Going underground

By Adam Gifford

Soldiers of the Underground. Photo / Supplied
Soldiers of the Underground. Photo / Supplied

Two weeks before the explosion at Pike River Mine, John Madden completed a painting of a mine rescue team, the "proto" men, waiting to go in. The son and grandson of West Coast coalminers, Madden has often painted mine themes, alongside his raw-boned investigations of the New Zealand landscape.

"When I first showed that proto painting, my speech was, 'Don't forget it can happen again,"' he says.

Growing up in Greymouth, Madden thought he was heading for a life in the mines, and he has worked underground. Mine miscellanea is scattered through his studio in bush above Karekare - his father's pick and banjo shovel, a helmet, old family photographs of uncles at Denniston and Burnett's Face, torn out newspaper articles and photographs, a proto breathing mask.

Outside, the jim crow he used to bend the rails for Barry Brickell's Driving Creek railway hangs off the side of a steel coal skip.

"Feel the thickness of that steel," he says. "When the Strongman Mine blew [in 1967], the steel wagons were shredded in the explosion.

Rails were bent. Those explosions travel at twice the speed of sound through those tunnels, and they went around twice - through the workings and back out again."

That's why he was mystified by the attempt to keep alive the hope of a "rescue" at Pike River. "Every mining son knew at that first bang they were dead, and why they carried on for days I don't know."

Madden had considered applying for a job as a roof bolter at Pike River - the six-figure salary would buy a lot of paint - but was warned off by a cousin still in the industry.

In response to the disaster, he painted a cross made up of the number 29 repeated. "I was driving along and it came to me. I couldn't wait to get home, sit there with a bottle of wine, and then it's done. Then you're disappointed because [the act of painting] is over, and you want it to go on."

What kept Madden away from the mines was an early exposure to art. He remembers Toss Woollaston coming to the door to sell the family Rawleigh's health products. "I saw his eyes and never forgot them, they just looked right through you."

But it was potter Yvonne Rust who first spotted his potential when as a third former he came into the art room at Greymouth High School.

"I was a loner. Rather than playing rugby on the weekend I preferred being in the bush with my dogs. She took me under her wing and next thing I was down at the old brewery where Barry Brickell in his little shorts was building a coal-fired kiln.

"My parents thought she was a witch. Sure, we did have sake after work and homemade bread and cheeses I'd never had before. Yvonne used to say, 'you're not a potter, you're an artist'."

Madden no longer works with clay - it was hard to sustain the collective effort required to keep a wood-fired kiln going for a week, and the bricks now lie scatted behind the studio - but the scattered pots display the same elemental forces he tried to capture in his paintings.

The work is clearly in the Bernard Leach-Shoji Hamada vein that influenced that pioneering generation of New Zealand studio potters, although Madden ruefully notes he seems to be missed out of the histories and major collections.

"People didn't get my pots. You had to approach them, they didn't seduce you. That's where it failed in New Zealand, because people want to be seduced ... the 'wow' factor."

When Madden left the West Coast he headed to Nelson and the home of Toss and Edith Woollaston. "What I learned from Toss was how to live as a painter. I arrived on their front lawn in my Volkswagen just as the petrol coughed out. I knocked on the door and said, 'Yvonne Rust sent me'."

By the end of the evening he'd been asked to stay on as a sort of unpaid "batman", making the coffee, keeping the fire stoked up, and driving the painter round.

"He fancied me as well. I was a beautiful young man, and he was writing [the autobiography] Sage Tea at the time.

"I stayed a year, and then I wanted to find a place for my pottery and painting, and found it in Whangamoa."

He was there for 20 years in an old house on a rough block that had been the site of a failed ohu commune, living off the land, digging clay and providing a haven for other artists.

Twenty years ago he came to Karekare to build a house for friends, met the mother of his children and stayed. He rejects comparison of his landscapes to Woollaston. Madden owes less debt to Cubism and hammers the underlying landscape harder.

As the cicadas sing their summer symphony, he talks about the mystery of painting.

"By the time I come to do the next painting it's like I have no idea and it feels like I have never painted before and I leave that naivete in myself. I don't write things down, I don't note colours, I just go by instinct.

"There's this interview with Colin McCahon where the interviewer says, 'I suppose you're just painting, painting, painting?' and there's this drawn out silence before he says, 'There's more looking, looking, looking in painting, the painting is very brief, it passes very quickly.' I had to learn that one too.

"I watched Woollaston do this massive Wellington landscape. He was just sitting there, and he picked up this tiny little brush, put a little bit of white on it, walked over to this massive wild work, makes a mark, and says, 'We're finished for today. We'll go for a drive up Mapua now.'

"I was awestruck, and I thought, now I get a little bit more. I spend up lot of time just sitting up in the studio ... thinking about where to go next."

Exhibition

What: Miners' Requiem by John Madden; 20pc of sales will go to the Pike River Fund

Where and when: Orexart, Upper Khartoum Place, to February 26

- NZ Herald

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