The artist painting the stories of our lands

The prolific Māori artist Robin Slow is quiet and speaks quietly.

In his crowded studio in Tākaka, Golden Bay, rows and rows of paintings are piling up on the walls and there is little room to move about. More are piling up in the garage, says his wife, Rose.

The 73-year-old sits on a stool, the curtains drawn, in front of a large canvas painted black, next to which paints, brushes and pencils are meticulously arranged in a tea trolley.

It’s the beginning of a new work of art that begins with a long piece of tōtara tree bark glued into the center and covered with a glossy finish. Wispy silver pencil strokes surrounding it soon turn into bold and intricate images that are painted to tell a story.

Seventeen years ago in high school, Mr Slow was my visual arts teacher.

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I remember getting angry when he was teaching outside the classroom and speaking in almost a whisper.

No crowd shouting “speak!” would make him speak louder.

It definitely kept the classroom quiet as we tried to listen. But I remember that every snippet of information that came out of Mr. Slow’s mouth was a quiet gem of wisdom, with an enormous depth of artistic knowledge and passion.

Robin Slow's artwork has been featured in hundreds of group and solo exhibitions across the country.

Nina Hindmarsh / Things

Robin Slow’s artwork has been featured in hundreds of group and solo exhibitions across the country.

“I’m not very good at explaining things,” says Slow of his chair in the studio. “That’s why I paint.”

The now retired high school art teacher is known nationwide as one of the most prolific contemporary Māori artists in our country and has completed thousands of works in his long and busy career.

Slow has held hundreds of sold-out solo and group exhibitions across the country and has worked with the Whānau in Onetahua Marae near Tākaka for more than 20 years to create murals, traditional instruments, weavings, kōwhaiwhai (motifs), and carvings. He also had overall responsibility for the design and layout of Wharenui, Te Ao Marama.

Slow has also completed a number of Kōwhaiwhai, Heke plaques, and artwork for significant locations and buildings in the area, including the Suter Gallery and Whakatū Building in Nelson, and Tōtaranui, Wainui, Te Waikoropupū Springs and Schools in Golden Bay.

The artist Robin Slow says that his art is strongly influenced by the region.  its people, stories and natural resources and protection of them.

Nina Hindmarsh / Things

The artist Robin Slow says that his art is strongly influenced by the region. its people, stories and the natural resources and protection of them.

His works traveled to many parts of the world in private and public collections, including a museum in the Netherlands, after he made an artwork for Queen Beatrix’s visit in 1992 and a large triptych accompanied by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. who visited in 2018.

Slow also completed illustrations for two ministry of education children’s books about the legends of Taniwha Huriawa and Ngarara Huarau from Golden Bay.

His art is shaped by a rich Māori symbology and mythology, interwoven with colonial tales and the connection of two worlds, telling stories with intricate details to represent places, objects and creatures from the natural environment. He is a master who is completely devoted to his craft.

Slow says he’s deeply influenced by the area he ended up in. the people, stories and natural resources and their protection; everything that makes Mohua stand out, Golden Bay.

A Robin Slow painting that is part of Ngā Hau Ngākau, the haunted exhibition by Brian Flintoff, Bob Bickerton and Robin Slow on display at the Suter Art Gallery.

Sara Meij / Nelson Mail

A Robin Slow painting that is part of Ngā Hau Ngākau, the haunted exhibition by Brian Flintoff, Bob Bickerton and Robin Slow on display at the Suter Art Gallery.

He points to the gold leaf in one of his paintings and then to a deep red color.

“The materials you use have their own whakapapa and tell the story of the story. That’s why I used this gold leaf to symbolize gold mining when I was painting over the area.

“I also used the Kokowai stone from the Parapara River to make this color. This is the sacred red color that the ancestors used. There was also a lacquer factory there once with this stone. “

Learning to paint a tūī pen is a story in itself, says Slow.

He experimented with different media and found that when he used silver leaf and painted over it with acrylic and then silica, it emulated the brilliant sheen and changing colors of the bird with the changing light.

The work of art 'Waraki' by the famous artist Robin Slow

Delivered

The work of art ‘Waraki’ by the famous artist Robin Slow

“While I was experimenting, one day the light struck [the painting]and it lifted that part forward and all other colors went back. It was this play of light, depending on the time of day, ”he says.

“Oh, the hell, I liked that. And so it begins to tell a certain story and visually another. “

A collaboration with Brian Flintoff and Bob Bickerton resulted in the haunting and highly regarded exhibition Ngā Hau Ngākau (Breath of Me), which has found its way across the country in recent years.

Robin Slow in his Golden Bay Studio in 2014.

Charlotte Squire / Stuff

Robin Slow in his Golden Bay Studio in 2014.

The exhibition features 32 of Slow’s paintings, Kete and Whāriki, as well as elaborately carved Taonga Pūoro by Flintoff with music and soundscapes by Bickerton, made with traditional Māori instruments and featuring musicians Ariana Tikao, Holly Weir-Tikao and Solomon Rahui.

“It was great. Some time ago we looked at the pūmotomoto, a long flute instrument that the Tohunga used to play and sing the fontanel of the unborn child, ”he says.

“The pūmotomoto was previously regarded as the door between the eleventh and twelfth heavens, of which the tūī was the keeper. This door has led you to the highest knowledge. “

Carver Brian Flintoff and musician Bob Bickerton (pictured) worked with Robin Slow on the impressive Ngā Hau Ngākau exhibition, which has been touring the country for several years.

Sara Meij / things

Carver Brian Flintoff and musician Bob Bickerton (pictured) worked with Robin Slow on the impressive Ngā Hau Ngākau exhibition, which has been touring the country for several years.

Like this exhibition, Manu (birds) are always a big feature of Slow’s art as they are the original tāngata of our country, he says.

The basis of all Māori art is the networking of everything in life.

“You can’t take anything in isolation, it’s a whole integration, you can’t pull out a thread. You give a piece of pounamu to a kuia, but to them it is a living being; It is seen as an art form and they will cry about it. “

Painting is the way Slow understands the world, he says. As he lays pictures on canvas, stories and narratives appear and their relationships with all things create meaning.

“You are writing down a narrative in some form, and the narrative isn’t always clear and precise at the beginning, but when you leave you clear things up. That’s why my work has changed over time. “

Robin Slow in 2015 at the start of his exhibition at the Red Art Gallery, Nelson.

VIRGINIA WOOL / things

Robin Slow in 2015 at the start of his exhibition at the Red Art Gallery, Nelson.

But there is another deeply personal journey with Slow’s art that is a way of “dealing with your own Whakapapa,” he says.

“My Whakapapa is unknown and it felt like I was always standing outside. For me it was about discovering this. “

When Slow moved to Golden Bay in the early 1980s, he said he had found another whānau through the marae, as the local Manawhenua were from Mātāwaka or many tribes.

He originally accepted the two-year teaching position at Golden Bay High School and never wanted to stay longer. He taught there for 31 years until he retired in 2013 to focus on his art career which was very busy.

“I never plan anything. Everyone has these long-term goals – me? No no no. It’s evolving, and what actually supported me is strange but interwoven. “

It all started in elementary school in Wairau, Blenheim, where he was born, says Slow.

“We would have these special days when an art teacher would come in. They had all of their colors and everything out. We were so used to sitting in rows of chairs, but we moved it all and got inside straight away. “

One of the visiting teachers told them a Māori story about how to start carving.

Manu (birds) are always a big feature in Robin Slow's art as it is the original tāngata of our country, he says.

Delivered

Manu (birds) are always a big feature in Robin Slow’s art as it is the original tāngata of our country, he says.

“We painted this whole story, and I remember getting so excited and taking it home and sticking it on the wall forever. I had this very strong, powerful, internal response to this lesson. “

It wasn’t until a year later that Slow realized that the teacher was the well-known carver Cliff Whiting.

Slow later moved to Christchurch and worked as an advertising artist while completing a teaching degree with an art major.

After spending time in Christchurch, he, Rose, and the children Sandra and Tracey moved to Twizel. Slow started teaching newcomers there before moving to secondary school.

He says, “It is magical to watch young children paint and design,” and he is constantly upset about the poor quality and focus on art in elementary schools these days.

“There’s a whole world of art that you don’t touch these days … which keeps you from having blocks of wood and nails and hammers and paint and [saying]”You create and we will come into your world” instead of saying “You come into my world and color between the lines”. “

In the beginning, says Slow, the inclusion of Māori art in the Golden Bay High classroom met with great opposition.

“I’ve always tried to consider some cultural aspects when dealing with Māori, Kowhaiwhai and things like that. And I remember a board of governors [trustees] Come to me and say: “What do you teach, what for …?”

Slow says painting is the way he understands the world.

Delivered

Slow says painting is the way he understands the world.

“You had all that stuff in the underground culture and this whole Māori dimension that should have happened was just completely ignored.

“But I went on and went on and went on,” he says.

I ask Slow how he managed to paint so much while teaching full time. “I just had to paint, it was part of who I was. I had to write these stories down.

“I taught during the day and painted all night, sometimes just two or three hours of sleep.

“I can’t do that anymore.”

Slow still can’t stay out of his studio, but Rose says he’s better at taking breaks and relaxing these days – before Netflix.

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