Overnighting in the 'not so' Greytown 30 Oct 2012
Last week, my wife Marie and I decided to spend a night at small country hotel in Greytown, over in the Wairarapa. While there, I made a happy discovery. Next to our abode was a tiny colonial cottage with a wooden verandah. A home-made sign on the front wall announced it was an antique shop of some sort. The word ‘antique’ was misspelt, the ‘r’ in ‘art’ was back-to-front Russian-style, and instead of an ampersand there was a G-clef musical symbol. OK... Inside, there was a feast of old books and artwork, but no immediate sign of the proprietor.
However, as I glanced through a 1930’s-era book on ‘Correct Pronunciation of New Zealand English’, I became aware of someone in a back room plucking away on a guitar. I have to admit I know nothing about music (and even that is probably overstating my knowledge), but the plucking seemed to resonate with quality. When I eventually entered the rear rooms, I came across the minstrel sitting in a work-chair, one foot casually stretched across the corner of his desk. He immediately put down the guitar and rose to talk to me.
He was a tidily dressed, bone-thin chap, a bit shiny on top, with a very self-effacing manner.
I told him the music sounded good. “Actually, I’d rather be playing a tuba,” he said, as if that would be the most natural thing in the world to be doing on a Saturday afternoon. When I raised my eyebrows, he explained he used to be down an alley across the road but his place had burned to the ground and his beloved tuba had been destroyed.
I then went back to studying the pix hanging all over the wall and stacked along the wainscot. Oils, watercolours, even a framed ‘Papal Indulgence’. One pic, that you had to just about kneel to inspect, showed St. John Bosco depicted in the nicotine-yellow favoured by Catholic artists of a certain period. “A chap came in who told me they used to pray to that picture when he was a school,” my musician observed.
What truly shone out for me in the store, though, were a number of hilarious artworks that somehow hid their humour from any casual first glance. For example, there was a river painting with big houses. The odd thing was, one of the houses was at an impossible angle as if it were collapsing into the water. I found it hard to work out if it was for real or if some clever artist-type had mickeyed it around, done a bit of creative collage work on it...
In another picture, a huge old black and white photo of Lord Kitchener had been desecrated so that the good man now had hideous teeth and a colossal red lips. A giant flan balanced boater-like on top of his head. For some reason, it ended up being really funny to look at.
In another, a young woman dressed as an All Black raced through the New Zealand bush with a ball in her hands.
I couldn’t stop laughing looking at them all. They were just brilliant. When I asked my good host who had done them, he quietly replied, “Me, actually.” A man of many talents. With self-deprecating humility, he added: “Anyone could do it really, it’s not too hard.”
He said this type of art is sometimes called “détourné” by the cognoscenti of fine art in Europe. “But I call it op shop art.” The genre takes existing pix or photos and alters them to give them a new look, a fresh new life of their own. “I’m a bit of a cuckoo,” he told me. “I lay my eggs in other birds’ nests.” Maybe, but I couldn’t help thinking that if these creations were eggs they’d be like radioactive emu eggs.
As someone who loves art and has looked at lots of it in my life, I’d call his art humble works of genius. I told him I’d love to write something about his work for NZNewsUK. He was happy enough with the idea even though he doesn’t have a computer and wouldn’t get to read the column. I told him I’d run off a copy of it [if the Editor uses this!] and bring it to Greytown “another day...” when we were over these parts.
I was honoured, and surprised, when he agreed to be photographed. Close-up, midshot, or wide shot, I wondered. Without any fuss, he seemed to ‘collage’ himself into the creative undergrowth around him, and that turned out to be his ‘space’. Like all true artists, a work of art in his own right.
All photos by Martin Doyle:
Shop sign, detourné art, Nigel Thorp in his shop in Greytown.
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