Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Manawatū artist’s passion for rural NZ inspires career

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Graham Christensen credits his success to the beauty of New Zealand farming scenes and ‘an exceedingly good tutor’.
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On a Manawatū lifestyle block tucked under the Ruahine Range sits an old hay barn converted into a spacious, light-filled art studio. 

Inside that hay barn you’ll find depictions of just about every scene ingrained in the minds of those some way or another involved with rural New Zealand. 

The artist behind these depictions, Graham Christensen, picked up the paintbrush late in life, and fell in love with the craft right away. 

“So some 12 years ago my wife and I were talking about retirement, we were thinking about what we are going to do when we retire,” Christensen said. 

“My wife suggested that I ought to take up painting and I had no idea why because initially I had absolutely no interest. Prior to 12 years ago I really couldn’t care, but she then bought me some vouchers to go to lessons. 

“I gave it a shot, and the tutor must’ve been an exceedingly good tutor and gave me lots of encouragement, and after I finished these lessons I was absolutely obsessed with art.” 

Christensen’s love of NZ’s iconic rural landscapes inspired him to change the trajectory of his art journey. 

After a while Christensen found himself at an important crossroads, having to decide on the focus of his work.

“At some point, probably about six years ago, I started to worry about what I would like to focus on, and another artist said to me, ‘What have you enjoyed most in your life, what do you like doing?’

“Then I said, ‘Well I like farming’. And so he said ‘Paint farming pictures’.” 

“Then it all came to me at that point and I started painting woolsheds and sheep yards and stockmen and the guys leaning on the Cheltenham or Halcombe pub and those sorts of things, which I absolutely enjoyed.”

He traces this passion for rural environments to his upbringing on a sheep and beef farm north of Feilding, alongside his own career on the periphery of the sector.  

“I guess that goes back over time to when I was at school working on farms, then I worked in shearing gangs for several holidays, on hay trucks and all those sorts of things,” Christensen said. 

While painting scenes like this one, Christensen says he can ‘feel the vibrations of the handpiece and hear the different sounds of the woolshed’. 

“I liked going back to all those sorts of areas, the likes of the woolsheds, the likes of shearers and shearing gangs and I feel so much when I paint those sorts of pictures. 

“For example when I paint a shearer, I can smell the wool from the shed, I can feel the vibrations of the handpiece and I can hear the different sounds of the woolshed.” 

After attending Lincoln University, Christensen worked in sheep and cattle breeding research throughout the 1960s and ’70s, leading a research team in Canterbury, as well as spending a year on Mana Island as manager of a sheep breeding research centre. 

He also farmed deer on a block of land in Manawatū, while working in degree management and career advisory for agricultural and horticultural students at Massey University.

He says he has always enjoyed the characters and scenes in rural communities, explaining that it’s like he’s painting a memory with each piece, whether that is of his own or the person who is viewing it through their own lens.

“I enjoy the rural community, and farmers generally. You know, you talk to farmers and they are a different group of people from the rest, and the whole environment and the people I just enjoy.” 

Much of Christensen’s work is what he calls ‘memories’ – not just his but those of whoever is viewing the painting.

Christensen said an example of this was when an elderly, retired farmer came through his gallery recently and purchased a painting as it brought back memories of her late husband. 

“She and her husband had been farming in Hawke’s Bay, and they had sold their farm and retired and he had passed away. 

“And the shearer I had painted was an old guy, he was bald with a little bit of hair around the side, bending over shearing, and she said ‘That looks just like my husband’.  

“So often people see something I’ve painted as a memory. 

“What has also turned out to be unusual when I’ve done a painting is that somebody will come up and say, “Ooh well I would quite like to buy that’, and that surprises me. 

“I do it because I enjoy it, but the spinoff is that occasionally people like to buy them.” 

In support of the local farming community, Christensen donates a painting every so often and promotes it. When the painting sells the proceeds go to the Manawatū Rural Support Trust. 

 You can see Graham’s latest exhibition at the Coach House Museum in Feilding running throughout December, January and February.

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