South Magazine January 2020
acknowledgments to the writer Jon Rawlinson and South Magazine
curiouser and curiouser
Time is telling; it provides the opportunity to create but it also gives us stories on which to reflect and from which we can grow. Recently, JON RAWLINSON spoke with an intriguing artist who, in these respects, does not seem prepared to waste a single moment.
Driving up Joanna Fieldes’ driveway in Opaheke, a rabbit shoots across in front of my car. I wonder if (unlike me) he’s running late. Despite having to apply my brakes, I arrive in time for my interview. Looking at her paintings, I’m reminded of Lewis Carroll’s books – there’s something decidedly ‘down the rabbit hole’ or ‘through the looking glass’ about them.
“I don’t know about [taking history] down a rabbit hole! I didn’t have Alice in Wonderland in mind when I started these paintings but people have made that comparison before,” she says.
Although Carroll’s stories may seem like nonsense on the surface, as with Joanna’s work, their lighthearted veneers belie much deeper significance.
“My work is layered and has many levels of meaning,” Joanna explains. “It may have a similar degree of playfulness as Alice in Wonderland but, at the same time, there is an undercurrent of serious issues.”
And, at times, both feature rabbits.
“I have had pieces where rabbits are depicted. Down south, rabbits have taken over. While we all may think of [New Zealand] as ours, but while that thought’s going on,
rabbits have claimed it!”
The 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to Aotearoa may make Joanna’s work more poignant, but she has been creating paintings focused on early interactions between Maori and Pakeha since the early 1990s.
Local settings, such as the Hunua Falls and Manukau Heads, do feature when scenes relate directly to specific events, but most pieces could be set practically anywhere in New Zealand.
People are often depicted as ceramics – from egg cups and canopic jars to Toby jugs. I ask Joanna if this choice suggests that people (and, by extension, their ideas) are fragile, breakable and fallible.
“I suppose you could see it that way, but [the intention is that] people are like containers of the past, of culture, the spirit, mind and body – they are vessels that hold and pass on stories,” she replies. “History does have a lot of facts but also a lot of conjecture and, as with art, we all perceive it differently. I play with history, trying to make it accessible without being offensive. I see my work as a vehicle for telling stories, not to give answers but to ask questions and inspire thought.”
Since growing up in rural Wairarapa, Joanna has been inspired as much by horticulture as history. These days, when not busy painting, she is often found at Auckland Botanic Gardens where she works as a visitors’ services representative.
“Art and horticulture have been with me since I was a child. My parents always encouraged creativity and my mother had a huge garden which was open to the public,” she says. “I work at the gardens five days a fortnight and do a lot of different things from guided walks to answering phones and booking weddings. It does help [supplement my income] and I love horticulture too, so it makes for a nice balance.”
Most of Joanna’s early works were watercolours, but since the early 1990s, she has focused on oils. As oils can be painted over, they allow artists more freedom to change their minds as they work, she explains.
“After having children, I soon realised watercolour wasn’t a good fit because putting down my brush affected the work. Oils are more versatile; they allow the freedom to come and go. This is perfect because I tend to work from a picture in my mind, which can evolve and change. Aside from
that, I love the lusciousness of the finish oils present.”
Exhibited in solo and group shows – one piece was even commissioned for the Japanese Royal family – Joanna’s work has been on show at Papakura Art Gallery on a number of occasions.
Most recently, one of her pieces claimed first prize in the 2019 Franklin Arts Festival printmaking section. Utilising a delicious pun in its title, Meat in the Middle (or Meat and Greet) shows its subjects negotiating rights to ‘the fat of the land’.
“I enjoy printmaking – monoprinting mainly, using a printing press – because it allows me to bring subjects from my paintings back to life and to share them with more people,” Joanna says.
“It was great to be involved in the fest’, especially because it’s local and the only other time I entered was back when it first started. I have entered other competitions over the years but, now, if they can’t include work that’s been shown before, the timing has to be just right.”
Art and history, or when it comes to making a very important date for that matter, all come down to good timing.