Interview by Isabel Gilbert Palmer, Whitianga, May 2024

Raewyn Helms-Davis’s Art Loft is wedged into the corner garden of her home in central Whitianga. An address she has had since 2014, when she moved from Auckland to focus on her work as a full-time artist.

Definitely. I love the feel of pastels, the sandy fine grainy feeling, the texture of them on my fingers. They are almost a living medium, made from pure, finely ground pigment that’s held together by a minimum amount of binder. It’s a specialised process where the pastels are pressed with water and then shaped to dry. The colour variations and hues and tones are beautiful to work with. I’m very hands-on with blending the colours so it can be a messy business sometimes. I use a combination of soft pastels and sharpened pencil pastels for the detailed work.

The choice of paper determines the outcome of the work completely… it’s as important as the colours you are going to put on it. It’s all about the colour and texture of the paper and I use different paper for different effects. I’d have to say that Colourfix pastel paper is what I use mostly…it’s a bit like fine, prettier sandpaper which holds the pigment in place.

Yes, I do. My portraits aim to tell a lot more about the subject than what they look like. There is a kaupapa behind the work and behind the subject, and the visual clues will give us a lot information or make us question and want to know more.

Yes, it is an honour that someone trusts me to make a portrait of them. I hold great respect for the spirit of the subject and allow this to emerge in the work as well as getting a feel for expression and character. Even though it’s up to me to interpret their qualities and incorporate everything into the design of the portrait, it’s a collaborative process right up to when I begin the painting. I like to think the paintings have their own mana at the end.

I think I was destined to become a portrait artist, even when I was quite young. But my training and career was in Graphic Design for a long time before I became a full-time artist. I eventually began working from home while my son was little, specialising in commission portraits of children… before people had cameras on their phones to photograph their kids! This was a lovely period in my life and it gave me ample experience in developing my technique using pastels. I’ve never had lessons myself, just learned by doing. I also taught myself how to use oils then too, to paint coastal rock faces that we’d discover on our trips to the Coromandel.

My first exhibition was at the Church in Hahei, actually, and then at Fishers Fine Arts in Auckland. John Fisher was a wonderful person who imparted some very valuable advice which improved my painting a lot at the time.

Being a member of the Mercury Bay Art Escape has been a constant since before I actually came to live here, and it’s provided an awesome vehicle to keep me on track with incentive. Not to mention being part of a dynamic group of artists working in all sorts of different mediums.

No, I don’t work with the perceived artist sessions of hours and hours of someone sitting patiently while I paint. But I do spend hours walking, talking together, exploring their environment and taking photos. Usually the idea for the portrait comes from our first meeting and then I might need to take more specific reference photos later.

I’ve always liked making portraits of Maori and in 2011 I approached Pita Sharples to suggest the idea of a portrait specifically to enter into the 2012 Adam Awards. It was a big step for me at the time … but he was humbled by the idea and agreed to a meeting for photographs at his marae in Auckland. It was the hugest honour, and fortunately he liked the finished portrait and it did make it to the finalist’s exhibition. This year’s entry, a portrait of artist Fiona Pardington, is my fifth to be a finalist in this event.

I’m working now on the fourth painting in my portrait project “The Modern Face of Ngai Tahu”. This artwork is about Dr Kelly Tikao and her connection to whanau and to her Onuku Marae out on the Akaroa Peninsula, this place that she loves. Kelly is a kaiwhakaako and Senior lecturer at Otago University, a post graduate in Nursing and Maori Indigenous Health Innovation, and also mother of five tamariki. A beautiful person with a lot of energy.

It was a great adventure travelling out there for our photo shoot, with those gigantic hills and windy roads, very much like the Coromandel. This project has become a journey to new places where I have whakapapa and whanau I am just discovering.

Besides the American pastel artist Georgia O’Keefe, the paintings of Goldie and Gottfried Lindeaur are always the first paintings I head to at the Auckland Art Gallery. Regardless of whether they are fashionable or not in the context of the New Zealand art world they are an immensely important part of our culture in the recording of Maori identity and custom. I love Goldie’s paintings especially for their integrity to his style. He had such respect for his subjects and a genuine interest in Maori culture.

I was visiting the exhibition of Lindeaur’s Maori Portraits when it returned to

Auckland from San Francisco in 2018. I started to think about Lindauer’s formality, which was quite Eurocentric (circa late 1800s early 1900s) in the representation of his subjects, how he arranged and adorned them, but with little other information about their tangata whenua. In this particular exhibition of his work I noticed that there were no representatives from Ngai Tahu – which seemed strange considering that Lindeaur lived in the south for a time and that Ngai Tahu is the largest iwi in Te Waipounamu. I have discovered that Lindeaur did paint two Ngai Tahu subjects during his career, but a century later I decided to fill in some gaps with this kaupapa “The Modern Face of Ngai Tahu”.

From when I first decided to apply to Creative NZ for support to work on the project, it took two years before I was eventually successful with my ideas, planning, and objectives. Stage one of the project actually began in 2021 with the completion of my first portrait in the series, and the fourth is the one on my easel now. I will be taking time after this to research the next four subjects for the second stage of the project, and then stage three will be an exhibition of the work in 2026, all going well.

Yes happily, thanks to Creative New Zealand for their support, but it is a challenging mahi I have set for myself.

My sharpening scalpel… it travels with me everywhere.

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