation for the Rugby League World Cup. They were aware of what I’ve done in the past and stuff and so they approached me. I’m pretty fussy when it comes to doing any kind of commercial gigs and all that, they need to align true to what I’m about as well, and who I am as a person. I’m all about supporting people that I respect, so I though, I’m keen for that. It’s a good opportunity for me.
And this is the only piece being painted? There are no other murals being painted around New Zealand for the World Cup?
Yeah, it’s just this one.
Being quite particular with commercial works, I would suggest that after the last couple of years and the amazing projects you’ve been able to undertake, you now have the profile where you can be a bit more selective, or has that always been something that you’ve been careful about?
Yeah, I guess for me, I’ve chipped away at it to a point where I’m able to do that you know. I’m grateful for that. But obviously its hard work and all that, but as an artist you know, for me, I’m always just trying to keep my work honest, and authentic and as a reflection of what I’m about really. I kind of filter any jobs or enquiries that come through, through that filter first man, and just go from there.
I read recently that you don’t necessarily agree with your work being pigeon-holed within the term ‘street art’. For me, I think your work is indicative of the contemporary mural renaissance that is going on around the world, which should be acknowledged as providing a different context to the complicated narratives of ‘street art’, would you agree? I mean obviously artists are always wary of being placed within restrictive definitions, but the muralism movement provides some breathing room, do you see yourself more as part of that emergence?
Yeah, for sure man, but the thing is I’ve got a body of work that I’ve been chipping away at on the downlow really for a while, that as an artist I feel is, you know, an accurate representation of what I’m about. So you know I’m getting into whakairo, which is Maori carving, and incorporating some of those elements that aren’t anything to do with street art. You know, actually my background is strong drawing and portraiture and you know, I’ve done a lot of acrylic painting, and a lot of canvas work prior to doing street art per se, but the thing is with the street art medium and the scale and you know I guess the way everything’s heading right now, it just gets everyone’s attention and just because you’re holding a spray can people think, oh wow, you’re a cool funky street artist! I don’t get caught up in all that man. For me I prefer to paint in really remote rural locations, where no-one’s around, it’s just cows and just peace and quiet and just me and the wall.
That’s something I’d like to come back to actually, but first I wanted to ask, because you mentioned your multi-disciplinary background, obviously people recognise how refined your aerosol technique is, is it almost like drawing now with a spray can for you? It certainly looks like it is…
Yeah, for sure, it’s the same approach you know, for me drawing is the foundation. Like there are a few street artists out there that sometimes I think they think the work that I do I’ve got like one secret trick that just makes it look really cool. But the reality is that it is just a lot of drawing, a lot of sketching and understanding principles like value, form, shading, lighting, all that sort of stuff, you know chroma, which comes into play with lighting, and how that effects realism in general, and all that sort of stuff man. If you have a well-rounded holistic understanding of all that stuff, I guarantee that will take your game to the next level, when it comes to photo realism anyway. I’m always learning, I’m always studying different artists’ approaches, learning from some of the old school masters and all that…
Do you find that there is always something to pick up regardless of the medium, that there is always something to explore in other artists’ diverse approaches?
One thing I’ve always appreciated with the spray can, much like with a pen or a brush, or a pencil I guess, is that it is an extension of the body. When you’re working at that larger scale as well, do you find that it is a important to actually be in tune physically to be able to paint a work…
Yeah, absolutely, for sure man. You know, for me using cans, sometimes I feel like a little kid with crayons, because you’ve got a fixed palette, you can’t really mix colours with the freedom of oil painting, but it is quite playful in a sense for me as well.
When you are up on a scissor lift, you’ve got that time to think a lot, you must be reflecting a lot about how you are going about your process…
For sure, I think for me the learning is in the doing, with all this stuff, or with life in general really, the learning is always in the doing. You can only read text books so much, or whatever, or tutorials. But yeah, it’s like, it might just be little things but the learning is in the doing man.
In some ways, that relates back to the urban art movement, which is very much a DIY movement right? It’s not about being shown something in a class room first, it is about being out there and doing it. But then it sounds like your learnings come from lots of disparate places, which I feel is really valuable.
One of the things I have noticed, on your social media posts in particular, is how much you engage with the communities in which you work. There always seem to be group photos of you with members of these communities. It seems like I’m always seeing photos of you involved in different things, like I saw you tasting oysters down in Bluff!
That obviously is really important for you, and is that…
Yeah, tasting oysters is really important!
(Laughs) How has that become more and more a part of your working process? I would suggest you need a certain profile to be able to do that, although social media helps with that, but is that social engagement something that has slowly evolved to become really important and central, or has it always been there…
For the community side of things my wife and I, our hearts have always been involved in community work, in some way, shape or form. When we first got married, which was sixteen years ago, we were youth pastors, so we’ve done a lot of street outreach and stuff. When we were in Sydney we would help feed the homeless in Parramatta. We believe, well we don’t believe, we know bro, through experience that there’s just a lot of hurting people in this world, and we’ve been through stuff as well, and so we’re able to connect with people, especially in smaller towns. I was brought up in Kawerau bro, where the population’s 5000 people, and it has had a bad rap for most of the last twenty, thirty years. My wife was brought up in Te Puke. We love people, and that’s a genuine aroha for people in general I guess, and I think it is just a natural overflow of who I am as a person, the type of person I am you know, they’ve got to be mingled and intertwined with art in some way shape of form, and my art making as well.
That portraiture is such a central theme in your work (obviously not the only theme, but a key theme) reflects that as well, right?
Oh yeah, portraiture can touch people’s hearts in a way that nothing else can really, you know, because you’re representing a person’s life and story. In some moments its been very powerful, you know, I painted one in Ruatoria, of Moana-nui-a-kiwa Ngarimu, he actually received a Victoria Cross, for his service in the Maori Battalion in World War Two. I painted his portrait on his homestead in Ruatoria, and his family were just so honoured and overwhelmed. Ruatoria is a small place, so yeah, the family just came together, they put on a big feed for me as well, sang a few waiata, gave me a koha as a gift. I was overwhelmed bro, deeply touched, and for me that’s the stuff that does it for me, using my art to touch people’s hearts in a real way. I don’t care if no-one knows about that stuff but it’s just very meaningful.
Coming back to the point that you brought up earlier, specifically the opportunities you have to paint in smaller, rural townships, do you feel the difference in terms of the relationship to place when you are painting in those types of areas, as opposed to an urban space like Christchurch? Is it quite a marked difference?
I guess for me, a lot of the small towns in New Zealand, they feel kind of left out, you know, by a lot of big gigs, or events and stuff, so you know, they get me rocking up there, painting a Farmlands mural and they treat like I’m a big celebrity or something you know, and it’s quite funny! But it’s beautiful bro, I love connecting with the young kids who like getting you to sign their scooters and all that. When I was in Paeroa, I signed an old lady’s walker, so you know, there are so many stories, there are so many characters you come across. I think for me, my type of art is a real adventure, like the cliff stuff (Mr G painted a vertical cliff face in Parawera near Te Awamutu) as part of painting a hundred portraits around New Zealand (Mr G is painting a hundred New Zealand portrait murals around New Zealand with the intention of producing a book documenting the experience and works), it’s all part of the adventure of what I do man, it’s not just painting a portrait, it’s the location…
It’s tied into the experience…
Yeah, it’s who it is and how that connects to the people there and all that sort of stuff, so I just try and be purposeful with what I paint and who I paint, and respectful as well.
I know you’ve got the dedication of the mural coming up soon, so to finish, you’ve mentioned you’ve come to Christchurch a few times, but this is the first large scale piece you’ve painted here?
Yeah, my first large scale, decent piece that I’ve done. The last couple I’ve done here were just like free time, play around pieces, so this is the first decent one I’ve been able to do here man. It’s been cool, like given how much Christchurch has been through and is still going through, you know, I guess for me it’s a cool opportunity to be able to come down and paint Kiddy (David Kidwell).
What’s you take on how the city has changed over those visits, and in particular, some of the artwork that has appeared over that time, is there anything that has really captured your attention?
I just love it all man, you know, I think it is great using the art to bring some zest and life back to the city, and encouragement back to the community. Art’s really good at doing that. I think, if the artists and their motive is to do that, then all power to them man and you know it’s a great thing.
It is important to take the time to really understand where you are, which is obviously something that is really important to you, and it’s the mark of the best artists, being able to gain a sensibility of the environment in which their working and embrace that and represent that in their work as well…
I think that is important bro. I think that even for myself, like in Maori culture if you go to another region, you’ve got to acknowledge the land and the people and all that, respectfully, and not just do whatever I want. But, it has been cool here in Christchurch, I’ve had an awesome time meeting everyone as well, and you know a lot of (David Kidwell’s) family and friends as well, so it has been cool.
Thanks so much for your time Mr G, I better let you get to the mural dedication…
As we walked around the corner to the site of the dedication I was witness to a fleeting interaction that exemplified Mr G’s approach. Two rugby league jersey wearing fans wandered into the lot surrounding the mural. Immediately Mr G greeted them, my first impression that he had known them for years, until they asked if he was the artist, to which he replied: “Yeah, I am…”, before formally introducing himself and beginning a conversation. This willingness, indeed eagerness, to engage with people, to make sure both he and his art connect with the audience, a sentiment that rang throughout our conversation, was here evident in his actions, heart-warming proof of Mr G’s attitude and approach.