It would be easy to apply cliches like "gentle" and "humble" to the softly spoken and considered Andy Leleisi'uao.

Watching the award-winning artist on the September night he won the paramount award at the 26th annual Wallace Art Awards might support those observations. He took several minutes to get down the stairs at the packed Pah Homestead; he didn't have his family with him.

Rather than being up front in the crowd or accompanied by his parents and two adult children, Leleisi'uao was upstairs, with friends, and didn't expect to win. I first interviewed him 25 years ago at the Massey Homestead in Mangere about his first art exhibition. I had never seen anything like Leleisi'uao's raw, honest and angry art before.

There was nothing mild or gentle about his paintings, which tackled themes of injustice, prejudice and racism, social and cultural dislocation, disadvantage and unfair working conditions and the confusion and splintering of migrant communities.

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These days his art has taken on more elements of magical realism to highlight issues of shared humanity and community.

"Ethnicity is important but I think love is more important," he says. "My Samoan-ness I adore and I am grateful for and it informs me in other ways but, at the same time, my work has taught me that it's bigger than that; there's a bigger picture out there for me in terms of articulating my ideas."

If imagination plays a role in his art, so does determination and hard work itself. Look at Leleisi'uao's CV and you'll see since 1995 he hasn't stopped participating in group shows, holding solo exhibitions, accepting public commissions and taking up residencies around the world.

After leaving Mangere College, Leleisi'uao had factory jobs but says he was never any good at them because boredom would creep in, his mind would drift and even the most basic task would confuse him.

Support from local art centres was pivotal in getting him started and he says these community facilities are a significant part of Auckland's art infrastructure.

"Modern Pacific art in Auckland, we lead the world so it's really important that our local communities have the chance to see our work and what level we're at," says Leleisi'uao.

"It's just the reality that not many of our people can make it into dealer galleries so I think the value [of community art centres] is quite broad and special, especially for our younger Pacific artists who are still at school or university or art school or reside out these ways. Just to see another Pacific name or work out there lets them know that our work has meaning."

When he won the Wallace Award, for his work Harmonic People, Leleisi'uao said it was significant not just for him but all Pacific artists because it's a contribution to the community's visual presence here.

"We have a history, a tradition and a culture back in the islands but here we have been introduced to this other culture - the Kiwi culture - and I guess we have come up with this other ... how do I say it? We've come up with a different identity on its own that incorporates both and I think the more that we explore it, the easier it is for our grandchildren to understand who they are themselves."

In 2002, he gained a masters degree from AUT, with first-class honours, in art and design but says there was never a point where he sat down and decided to "be" an artist.
Leleisi'uao has always had a space where he can retreat; sometimes that's been at the kitchen table at his home in Mangere. Now he works from a 3m x 4m kitset cabin, which he describes as messily organised.

As the paramount winner of the Wallace Art Award, Leleisi'uao gets a six-month residency in New York. He's been before - three times - and says that's good because he won't be overwhelmed by its size and scale or the tourist attractions.

"I'll be open and alert to when my muse is ready for me to start working. That's when everything starts to align and you get that special feeling and something sparks and you have to make that spark sparkle ... if that makes any sense."

Right now, the priority is an exhibition at the Bergman Gallery, with fellow South Auckland artist Benjamin Work, in Rarotonga.

The Wallace Art Awards exhibition continues at the TSB Wallace Arts Centre, Pah Homestead until November 12.