2001 Going Solo 12

By Tom Hardy
The Evening Post
April 12, 2001
"Going Solo 12"
New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts
Former Wellingtonian Susan Thomas describes her paintings as like a glimpse through a window.
One of the 24 paintings shows the famous Doges’ Palace in Venice, surrounded by gondolas. Another features Auckland’s skyline with the Sky Tower seen at a distance from Bastion Point.
Then nestled among them all is a flash of coast and land which looks vaguely familiar.
“Wellington airport from Melrose,” says the artist, Susan Thomas.

It makes sense that Thomas’s new show is called Postcards from Home and Away, part of the large exhibition Going Solo, which opens at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts tomorrow.

Each of her stylised gouache paintings offer a glimpse of where she’s lived or visited. It’s as if Thomas has peeked around a corner or out a window. There’s more scenes from Venice, then snatches of some terracotta-coloured buildings in Florence – all from a trip Thomas took to Italy in 1999. Others show Auckland’s landscape from her home in Mission Bay, or around Auckland’s bays and harbours from her partner’s boat.

“Often my paintings are [like] a glimpse,” she says. “Often a glimpse through a window or a doorway. It’s not so much about [depicting] a realistic view of it. It’s showing the feeling and the mood.”

Thomas’s work is stylised, but rarely can can they be called abstract. It’s clear in every work what you are looking at, but she divides each scene, such as the Auckland skyline, into clean blocks of colour. Thomas says she wants to convey a feeling or mood and it works. While it’s not exactly her intention, it’s hard not to feel more relaxed, to have an almost Zen-like calm after taking in Thomas’s scenes. Works that lean more to the abstract – some ferns and magnolias at Thomas’s home and phosphorescence  seen floating in the water from the back of her boat – still retain her distinct style.

People rarely feature in her work. In this selection, of which she has painted most in the past year, you can just make out some figures in the largest Venice painting. Thomas says she has tried portraits, but not often. Again, she wants to brings across feelings and moods from the other things she sees.

Thomas is from Wellington and a former Evening Post sub-editor. She has been painting for 22 years and got her start with the academy while a student at Onslow College. She sold her first painting the first time she exhibited in 1979 while still at school. Since then she has exhibited almost every year and has sold many  of her works, including to the New Zealand Wool Board, Caltex Oil New Zealand and the National Bank. She was a Caltex Art Award winner in 1984.

Thomas says she’s been inspired by some impressionists, such as Henri Matissee, Edouard Manet and abstract American painter Mark Rothko. She also admires Ralph Hotere. He hasn’t had a direct influence on her work, but it’s the feelings and atmosphere he conveys which inspires her, she says.

Thomas would love to work full-time as a painter, but that’s likely to be a few years away. She has worked at the Sunday Star-Times, and most recently at Grace magazine, until it folded at the end of last year. Ironically, that gave her more time to work on completing paintings for her show.

This year, Thomas is studying computer graphic design at the Auckland University of Technology. She says her ideal set-up would be to work for three days a week as a graphic designer and sub-editor, then have the rest of her week to paint.

There’s another 12 artists in the academy exhibition, most from the Wellington region. The variety is extensive. Lindsay Mitchell from Lower Hutt has several detailed portraits of Polynesians, both traditional and modern, including two of All Black Tana Umaga. Matt Gauldie has several large portraits, including a strong two-piece work featuring a young woman sitting on a bed smoking, a guitar lying on the other side and a Billie Holiday poster. Pat McGoverin of Paraparaumu works with bright colours and vibrant scenes ranging from jazz age portraits to sunflowers, and pays more homage to impressionism.

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