Travel & Adventure

Huskies

Growing out of New Zealand’s links to Antarctica and our dependence on huskies for the exploration of the South Pole, dog sledding has transformed into a local sport with a passionate following.

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ISSUE 099

Sep - Oct 2009

Killer virus

Big wave surfing

Cook Islands

Right whales

Huskies

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Society

Cook Islands

Flashes of dazzling colour and swishing grass skirts are the postcard portrait of an exotic South Seas paradise. But behind this romantic image lie traditions pre-dating the earliest European contact, and a calendar of festivals connecting Cook Islanders to their culture.

Profile

Miniature mountains

Sarah Hillary, principal conservator at Auckland Art Gallery, has spent much of her life examining, scrutinising and restoring other people’s paintings. In the process, she has acquired an intimate un­derstanding of the idiosyncratic methods and tech­niques of some of our most regarded artists. Such as Colin McCahon who, for a period, used house paint stiffened with sawdust and whose surfaces, under the microscope, can have a lunar-like quality. Or Rita Angus, whose surfaces Hillary describes as “jewel-like...down to a microscopic level, very tidy”. Or Frances Hodgkins, who constantly modified her work, so that microscopic analysis reveals myriad layers concealed beneath the final image. “I have a cross-section of the Spanish Shrine that shows 23 layers,” says Hillary. In recent years, Hillary has begun to practise as an artist herself, holding her first exhibition in 2003, when she was in her late 40s. “I was of the genera­tion that you were only allowed to do art [at school] if you were in the lower streams. The only way I got into art was after I wrote ‘to hell with Hutton’ on the blackboard and got thrown out of Latin.” Hillary first went to university to study the sci­ences but changed to the arts, graduating with a BA in art history and eventually combining both art and science in a Masters of Applied Science (Conserva­tion of Painting) at the University of Canberra. When she first began to paint herself, she opted for an uncommonly common surface—pipi shells. “They have this wonderful surface. It’s just like ges­so, but in a natural form.” More specifically, for an exhibition last year, she painted mountains on pipi shells—miniature versions of mountains as they had featured in the background in the works of key mid-20th century New Zealand paintings, particularly those by female artists. She painted, for instance, a diminutive version of the mountain in the back­ground of Rita Angus’ Cass, and the mountain in the background of her watercolour, Tree. She painted the mountains of Rita Lovell-Smith, Doris Lusk and Olivia Spencer-Bower and then named them after the artist—Mt Rita, Mt Doris, Mt Olivia. She de­scribes them as “little peaks”. “In a way they are the mountains of our art history.” Hillary’s approach must have been partly in­formed by her day job, which requires scrupulous attention to the details of 20th-century New Zea­land art. That she chose to paint mountains must also have had something to do with her upbringing, as the daughter of the world’s most famous moun­taineer. “Well, I love mountains,” she says. “I’ve spent a lot of time around them. I like being there. I like paintings of them.” We met in Hillary’s Grey Lynn home, a former worker’s cottage, elegantly and austerely furnished, and unbelievably neat. She brought out a scrapbook made by her great-great-grandmother Ida Fleming, dated 1875, which she inherited after her father’s death last year. Each page could be described as a preserved work of floral art, of decoratively arranged pressed native ferns. As she explains, pteridomania, or fern-fever, gripped Victorian ladies in the late 19th century. Botany was very much in vogue, particularly ferns, not only as a decorative motif but as something that could be pressed prettily into a scrapbook. “I thought the scrapbook was beautiful. I had a great time looking through it. I told my aunt about it, and she said, ‘But Sarah, fresh ferns are much nic­er!’...She’s a botanist.” The scrapbook prompted Hil­lary to paint watercolours of the pressed specimens, which she then mounted beneath the paintings of mountains—“a bushy undergrowth to the snowy peaks”. Clearly she has an inclusive approach to her choice of references, combining New Zealand’s greatest 20th-century artists with her great-great­grandmother’s scrapbook. “It was lovely to have the family connection. And I love this idea that she had just got to New Zealand, from Ireland, and ended up in Dargaville, where she gathered ferns.” At the time of the interview, Hillary was preparing for her exhibition (opening this month at the Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland) called Dragon Ferns, in which she plans to reprise the still life, only with drag­ons, Tibetan ceramics and, as the title suggests, ferns. “In the 19th century, still life was considered the low­est form of art, while idealised forms were considered the highest,” she says. “But I like the way still life is very domestic. I like domestic things... One of the things about still life is that it has all this data about what people found attractive, what they valued.” And while her father is internationally renowned for his grand-scale gestures, the daughter has built her reputation working with the miniature details, of art and life. Did Sir Ed ever actually understand her line of work? “I don’t think he had any idea what I actually do, but was just pleased I did something. But he’d been to art galleries.” She smiles. “He knew what he liked.”

Science & Environment

Deadly cargo

Minute and lethal, the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people in a matter of months. Now it is evolving into new, highly infectious strains—including swine flu—that have scientists fighting to contain them.

Living World

Southern Right Whales

The southern right whales of the Auckland Islands were once reduced to a population that included only 25 mature females. Now numbering more than 1000, their recovery is a testament to the natural resilience of marine mammals and provides hope for the ailing North Atlantic species.

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