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National Portrait: Piera McArthur, the accidental artist

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“Painting is indeed a juggling act with mind, heart and eye involved.  It is the realm of the unexpected, field of anguish, summit of intense thrill. The painter is in wondrous evolution”.  Piera McArthur, Declaration, 2013.

“The painting can take over,” Piera McArthur says in her sunlit Wellington studio. “Marvellous accidents can happen.” 

Adjoining her home, the studio is where I met McArthur over several cups of tea. The studio walls are festooned with “marvellous accidents”: explosions of colour; humorous and captivating, utterly original. 

Befitting a well-read and widely travelled woman, topics and settings vary wildly, defying easy characterisation. Ingenuous renderings of memory, personal and historical, filtered through a daring, singular imagination. Moments, each of them, vivid but fleeting, captured mid-flight. “Something can be not moving,” she says, “but still give out energy”.  

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* An artist driven to paint
* Painter honoured with ONZM

This ebullience, of artist and art, is infectious. I find myself leaving her presence with a bounce in my step.

Ultimately, according to her youngest son, Paul, his mother’s work is first and foremost “about the magic of paint”. 

Piera McArthur preparing work for an exhibition in 2012.

MAARTEN HOLL/STUFF

Piera McArthur preparing work for an exhibition in 2012.

Having been a teacher and, for many years, a diplomatic spouse, McArthur, now 90, she sees no need to slow down. “The purpose of one’s existence,” she says, “is to find the next wonderful thing, and I’ll never stop looking.”  

“Piera’s work is the precise, definite opposite of mediocrity,” says novelist Alan Duff, who first came across McArthur’s work when they both lived in Hawke’s Bay. When he praises her “cheerful optimism”, Duff, eager to stress he’s not an art critic, acknowledges this falls outside what is often taken as great New Zealand art, more often gloomy and guilt-laden.

“Piera is an extraordinary woman with amazing energy. I can’t look at her work without finding new meaning each time.”  

Another admirer is former arts minister Chris Finlayson, who also notes McArthur’s “unwillingness to play along with the bleak style of much of New Zealand’s visual arts”. He first met her when he commissioned a painting of Palace Square in St Petersburg, which takes pride of place in the master bedroom, so it is the first thing he sees in the morning. 

Finlayson, wearing his other ministerial hat, commissioned further work from McArthur to commemorate the signing of the Treaty settlement with Ngāi Tūhoe, now on permanent display at the iwi’s headquarters in Tāneatua.  

MEMORIES OF FOGHORNS

From her childhood home in Ramsgate, Kent, McArthur recalls the sound of foghorns warning ships not to run aground on the Goodwin Sands, a sandbank off the coast of southeast England, made famous in Shakespeare’s King John

“Dad used to lift us up on the balcony so that we could see ships going down the channel and see the faint line of France – he wasn’t terribly interested in France,  but he used to say, ‘See that ship? It’s going out to New Zealand and one of these days I’ll be taking you out there and then you’ll see the bush.’ “

She laughs as she recalls how she thought he meant one particular bush: “I think I was probably quite disappointed when it turned out to be this straggling mass of damp-smelling ferns. 

"Piera is an extraordinary woman with amazing energy," says author Alan Duff. "I can't look at her work without finding new meaning each time."

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF

“Piera is an extraordinary woman with amazing energy,” says author Alan Duff. “I can’t look at her work without finding new meaning each time.”

“My father was a surgeon and physician. He was tremendously in love with my mother, so it was a very, very happy growing up. I remember things like wiggling my toes to feel the crinkle of Christmas paper at the end of the bed.” 

Her grandfather, CJ Monro, brought rugby to New Zealand. His father had served as Speaker of the House in the 1880s, under the government of Sir William Fox. Before emigrating to New Zealand, the Monros were “part of a very illustrious family of medical people going right back into the 17th-century in Scotland”.

“I had my eighth birthday on the boat [to New Zealand], and we first went to Palmerston North. We spent what seemed to be an eternity there – probably about six or seven weeks – while my father decided where he wanted to practise, and he ultimately settled in a funny little place called Feilding.” 

After a stint at the local primary school, she moved to the Feilding Convent. “It was run by the Sisters of St Joseph. And I loved it in a way, but we were always looked at a little bit askance because my mother didn’t take much notice of not being able to eat meat on a Friday.

“So she gave us what was there for lunch. And she was a bit scornful for uniforms; if I needed socks, I’d make do with my brother’s socks. 

“My mother was really quite something. She was tremendously loving. Tremendously good fun. Tremendously loyal to us. I absolutely adored her. She had been at a finishing school in Lugano, and there she learned all sorts of things about painting, history of art and those sort of things. 

“It was time to go off to secondary school. I was sent to what was then the Sacred Heart Convent in Wellington [now Erskine], where we were reviled as being snobs. We didn’t know why.

“It was a very European establishment. There were old French nuns there still.” Having had a French “kind of friend, kind of governess” as a child, McArthur has native fluency in the language and pursued it throughout her secondary and university career.  

“My mother took very great care of our development. I remember going to an art school in Ramsgate on Saturdays, dancing classes, all sorts of things. But I always loved to draw.

“I was very, very happy at school. Certainly not maths and algebra but I was just delighted with everything else. I must have been an ideal student to teach because I loved it.”  

Uncommonly for a girl at the time, she won a keenly contested scholarship to university, which she remembers causing “quite a stir of excitement in the Catholic school world”.

Piera McArthur preparing to launch an exhibition and book about Bishop Pompallier in 2013.

Jason Oxenham/Stuff

Piera McArthur preparing to launch an exhibition and book about Bishop Pompallier in 2013.

MOVING IN DIPLOMATIC CIRCLES

“I can remember Dad on his hands and knees in the bunny grass at Waikanae where we were on holiday, going through the scholarship results in the paper and being beside himself with delight that I was there. I was thrilled, too. You bet I was.”  

At Victoria University, she met her husband, John, another brilliant scholar and linguist, by then en route to becoming a senior New Zealand diplomat. “We met and started a wonderful life of being in all sorts of places in the world.”

John McArthur’s storied career took the couple to Paris, where he twice served as ambassador; Brussels; the UN in New York; Santiago; and Moscow. He was ambassador to the Holy See through three popes.

The couple witnessed momentous events – in Chile, the coup that propelled the dictator Augusto Pinochet to power; in Moscow, the glasnost and perestroika reforms that presaged the end of the Soviet Union. “We always felt safe, even if there was great suffering around us,” she recalls. 

An exhibition of her paintings in Soviet-era Moscow met with a rapturous response, although not, she remembers, from US diplomats. “I don’t think they approved.”

The Journal of Soviet Culture had no such qualms, praising McArthur as “this marvellous painter from New Zealand” creating works that are “vibrating, breathing, trembling”. 

Amid their globetrotting, Piera and John raised six children, a task she remembers only with happiness. “I was touched that, later in life, one of my sons told me that home was always a good place.”

As I prepare to leave, McArthur is excited to show me some early drawings of what comes next.

“I’m a very genuine searcher for what might open the next miraculous door on to this thing you hadn’t thought of before.

“An image? A thought? It could be. I can’t tell you till I get there.”

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