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New Zealand Home & Building, October-November 1985

Crafts: John Papas

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Crafts: John Papas

Artist John Papas has the best of two worlds. Known as a painter of striking and bold works that encompass broad compositional effects and tactile textures, he has also moved into another form of expression — large-scale ceramic murals that incorporate stoneware or earthenware tiles.

John Papas — "I'm very much a city lad, really."

John Papas — "I'm very much a city lad, really."

Many artists, most notably Marc Chagall, have turned to ceramic techniques as part of their output and Papas is no exception, using his ceramic knowledge to express ideas normally associated with painting.

Artwork dominates his life, evidenced by a large collection of New Zealand paintings and sculptures that are scattered around his comfortable old St Mary's Bay villa. It's a house obviously much loved, with a lived-in, slightly chaotic air. Not surprisingly since John Papas has spent much of the past few months painstakingly renovating both the interior and exterior.

Out back is his studio — somewhat unexpectedly tidy and organised for someone who readily admits to working with great bursts of energy. When he's not painting, he's making ceramic pieces, and vice versa, constantly seeking stimulus from the surrounding environment.

St Mary's Bay, an inner-city suburb near the Auckland harbour bridge and the waters of the Waitemata, has always influenced his work. "I'm very much a city lad, really. I was brought up here, just up the road. I love living here — there's a good mixture of people and the little things count, like being known personally at the local shops."

Now 43, and well-established as an artist in this country, he was entirely self-taught. He comes from Greek-Scots parentage, and a family whom he remembers as always being supportive of his endeavours. "I didn't go to art school, I felt at the time they were pretty destructive places, on any form of creativity. Instead I went to Europe, and it was there I decided what I should do. Instead of formal training, I would just get out there and do it."

Back in New Zealand after five years of travel, John found that his paintings readily sold. "When I got back a pattern started developing of my showing work in exhibitions between Auckland and Wellington. The people at the galleries were always enthusiastic, as were the dealers. I think I was quite lucky — it's very important to have a good relationship with a dealer who

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Landscapes in clay — panels incorporate strong images of a vibrant city.

Landscapes in clay — panels incorporate strong images of a vibrant city.

will back your work."

The change to ceramics came gradually, partly as a result of expediency. "I decided to go into it so I could work full-time at what I was doing."

"I started off with landscapes in my painting, and then on to three-dimensional work with clay. Then I got interested in tiles, and now I bring all three elements into my pieces; clay, tiles and canvas together."

Working mainly from commissions, John makes a sketch plan of his intentions
Mural in the manager's office of the General Finance building in Newmarket.

Mural in the manager's office of the General Finance building in Newmarket.

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first before committing himself to the size and type of tile needed. "The ones I use are an English brand, and I colour them up to what's required, then fire them in my electric kiln. I start off with small pieces, then link them together. With my painting background I try to bring that quality into the glazing."

Why tiles? "People always associate them with the house — areas like the bathroom and kitchen. I try to show that they can be used in many other ways." A good example are the three large wall murals in the General Finance building in Queen Street. Surrounded by a simple silver frame the panels incorporate strong images of a vibrant city. Buildings, vehicles plus natural images such as earth, sea and sky are mixed together either in abstract or representational form. The colours are carefully matched to the decor, and the whole effect, while large, is certainly not overwhelming.

"Clients may want the company product represented and it's up to you to do something about it — to satisfy them but also get your own point across." Other designs are much more abstract in form, like the mural in the manager's office of the General Finance building in Newmarket. Other large companies have also regularly commissioned work, both in Auckland and Wellington.

"It's all like bringing a collage of elements together on a fixed scale, a bit like a mosaic. But I like the mixture of soft and hard materials, like canvas and tiles together — they seem quite sympathetic towards each other."

Although giving an impression of unbounded enthusiasm and warmth, it's still a hand-to-mouth existence. He feels, however, that there are many rewards. "I earn enough for what I need. I try to keep that balance between painting and ceramics. I'm happy doing both. After all, I find I get weeks when I can't paint, and need that constant stimulus."

Then he adds with a ready laugh, "I have an overactive brain. You get a lot of ideas at once, and in a burst of energy, do it all. And for the future — look what's happening in Auckland with all those new buildings going up. It's up to us to make them a little more livable, a little more humane, I suppose."

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