Every Friday morning, Robyn Hughes heads north across Auckland’s harbour bridge, driving against the bumper-to-bumper traffic that’s inching its way into the city. She doesn’t stop until she reaches the car park of Auckland Prison at Paremoremo about 30 minutes later.
It’s weekly routine the artist has maintained for the last seven years.
Once checked inside the prison, she heads to the educational wing, where, with helper, she sets up classroom. By nine o’clock the inmate students take their places.
Hughes sets the scene for the morning, and without fuss, the room is soon busy hum of men industriously turning lines and colour into meaning.
“I go there with an idea or starting point, something they can develop,” she says, adding that she takes books on art and art history, stories of artists and their work, as background information for the inmates to get inspiration from.
“They’ll then take the idea and push it forward in paint, because that’s the area where my skills are,” she explains, adding that the class also includes wood and bone carvers.
“Along the way, we deal with the conceptual and technical issues as you do with any art student.” At first glance it might be construed that these classes are mornings spent pushing paint around; pleasant way to pass time in an institution of correction. Hughes’ intent is much deeper.
“Encouraging creative thinking is small part of what I do. It’s also about procedure and giving skills in working through processes. We start with the outcome of what they’re doing – do they want to aim for qualification with their art, or collectively do they want to develop an exhibition?
“So we look at their organisational and communication skills, how to manage time, how to fill out forms, how to think about the marketing side, how to take responsibility for following through. These issues are just as important as the work itself.”
A tale of two groups
From Monday to Thursday, Hughes is senior lecturer in print at Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts, and in between times, works from her own central city studio.
She describes her teaching of the two distinct groups as “very rewarding – because it’s such unique contrast”.
Despite the difference in teaching environments, there’s no difference in enthusiasm between the two.
“They’re all pushing for high quality conclusion in their output,” she emphasises.
She’s also found way to let the two groups learn from each other, by arranging for the Elam students to visit the inmate students. “For the past three years I’ve organised for the Elam students to visit Paremoremo and talk about their work, while the Pare students talked about theirs.
“We also got permission for two Paremoremo students to visit Elam, and then the Art Gallery.”
The cross fertilisation in ideas and experience has unique spin off for both groups, she says.
One distinct – and obvious – difference, is the fact that the inmates must work in the one place – the prison classroom, once week. Given the constraints, Hughes is as proud as punch of those students who have passed school certificate in art in the last three years.
“I find that really rewarding, especially when it’s not just pass, but an pass,” she boasts.
The group recently staged its third exhibition of inmate art, and the most successful yet. Many images have strong Pacific commentary, together with three dimensional work by skilled carvers.
“There are very strong cultural connections in the art. Often nostalgic places feature in colour, symbols or imagery very clearly in their works.”
The fact that she has two challenging teaching environments, epitomises Hughes readiness to expose herself to multi-layered career, and to keep stepping out of her comfort zone. Indeed, Hughes’ theme in her own art is about boundaries and transitions – the crossing of one world to another.
Examine Hughes’ painting and look for the arches, the doorways, the entry and exit points, the architectural elements. And like architecture, Hughes’ painting is not tiny experience. Her large canvases are cultural journeys. So it’s fitting then, that her work hangs at the country’s largest gateway, the entrance to Auckland’s International Airport. It’s piece inspired by her regular travel to Italy and return to New Zealand.
It reflects her cultural awareness – the awareness that when we travel out of our usual place, we risk losing our comfort zone as we adapt to new surroundings.
Managing career in art
Hughes caught the art bug in summer school while searching for career. Was she an art prodigy? No such tale she says. Her mother suggested she attend summer school at Elam, led by Colin McCahon, who subsequently encouraged Hughes to pursue her career.
Then she reveals that her grandfather and great grandfather were ornamental and monument stone carvers in North England. Working in stone, bronze and wood, the family business left its mark on lot of Yorkshire architecture.
Hughes’ grandfather subsequently travelled to New Zealand, and worked on the ornamental aspects of Auckland’s Memorial Museum. No wonder then, her work has distinctly architectural feel to it.
After graduating from art school, Hughes taught at James Cook High School for six years, before deciding to focus on her own art. This led her to post-graduate work in the United Kingdom and to spending most of the 1980s travelling between the UK, Canada and Italy.
In Italy, she lectured at the University of Bari, and exhibited at the American Academy in Rome. In Vancouver, she lectured in the department of fine arts at the University of British Columbia, and was on the board of directors of the Printmakers Society there.
It was the experience of total cultural immersion in Italy that started her off on now regular pilgrimage there. “As foreigner in Italy I was very aware of the physical and mental aspects of coming and going – the entry and exit – the situation where you partly fit into something.”
Being stranger in strange land was position she found daunting, challenging, and also rewarding.
So each year she returns to Italy – to property she owns in Bomarzo, village north of Rome, to move outside her comfort zone, visit nearby archaeological sites, observe and soak up old traditions and new experiences.
All of which will be blended with her own culture and captured on canvas as tapestry of diverse source.