Piera McArthur has had a long, successful, prolific career as a painter, in New Zealand and overseas. Janet Hughes talked with her about her experience as a woman artist, in the light of a post-suffrage century of change.
Piera McArthur talked with me in her studio, surrounded by paintings and drawings. We set out to reflect on her experience as a woman in the art world. That was the intention, at least, but not the way the conversation was inclined to go.
For Piera, gender issues really do not seem to figure; she says bluntly, ‘There is not a man painter or woman painter – just a good painter or bad painter’. So much for self-identity. I turn to career implications: might simply being female have presented obstacles to acceptance or success? She says that the paintings have sold and continue to sell, and the commissions keep coming, so any gender bias has not hampered her unduly. It probably exists, she agrees, has perhaps touched her – ‘But do you think I care?’
Piera acknowledges that painting took some fitting into her very busy life in the demanding roles of diplomatic wife and mother of six. But she explains these aspects of her life as intertwined: her ‘marvellous’ life a rich source of inspiration, ‘wonderful spectacles’ and opportunities to learn. And the ‘nudge’ towards serious painting, though she had always drawn, came from a diplomatic spouses’ drawing group in Chile in the ‘70s.
As for the fitting in, painting was a ‘love affair,’ and overwhelming imperative; it simply had to be done – after the children were asleep, in whatever space could be adapted. It was a railway shed behind her house in Wellington at one stage. In Moscow she commandeered unused room-space, and covered it in precautionary plastic. In Paris it was a garret, complete with exposed roof lining and tripping hazards. The biography reviewed on p40 includes a photograph of her with ‘significant painter-friend’ Douglas MacDiarmid, in the attic studio above the Residence.
I venture that all this must have taken some determination. Piera acknowledges that she has always had ‘huge’ energy, combined with optimism and an appetite for life and learning. She also speaks of traditional values – hard work, perseverance and duty – that helped to reconcile their demands.
Duty relates obviously enough to family life and diplomatic representation, but Piera talks also about the duty to use the gifts you are given. Gift is a word that resonates through her reflections. She characterises her painting career as ‘a gift from life’, and when I ask what an artist needs to succeed, she replies without hesitation, ‘First of all a gift’ – something that cannot be taught or acquired.
The gift exacts a price, which Piera describes as a fire that will both warm and burn. She is driven, and admits a sense of never having enough time, her huge productivity notwithstanding. She relates it to a larger drive to learn, citing her early experiences in Europe before her family came to New Zealand, academic studies (modern languages, not fine arts) as well as the ‘marvellous life’ of overseas service.
Is ego necessary to the professional painter, I venture to ask. She doesn’t answer this directly, but painting is, on her account, an endless process of exploration and learning. If ego is a driver, it is to be counterbalanced by clear-eyed self-critique. This means knowing what is good and what might be better.
Influences? Of course there are influences, says Piera, gesturing to suggest they are ubiquitous and multifarious. About conscious adoption of particular influences, however, she is dubious. The painter constantly absorbs influences and ‘digests’ them, she says, into something quite other. Her account of the process casts the painter as instrument rather than agent – ‘only a tool of something that goes through you and out from you’. Another aspect of dutiful service to the gift, perhaps.
This also chimes with what she says about the energetic line that dominates much of her work. I remark that it is calligraphic, and she tells me she sees her exuberant linear gestures as ‘subconscious hieroglyphs’, encoding her response to the subject as distinctively as handwriting. She calls my attention to a recent series of paintings forming a book about Bishop Pompallier, with the text in hand-lettered cursive, integrated with the images on the page.
While the ‘hand’ is always distinctive, these paintings show some stylistic departure; another is a series in progress of tiny paintings (her normal scale is large) on the theme Toccata and Fugue, where shifting figures represent the interlaced voices of a fugue. But the constants – figures, loose linear drawing – remain, and the departures are incremental. People have suggested that she ‘should’ push her hieroglyphs towards complete abstraction, but Piera is dismissive of any need to explore radical change.
She would not, should not, could not: she simply ‘pursued what came out of me’. And the task, always, as far as she is concerned, is simply to ‘find the perfect balance between line and colour’. Considerations of career or market forces seem feeble arguments in the face of the imperatives that Piera attends to. At the end of the conversation, we laugh at the extent to which it got away on us. It was as though the paintings just would not let us look away for too long.
First published ArtZone #76