John Walsh (b.1954, Te Aitanga a Hauiti / New Zealand Irish) lives and paints on the South Coast of Te-Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. Walsh grew up in Uawa Tolaga Bay, on the East Coast of the North Island, and his painting practice increasingly addresses the devastation of this once idyllic environment, resulting from intensive monoculture pine forestry. “Uawa Tolaga Bay is my home, my mother. My art, landscapes, stories, sensibility, come from roaming these hills, fishing, surfing this coastline. All the micro-environments of eels, whitebait, birds, worms, all obliterated by this profit above all else pine industry.” Walsh’s painting Mana Taiao (2023) acknowledges Mana Taiao Tairāwhiti, the East Coast collective who earlier this year initiated a petition that led to a Ministerial Enquiry into land use and the ongoing devastation of land, waterways, and communities at Tairāwhiti, Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, and Te Wairoa.
Despite little exposure to art in his early years, Walsh discovered a talent for drawing. “But what that meant was totally obscure,” he says. “I didn’t know where that was going to lead to. And no one ever thought that being able to draw could lead you anywhere.” There’s a story the artist tells, about exploring the local garbage dump in Tolaga Bay – where roaming kids regularly unearthed various treasures – and where Walsh found an old suitcase with two well-worn sketchbooks that had belonged to a WWII soldier. “I remember poring through these pads and seeing all these drawings, beautifully crafted. I mean I could draw but that was the first time I felt like I was looking at real art.”
This image of a young Walsh, clambering over mountains of dirt and piles of discarded objects, comes to mind when considering the work Where is the love? A wispy shimmering figure emerges from a mound of gold, running away from something or toward it, we do not know. This ambiguity, the pursuit of the unknown, is something that continually drives the artist’s practice. “I don’t copy figures anymore; they just fall off the brush, or an aspect falls off the brush and I think there’s an eye, and then gradually I can tease it out so that that eye has a particular squint or a look to it, and then I can tease out a particular character around that eye,” says Walsh. “I am chasing that character, and what that character is doing, and then I am off on a journey in that painting.”
Walsh is adept at melding histories of migration and colonialism with contemporary narratives and mythologies in a vivid and fluid application of paint. His work depicts ethereal landscapes populated by marakihau and anthropomorphic creatures alongside a cast of other figures, spirits, and messengers. Within his practice, Walsh’s Māori and Irish ancestry intuitively coalesce. “I absorb it all, I reinterpret all of it”, he says. “I don’t go into a painting with a set idea. I start moving paint around and the whole thing is an adventure. I mean, that’s enough to keep you going isn’t’ it?” Walsh allows the paint – its texture and weight – and his mark-making to lead him. “It’s absolute freedom […] The whole thing is a growing, evolving process.”
Walsh attended Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury for a period and early works saw him create realist portraits of friends and whānau on the East Coast. Following a year spent working on a deep-sea Japanese trawler, Walsh participated in a project in New York in 1989 and upon his return to Aotearoa began working as Exhibitions Officer at the Gisborne Museum and Arts Centre, before eventually relocating to Wellington for the role of Curator of Contemporary Māori Art at the National Art Gallery / Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. He has exhibited widely and The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, The Dowse Art Museum, and Pātaka Art + Museum have all held significant survey exhibitions of his work. Walsh has travelled to China on various residency programmes; Antarctica as a Creative New Zealand /Antarctica New Zealand's artist-in-residence; and to Gallipoli alongside other New Zealand and Australian artists to produce work toward the touring exhibition Your Friend the Enemy.
The above text draws heavily on a recent conversation between the artist and Graeme Douglas for the podcast The Good Oil, which features long format interviews many wonderful New Zealand painters. You can listen here.