THE ART OF DUNEDIN

A friendly mix of encouragement and expertise

By David Corballis

Coming from the enthusiasm of entering a Splash exhibition for my first time, I am delighted to be asked to say something about Dunedin. When I first came to Dunedin, the Otago Art Society (OAS) seemed the obvious choice to further my interest in art. Art had been an interest only faintly fostered through my years at school, but when I came to Dunedin the Society seemed a friendly mix of encouragement and expertise. Eventually I attended a couple of Summer Schools and other classes, coming under the influence of John Coley, Austen Deans, as well as Audrey Bascand, and Roy Dickison, although not all the courses I attended were strictly watercolour.

The OAS was founded in 1876 by a small group of “gentlemen, favourable to the formation of a Society of Arts in Dunedin”. The driving force behind its formation was William Mathew Hodgkins, father of Frances Hodgkins. Hodgkins served for nineteen years as its second president. (Such a long term of office is now prohibited by the constitution, probably as much for the sanity of the president as for any other reason!) So watercolour has been a very important influence in its development right from the beginning, with presidents such as Alfred O’Keefe, John L McIndoe, Gordon Tovey, Myra Thompson, and H.V. Miller, all of whom practised in and encouraged the medium.

I joined the council, and then was president for a three-year term. During that time we moved from the iconic Old Northern Post Office to our present site in the Dunedin Railway Station. The Northern Post Office was the first permanent home of the society and has its own dramatic story, which those who were around at the time can tell. Shona McFarlane and Fred O’Neill were the prime movers, and with a group of supporters from the membership saved the building from destruction, modifying it to become a gallery in 1972.

The Dunedin Railway Station has proved a wonderful location. There are now about 600 members and the Society continues to expand both in terms of its membership and the art forms it encourages. This means, of course, that it’s not specifically a watercolour society.

It’s difficult to estimate the proportion of watercolours exhibited, though on average I would say it accounts for up to ten percent of submitted works, including works from really accomplished artists, such as Pauline Bellamy, Audrey Bascand, Roy Dickinson, Richard Bolton, Sharon Murcott, Maurice Middleditch, Joy Murray, Tony Shields and others. That’s by no means an exhaustive list and not all of these are from Otago, but they have contributed to our appreciation of what the medium can offer.

There are a number of thriving groups around the city. Wakari has for many years run a group, and there is, for example, The Open Arts, asmall art and craft society on the Otago Peninsula, which has a main exhibition annually called ‘Almost an Island’. The themes are generally about wildlife and scenery on the Peninsula. They are now planning a mid-winter Exhibition at Bellamy’s Gallery and an ‘Otago Peninsula Art Trail’ to encourage a sampling of galleries, studios and attractions on the Peninsula.

This is something of the environment in which I paint. I haven’t dealt with the great natural environment of the Otago and Dunedin area, or my subjects, or the feelings which I probably share with many other artists –
exhilaration over the process, doubts about the product and all the emotions in between. Watercolour for me is the finest challenge any painter can embark on.

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