My father born in Linz, Austria, stumbled across NZ because the Australian Visa office was closed. How random is that! He had to look up where it was, when they said he could go there with his friend. He slept in a car on Mt Victoria, in Wellington, enjoyed traveling the country and going on hunting trips which are a luxury in Austria. He returned to Austria and met my mother and showed her the pictures of this wonderfully promising country on the other side of the world. She comes from Leibnitz, a small town in a stunning wine growing area close to the Slovenian boarder.
My father trained as an artificial limb-maker when he left school and accepted the job and accommodation offered by the NZ government, when he applied to return. My parents arrived in NZ in 1960. My father was 25 and my mother was 20 when they sailed over and arrived in Wellington. She gave birth to my sister soon after and then I was born 13 months later.
Both my parents left school at 14, both were arty/crafty, and experienced the war as children. One of my fathers recollections of his teenage-hood is attending a Hitler rally. There are a lot of war heroes in my family. One grandfather was awarded an iron cross for crawling up the side of a tank and tossing in a hand grenade, and I recently had the medal sent to me. My other grandfather, a bee-keeper, escaped from a POW camp in Siberia and walked back to Austria, which took him a whole year.
Our household was very Austrian; gorgeous textiles, rugs, embroideries (yes, I think there is a connection there to the visual tactility of my painting), traditional folk furniture and art objects. My mother had worked as a nanny back in Austria (think governess 'Sound of Music') and excelled in all the domestic arts, especially cooking, embroidery and sewing. She also played the Zither, cultivated roses, and did amazing ikebana flower arrangements. My mother looks quite eastern European, black hair and pale skin. I always thought she was so beautiful, especially when she danced to Elvis Presley while she vacuumed. She became quite a career women in New Zealand, exhibited her needle-crafts and rugs, managed exhibitions and a embroidery shop, travelled the country giving demonstrations, and played the zither at functions. Now she's an extraordinary and passionate gardener and her efforts in Tauranga have been featured on garden trails.
My father is a master craftsman with nearly every material, especially wood, and more recently has become an exhibiting figurative sculptor with clay. He can do incredible Leonardo da Vinci type drawings of anatomy, and is really interested in the expression in human forms. He is the ultimate handyman and can make and fix anything, and I have inherited a bit of that. Also a very talented gardener, he cultivated bonsai's and made ceramic pots for them. He designed and made traditional Austrian furniture, (hollowed out hearts and turned legs) and built a lovely Chalet in our Melrose garden, shutters and wooden boxes filled with flowers, that we used to call 'the little hut'. My parents posed outside the chalet for Austrian Club invitation photo shoots in their national dress. My father was 'shuh-blattler' a dance where a team of men sing, carry out a log and chop it up, while slapping their thighs. I was in awe of that as a child.
German was my first language; apparently I didn't learn English until I went to school and then taught and corrected my parents. My Oma stayed with us a couple of times for extended periods and I remember her hilarious way of talking with her hands to explain German to my sister and I, and I sometimes think that gestural imprint soaked into me, and has played out in the way I make paintings. She taught me how to make apfel-strudel and had a very silly sense of humour that my sister and I loved her for. When I hear Austrian-German now, it's like hearing a nursery rhyme you haven't heard since you were 4, and it makes me feel very strange. So I can understand spoken German really well and like to practice speaking from time to time but have very little occasion to. I try to see every contemporary Austrian film that comes out. I love the complex psychology in their filmmaking, which is so different to the tourist representations and the ideas about the 'home country' I had growing up. I spent a year in Austria, in my twenties, working in ski resorts and that really gave me a perspective on what was 'Austrian' and what was just my parents personalities, as I really found it hard to distinguish between the two.
So I am a first generation NZer, and that's tough, very little extended family, and no historical roots to any particular location. I sometimes feel I don't really understand the subtleties of this culture, which for those born here is a childhood osmosis of learning about what the right thing to say and do is, at a particular time. Our family culture was very direct, demonstrative, expressive. We observed traditions like Christmas on the 24th and ate very European food. I have learned that I am more Austrian than I thought in relation to others born here, but have always considered myself a kiwi through and through.
I think there is significant Austrian cultural influence in my work. I see it in the baroque romanticism that I love, a kind of serious aesthetic, an intensity which appears different to some NZ sensibilities, a love of a 'richness' that isn't about Pacific relaxed ways, light and song. I also hope that some of the refined elegance that I admired so much living for a couple of years in Japan has also permeated my painting practice. I definitely inherited the work ethic of an immigrant, and I am a willing slave to art.