I had my first real encounter with visual art when I was in my second year of university. When I say "real", I mean of the type that does what art - ideally - will do... send a pang through your gut, flip your soul and set up a buzz at the back of your head. It'll make you feel sick with the best kind of longing. It was at an exhibition* at the Auckland Art Gallery. For this viewer, it was a stroke of curatorial genius as piece after piece revealed itself and stuck deep.
Amongst this revelatory collection, I rounded a corner and there was 'Black Phoenix' (I always remember the title as 'Burnt Phoenix') - a gritty, real, monolith of a piece, the singed wooden prow of a full-sized boat fastened to the wall - a pathway of charcoaled timbers leading towards it. I embraced it as my favourite work of art, and it remains so today. I memorised the artist's name, Ralph Hotere.
Around another corner, and he hits me again. This time it's with 'Black Water' - a collaboration with Bill Culbert. "In the beginning, the earth was without form and void, and the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep." Black Phoenix notwithstanding, Hotere's particular genius manifested itself in part by the use of glossy black - a fruitful, verdant, reflective black. It was the loam out of which all life sprung at creation, and a surface on which you often catch a reflection of yourself. It this case, the glossy black was on an expanse of corrugated iron throwing back the light of multiple neon tubes springing from its surface, standing like sentinels.
In my third year at university, I purchased the book, 'Out the Black Window', and set about writing an essay for my stage 3 New Zealand Literature paper on Hotere's collaborative use of poetry in his art. The essay was well received. It was my first proper success at university and it had such an impact on me that I considered launching onto a path of becoming a career art writer. The idea still sounds attractive.
My brother, a photographer, was working at a Parnell cafe at the time and had struck up a rapport with the photographer Marti Friedlander. Among the stories that get repeated about Friedlander, one of the common ones is about her access to Hotere. Hotere was famously shy, if not reclusive, but he let Friedlander in and she captured the man on film. Over thirty years later, these are still the most significant photos of Hotere.
Somehow (my brother passed it on I think), Marti ended up reading my essay on Ralph. She endorsed the idea of me pursuing an art writing career. This was all very well, but my heart and ambition was absorbed at this time with a different pursuit - I was clothing myself in the full intention of becoming a great New Zealand poet.
I had just completed a fairly angst-ridden, long (booklet length) piece called 'The Birth Place' and somehow hatched the idea that Ralph Hotere might like to read it. I thought he might like its grand themes of birth, death and rebirth, perhaps to feel a kinship in our artforms (you know, of course, that I really hoped that one day a line or two of mine would appear in one of his paintings). There was way too much catharsis in the poem for it to be literarily excellent - it was mostly a splurge - but what did I know? I was 23.
As a favour, Marti gave me Ralph's address (she is absolved, she did it on the strength of one essay, she never read my poetry). I crafted a letter, dropped names (as I have here), pinned it to a copy of my booklet, placed the whole lot in an envelop and sent it with a sense of excited trepidation.
I never heard back from Ralph. His silence, if he ever got the booklet, was probably the best favour he could have done me. I hope he threw it out. I hope he didn't pop it in a shoebox with an assortment of other ephemera received from sickly admiring fans. I hope it isn't found when someone goes through his papers now that he is gone. Perhaps he turned it into ashes - he always was a great proponent of fire - in his hands the burning of that poem would have become art - a fitting, the best and most wonderful end.
* My memory tells me it was at the exhibition 'Toi Toi Toi'. This exhibition was utterly remarkable, but researching the facts reveals that my mind has created a mythology about it being my first real encounter with visual art and the first place I encountered Hotere's work. Chronology reveals that it wasn't (on either count). But I like the mythologised version better.