Kerrie Hughes came to painting after a brilliant career in fashion design, where she started a number of successful labels in New Zealand and London during the 1980s and 90s. This background has had a profound influence on Hughes’ art practice, from how she began painting to the materials she uses and the way she depicts her homeland in her immersive landscape works.
Your background is in fashion design. When and why did you start painting?
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be an artist, but it seemed an impossible ideal. My career in fashion was the next best thing I could do in my circumstances. I had a show at Pataka Museum with my friend, the milliner Liza Foreman. It consisted of wedding dresses and headdresses framed by painted ‘verdure tapestry’ backdrops. The backdrops were supposed to be painted by a friend who dropped out, so I painted them myself. Back then I just copied tapestries. I planned to use the backdrops later to cover my bedroom walls.
How did this fashion background influence your art practice?
Working in the fashion industry the parts that I loved most were the fashion shoot and the fashion show – creating the scene and telling a visual story through the medium of the model and the clothing. I was creating a garment to frame and enhance the wearer, and there would often be references, symbols embroidered into the garment to create a story. I think this is carried through into the paintings.
I love your immersive green rooms, what are the ideas behind these?
The first tapestry room I painted was our London bedroom. Living in the East End of London, I craved nature. When visiting manor houses in Britain I would sometimes come across tapestry rooms, and very occasionally “painted cloths” which imitated tapestry – a poor man’s version. I was particularly inspired by Eyam Hall in Derbyshire, where the main room was covered with patched-together tapestries. Every so often there would be an upside-down head or hand depicted – it was surreal and random. The rooms gave me conflicting feelings of excitement and serenity. They were thrilling spaces, refuges of idealised nature, private paradises.
You spent 15 years in Britain before returning to New Zealand in 2001. How did this absence influence your upon your return?
During my years in London I absorbed a huge amount of visual material there. I found Britain to be hugely rich and complex, with its multi layers of history and culture and subcultures. When I came back I saw the New Zealand bush as exotic and jungle-like.
This is reflected in your recent works, which explore how your ancestors would have viewed the country on their arrival. Can you tell me a bit more about this?
For the show Saga, Mauriceville Forty Mile Bush, I wanted to present the paintings in the form of a visual saga, a story that is a blend of history and myth or legend. I am depicting the saga of my ancestors who came to New Zealand from the “old world” Zealand in Denmark, to settle in the Forty Mile Bush. They lived in the midst of dense primeval bush, isolated, chopping down the trees in order to create a Nordic village. I see them as Vikings – incongruous, exotic, “wilde folke” in a primordial Eden. I wanted to depict the bush from the perspective of the Danes.
The images of bush are interspersed with patches depicting figures, animals and birds. What do these represent?
The patches depict an animal, bird or character from the Mauriceville saga. Some of the patches show things seen through the cultural imagination of a Dane and projected onto a bird or animal. A tui or huia might become Odin’s messengers Huginn and Muninn, a tuatara might become a small dragon. I have portrayed birds as a “fylgia” (a person’s spirit or guardian in animal form), which can be recognised by its blue eyes. Other patches allude to ancestor worship, for example an offering to my great grandmother of her favourite pansy flower, or a hand holding a red clover, the flower of Denmark, or a queen bee, a symbol of matriarchy.
Why are these symbols separated from the background?
The patch is chosen by the buyer of the painting, and I then stitch it on and paint it into the background to blend in, but in some lights a scar-like effect will be visible, emphasising and framing the subject. The buyer chooses a subject that appeals to or has significance to them, and they could also choose to leave the painting without patches.
What do you feel are the benefits to working on this scale?
The scale of the paintings is large so as to act as an atmospheric backdrop for the people in front of them. They encompass and immerse the viewer in a calming, otherworldly space, like a “green room” or a bower. I see them as portable murals.
These images are painted on hessian – what led you to this material?
I use hessian as I like the rough texture. I sew lengths together to make it large enough to use, sometimes covering holes with patches. The seams give the raised effect of scars that show through the painting. I think of this in terms of the old Scottish meaning of glamour: “an enchantment, an illusion that conceals flaws and distractions”.
Some of your other works incorporate mirrors …
I use mirrors as a glamorous trick or illusion, to increase space and reflect the people in front of the paintings, so that they see themselves as a part of the painting. In the gallery setting it had a kaleidoscopic and patchwork effect as people moved around. I also use mirrors as a lure. They are eye-catching, glittery and attractive. They have a magical quality, a portal to another world. In the show Metaphor Tree at Bowen Galleries, I had a work called ‘Family Tree’. It consisted of a full-length mirror framed by two trees and a connecting branch. At the roots of the trees were the national plants and animals of our ancestry. The fruits of the trees were small mirrors that would reflect back an aspect of an ancestor, a mosaic-like reflection of ancestral genes and traits.
How do you begin a work? Is it planned or more spontaneous?
It will often start with a desire. I see something I love and want and can’t have, so I try to break down the reasons behind the desire, and then make something. In the process of making an object, it becomes imbued with my intentions and soul, for want of a better word. Once I have the desire and idea, I then have to work out how to make it. This becomes a long process of experimentation. The materials I use are cheap or free and this gives me freedom. I like to work with humble materials, back to the word “glamour”. I use a pin board, stick up pictures, words and extracts of writing relating to what I am trying to achieve. I plan the paintings out but I am vague initially, I procrastinate for a time, not knowing how to start, eventually putting in a horizon line, and starting with the first tree trunk.
What are you currently working on?
At present, centre stage of the pin board there is a photo of a huge tree, and sticking into the tree at right angles are planks, and sitting and standing on the planks are Scandinavian bush fellers in the 40 mile bush. The top two men have their axes embedded in the heart of the tree, and on the bottom planks are children. It is a striking and disturbing photo that plays to the back of my mind, reminding me of an African fetish, a savage Viking rite, and a family tree. This is the starting point of my next painting, and at present I am trying to work out how to convey this.
Courtesy the artist and Bowen Galleries, New Zealand.