26/05/1927 - 9/04/2020
by Sue Wild
“I want to have things bursting out of the page, to change forms and shapes. I want a flower to be not a flower, a house to be wonky or funky. I want to get the essence.”
Hutt Valley artist, Sylvia Meek, won Watercolour New Zealand’s award in 2007.
Her paintings reflect her lively character and positive attitude to life.
Our interview started with a vivid word picture of her parents, during her early life in Ohakune:
“Mum was a wonderful crochet artist in the continental fashion, learned from my German grandmother. Everything she did was absolutely original. She was a spunky, bossy little lady with six of us to bring up and a husband who was a WW1 veteran. He was a lovely, clever man but he was destroyed by Gallipoli. Mum was a wonderful hostess – she didn’t give a hoot if the house was a mess. She was feisty and unreasonable and all those wonderful things.”
Over the years Sylvia coped with illnesses in the family, along with earning an income. “I’ve always looked for distractions when things are pretty gloomy - gardening, painting, cooking, walking and socialising.
“I love people.” When the family settled in Lower Hutt, Sylvia joined the Hutt Art Society and found a group of inspiring people. About 1990, she had the chance to go to an international art workshop in Oamaru.
She experienced overseas tutors, many abstract artists, including Philip Trusttum and Patrick Heron from Cornwall. Sylvia then went on a trip with two other artists to San Francisco, New York and Paris. “We shared rooms in small hotels, walked everywhere and visited every gallery we could find.” She followed this with a workshop in Cornwall, where “lovely refined English ladies painted their dainty little watercolours just like the tutor’s. Here was this Ohakune girl …. well, I couldn’t paint that way! After those experiences I felt I knew me better.”
Driving towards Impressionism Sylvia Meek decided to do watercolour exclusively, as “it’s a lovely and very expressive medium.” She was a driving force in a surge towards impressionism among painters in the Wellington-Hutt area. “When you have a passion you attract like-minded people.” She organised workshops in the style she wanted to paint, forming the “Creative Painters Group” with Vivian Manthel, Betty McCauley, Jeanne Macaskill – lots of abstract painters. “I always enjoyed Shona MacFarlane and the work of Colin McCahon. I love Peter Coates. He lived in wonderful chaos and look what he painted in his back garden. We need to encourage these people.”
Mary Archibald opened her art shop in Upper Hutt and on Fridays, engaged a model. “We had a whole day of painting! I loved it.” She wanted to join the Watercolour Society. “In those days you had to present about seven paintings to a committee to be judged. You had to wait outside, like going to the dentist. If you were lucky you might be let in.”
In the 1990s Wendy Masters organised an annual weekend in the Wairarapa. The format is the model for our current safaris: meet on Friday night for tea and talk, paint at various locations (trying to avoid getting lost in rural roads), enjoy a dinner with music and wine, then on Sunday share our work and amble off home. Sylvia recalls: “What intelligent alert people, really good painters. Nobody was better than anyone else. It was just wonderful!”
Sylvia served on the committee of Watercolour New Zealand for about seven years and her husband, Alan, was treasurer. She worked with Elizabeth Kay, Avis Higgs, Kit McKay, Wendy Masters, Vivian Manthel, Philip Markham, Ruth Gardner and Heather Francis.
Sylvia died in April 2020.
See other Member Artists Profiles