F E A T U R E S   S T O R Y 

SELF PORTRAIT: Paul Hutchinson, as he sometimes sees himself. 
Loose ends and small beginnings 
08 JULY 2000

Paul Hutchinson is having his first exhibition in New Plymouth in years. He talks to ROBYN McLEAN about his art and his demons. 

Light floods into Paul Hutchinson's Puniho studio as he lifts a large, unfinished painting on to his easel.

In the corner his wife stands naked with her hands on her hips and a bemused look on her face. From the canvas, her eyes watch his every move.

At the far end of the studio an old wooden chair with faded floral fabric waits for Paul's next "sitter". Paul is particularly passionate about painting portraits and it is here that people sit for hours on end while he captures their essence in his brush strokes.

The name Paul Hutchinson is well known to those familiar with the Taranaki art scene. Married to eccentric artist and Virtual TART webmistress Dale Copeland, they, along with daughter Toby (13), lead a seemingly idyllic life at their tranquil coastal property, just south of Okato. However, three years ago, Paul would have described his life as being far from idyllic. His paintings weren't getting much recognition and he began to feel disillusioned, as if his life was on a downward spiral.

"I got really, really, really depressed and I couldn't see the point in painting anymore. I was having rejection after rejection."

His depression was so serious that he threw down his paint brushes and "gave up".

With his head bowed and eyes fixed on the dusty floor boards, he says he nearly quit completely. But after two years of not painting, he decided he missed it and found himself picking up his brushes once more. "I was frightened to start again because I thought I might be setting myself up for failure, but getting this place inspired me."

"This place" is Paul's new studio. Located in the back garden, the white wooden building was once the Inglewood scout hall.

For years Paul had a makeshift studio inside the house, which he shared with Dale. "But she had so much stuff she was taking over the whole house. It was causing friction between us." They both agreed if Paul was going to return to work, he needed his own space. They were thinking of building a small room when they heard the hall was for sale.

As soon as he laid eyes on it Paul knew it was perfect for his needs, but doubted he'd ever be able to secure it. "We had to put in a tender. We put in a ridiculous one and amazingly it was accepted."

In the middle of the night the studio was put on the back of a truck and relocated to a field of knee-length grass behind the wooden cottage they call home.

A model arrives and takes her place in the wooden chair. He started painting her a few weeks earlier and after the long break seems unsure of how to get going again. Pulling a face he stands back from the canvas and sighs. He glances at the model and then back to the canvas. Nervously he runs his hands through his wild grey hair.

She looks back at him and then casts her eye around the room. Staring back at her is not only his naked wife, but also numerous versions of the man himself: Paul flossing his teeth, Paul holding a piece of bubble wrap in front of his body, Paul hanging upside down. The sitter shifts her body, seemingly turning away from the pairs of eyes gazing at her.

Paul is noted for his self-portraits. "Using yourself as a model is easy because there's no self-consciousness about it. You have total freedom to do what you want and not have to worry about what another person will think."

Born in Yorkshire 42 years ago, Paul Hutchinson still retains a hint of an English accent.

When he was four his family moved to Vancouver Island in Canada. It was here that Paul discovered his love of painting. "I used to watch my father painting with watercolours. Later he taught me to paint and I started to make up landscapes."

Paul never went to art school and says he is proud of the fact that he is self-taught.

In 1974, the then 16-year-old moved to New Plymouth with his family. "I thought it was a terrible place at first. We arrived during a Taranaki downpour, so for the first couple of weeks it was really wet."

It took a long time for Paul to adjust to his new homeland. Painting was still a passion, but instead of painting his new surroundings, his canvases were filled with imaginary English countrysides.

Mollie, a grey-and-white bearded collie, enters the studio and makes her way to a large leather beanbag in the centre of the room.

"She loves having people around," says Paul as he selects another paint brush from a glass jar.

Paul says he never thought it would be possible to paint fulltime. "All I knew was I wanted to use my hands. I tried to get watchmaker's apprenticeships and jeweller's apprenticeships. I ended up at polytech doing an architecture and draughting course."

Struggling to fit in and make friends, Paul dropped out. "I was pretty disturbed, really. I wasn't very social; I didn't make any friends until I was in my 20s."

A brief involvement in the religious cult Children of God forced Paul to take a closer look at his life. "I broke free from them and decided what I really wanted was to be an artist."

Living at home with the support of his parents, he started work.

Asked if he remembers the first painting he sold, an enchanting smile creeps across his face, revealing a perfect set of white (well-flossed) teeth.

"I sold it to a craft shop in Fitzroy. It was a weird one. I had just read Lord of the Rings and was in a fantasy painting phase. It showed a glowing ball in some hands. I got my mother to pose for the hands. She was holding one of those pyrex bowls. It sold, but I don't know where it is now and I'd hate to see it!"

It was around this time that Paul started to socialise with other people involved in the Taranaki art scene. He received encouragement and support from people such as Don Driver, Michael Smither and Tom Kreisler.

"Michael Smither probably gave me the most help and had the most influence over my work."

Paul said his involvement with the Taranaki Artists Co-Operative (TACO) played an important part in his development as an artist. "By forming a co-operative we could help each other promote our art. There was still a fair bit of competition, though."

It was through TACO that Paul met Dale, who is 14 years his senior. "The age difference was a big deal at the time, but it's not such an unusual thing now.

"She was the first person I could talk to; we used to talk for hours. When we found she was pregnant it was great. Looking back it was the happiest time of my life so far."

When they first met, Dale was still working as a teacher but she later quit so she, too, could become a fulltime artist.

Some might think two artists living under the same roof would be creative hell, but Paul says it has worked well.

"I think it would be really hard if we both worked in the same style." But, as it happens, their styles couldn't be more extreme. Dale is an assemblage artist, turning junk into art, while Paul sticks mainly to paint.

Something Paul does struggle with, however, is the fact that Dale, who wasn't a serious artist when he met her, has achieved a lot of recognition in a short space of time. "She's had more success in terms of getting exhibitions and getting taken seriously as an artist."

But things seem to be on the up for softly-spoken Paul. He is currently showing an exhibition at Kina, on Devon St. Aptly titled Loose Ends and Small Beginnings, it is his first New Plymouth exhibition for a number of years.

As the hours tick by, the model appears to get restless. Uncurling her legs from beneath her, she asks if she can stretch out for a minute. Paul apologises, saying he often loses track of time when he paints.

After a few minutes the model settles back into the chair as Paul begins mixing his oils.

Promoting his work to art galleries is something Paul finds difficult. "I'm not pushy enough. I don't have the self-confidence. The artists that are successful are the ones that are good at public relations."

He says while he would love more recognition, he doubts he will get it in his lifetime, though the new show has obviously boosted his confidence and rekindled his passion for painting. "I love painting. I believe that painting has something to say, especially in this computer age where everything is digitised. I want people to appreciate the stillness of paintings. I know when I have been on the computer for ages and then look at a painting, it is like balm to your eyes."

As the afternoon sun sinks into the nearby Tasman, Paul suggests to the model they finish for the day.

"I'm quite pleased with it. Do you want to have a look?" he says, as he puts his brush down.

In the corner, Dale remains still naked, still with her hands on her hips. She'll remain there through the night, and will be there to greet him in the morning, forever captured in time on the linen canvas. *

* Loose Ends and Small Beginnings is at Kina until the end of July.

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All images © Paul Hutchinson.