Skip to content

The South Islanders


A while back, when I first posted about my little books, I got commissions to do books for people of their own list of favourite people. I just finished this one for Pauline, and it’s in the post down to Mosgiel now. It’s appropriate that she chose a whole lot of South Islanders for me to draw. I began to formulate a theory that perhaps you have to live in the South Island for a while to become one of New Zealand’s great artists.


I never really got into James K Baxter’s poetry – a shameful admission, I know. In general I find poetry hard to engage with and I have to make myself read it. It has to be full of concrete detail, preferably a bit of narrative, or else I lose focus. I do read poetry by people I know or have met and I usually love it and tell myself that I should try reading more, by people that I don’t know. I started off my writing career as a poet but I had to give it up because I knew that I would always prefer to read a novel, a short story or a comic. But sometimes I feel like comics and poetry have quite a lot in common, with their conciseness and attention to form and rhythm.

I should try Baxter again because I do have a personal connection – when my mother was a student in the late sixties at Massey University, she used to live in Ihaka Street in Palmerston North. Father Jim Kebbell would give Mass down the road at McManus House, the former Franciscan friary, and Baxter would turn up, all long hair and bare feet, talking during the sermon, walking about when you were meant to sit in the pews. He would get to drink the wine at communion in a time when Catholics weren’t given the wine. My mother and her friends were scandalised by this dirty, vagabond presence. But Father Jim would welcome him to stay after mass and they would talk and drink. Once my mother’s friends hung around too and they got drunk on Father Kebbell’s gin.


Colin McCahon features in my novel, as a figure that Greg, an artist, was once obsessed with. Greg now creates art in a West Auckland artist’s residence, perhaps something like McCahon House in Titirangi. I haven’t visited but I want to. Last year I read a really great book about McCahon by Martin Edmond and it suggested that McCahon kept revisiting religious themes not because he was devout but because he was haunted by the notion that God might not exist. He was also an alcoholic who couldn’t work without getting drunk.


Philip Clairmont was another tortured artist – he ended up killing himself when he was 34. Martin Edmond has written a biography on him too – I should read it. I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think that the printmaker Nigel Brown might have been his student. Brown was definitely influenced by Clairmont. I did a summer art course with Nigel Brown when I was 18 and it was truly wonderful. I made giant woodblock prints of naked women crouching by rock pools looking at crabs. I felt fully adult and I was incensed that the older students, ones who were probably the age I am now, suggested that I was still a child. I was halfway through an English degree and I felt like it wasn’t enough. A burnt-out graphic designer making beautiful jazz-inspired prints suggested that maybe I’d like to be graphic designer too. I stored that suggestion away and applied for design school a few years later. Funnily enough, my first fancy design job was at his ex-company.


I’ve written about Rita Angus before, and in fact one of the first comics I posted on this blog featured her. I really love her art. I think that some contemporary comic artists share an aesthetic with her.


Pauline also wanted Keri Hulme in her book. I read The Bone People the same year as I did the Nigel Brown printmaking course. It was one of those intoxicating, on-drugs reading experiences. I just fell into the story completely, feeling slightly delirious as I read, traveling to the tip of the North Island and leaping off with her character. It’s rare that I have reading experiences like that. When I was living in New York I’d often see The Bone People in bookstores and feel proud that I came from the same country as her.

There were more people in the book – all excellent choices. Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, Janet Frame and Frida Kahlo. But my 9 year old is singing exceptionally annoying songs in my ear because it’s still school holidays. I’ll write some more later – or better still, I’ll draw a comic.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 30/01/2013 9:53 am

    This is such a lovely post Sarah – the words and the art. Jim Kebbell used to bring James K Baxter to talk to the ‘upper sixth’ girls when I was at school. They came in a sports car – Jim being a colourful priest at the time – and we’d watch JKB’s barefeet emerging from the car followed by the rest his disheveled self – and they’d pad into the Pink Parlour to talk about God and how to change the world.

  2. Paula Green permalink
    30/01/2013 10:17 am

    Fabulous drawings Sarah and loved the little anecdotes running along side. You really get something. I love the way these iconic people have rub into our loves. I have quite a few making an appearance in my new book of poems. I got sent The Bone People while living in London and seemed so utterly luminous and poetic and home I gave copies to Londoners. Colin McCahon lived in a shed at the bottom of my mother’s garden. This has always seemed mysterious and wonderful to me.

  3. 30/01/2013 10:43 am

    Great pictures made even better by the stories. Thanks Sarah. And the comments sightbyte and Paula too. The idea of paying tribute to our ikons/icons is such a potent one, and makes the book a totem of sorts!

  4. Sarah Laing permalink
    30/01/2013 2:32 pm

    Thank you! My mother adds: ‘We were scandalised but also stimulated to think differently. I guess this is why dad did not want me to go to university. Different ideas, different people. But I am glad to count both Jim Kebbell and JKB as people I actually knew and of course Jim Kebbell married W and me. We were the last married couple on his agenda.’

    • 30/01/2013 3:03 pm

      I like a priestly agenda.
      He led an ‘encounter group’ we had once at Curious Cove in the early 70s – in our last year when the nuns had discovered Gestalt Therapy and his agenda was still priestly. We thought we were very profound and deep. He kept yawning and finally said this is so boring…he might even have said you are so boring. We were very crushed.

  5. Nola permalink
    30/01/2013 6:48 pm

    made me cry just a teensy bit – not sure if it was the luminous poetry, the priestly agenda,the pink parlour and the encounter group or just Frida Kahlo and Kerri Hulme. just the general air of appreciative reminiscence? my own untimely birth in the mid 70′? will have to stalk Sam Hunt and Robin White ( in the friendliest sense of the word)

  6. 31/01/2013 6:08 pm

    Love these bold images.

    I read Bone People the week I arrived in New Zealand, as every English migrant coming to NZ should, I think. I’ve read Baxter’s poetry and some chimes and some doesn’t. I don’t think it’s any failing on either writer or recipient’s part. Ebb and flow, I say. I concur with the comparison between poetry and comics though, most definitely. Wouldn’t be half so interested in making them otherwise.

  7. Cheryl permalink
    03/02/2013 8:32 am

    Lovely. And I agree that Martin Edmond’s books are well worth the read. He talks so eloquently about many of these people. Your anecdotes and drawings are wonderful.


  1. 10 People for Pauline « Art and My Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: