In his first major interview since he took his former gallerist and friend to the High Court, Stephen Bambury tells Kim Knight that art is a question of life and death.

Stephen Bambury sits exams in his sleep.

"Two nights ago," says the artist, "I spent the whole night — well, it felt like a whole night, it felt like an eternity — dreaming that I'd come to art school for the first day and I'd been allocated a space but someone else had occupied it and all the other spaces had been taken, so I was wandering the entire night, trying to find somewhere to work."

Bambury has been anxious and suicidal and depressed. He has been single-minded and obsessive. He will tell you all of this — and far more — for as long as you will listen.

"It is actually, your job at times, to be bothered," he says, invoking the generic "you". "I'm bothered by things at all sorts of levels. Actually, I think a lot of artists are. They're not normally your easy-go-lucky, 'life's just a bowl of cherries', kind of people."

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In 2010, Bambury initiated legal proceedings against his gallerist and long-time friend, Andrew Jensen. In a case that was eventually heard in 2015 at the High Court in Auckland, Bambury claimed he had not been paid for $700,000 worth of work. The 10-day trial dragged in evidence from art world heavy-weights; Justice John Fogarty's 145-page decision found Bambury was owed money on seven works, but dismissed claims on 26 others. Jensen was ordered to pay Bambury $139,200 plus interest; Bambury had to pay Jensen a debt of $14,250. Both men claimed victory. There was an appeal and a cross-appeal. Eventually, there was a confidential out-of-court settlement.

In his decision, Justice Fogarty said the two men were strong personalities. "By that I mean they had strong views and saw themselves, with some justification, as leading figures in the art world. Together they broke boundaries, exhibiting in Europe. Their relationship was very successful financially, for both of them."

Jensen continues to run galleries in Grey Lynn and Sydney; Bambury paints and paints and paints.

He was, he tells Canvas, prepared to bankrupt his former friend.

"Oh, in a heartbeat."

What does that say about his character?

"I believe the truth has to be heard and that honesty is something which is integrally necessary for me as a person. I learnt that, more than anything else."

Friends cautioned Bambury against court action, fearing its all-consuming nature.

Bambury spent two-and-a-half days on the stand. He says some artists haven't spoken to him since; but he thinks others may be grateful, one day, for the case law that was established.

"I said, 'If I don't do it, I'll get cancer.' Does that answer your question? I knew I would never get over it. I'm over it. I'm through it. Dante said, 'In the middle of my life, I came across a dark forest.' Well, I did come across a dark forest ... and I walked through the other side of that — and I'm flying."

Last week, Bambury opened Lines of Desire at Auckland's Trish Clark Gallery. It is his first solo show of new work since 2014 and this is his first major interview since that High Court case. The artist had procrastinated all morning. He had driven off-site for coffee, conducted a comprehensive studio tour, talked easily and openly about process and paint and philosophy. Finally, the photographer had finished and there was nowhere left for Bambury to go than the inevitable. He climbed the stairs of his studio in an industrial cul-de-sac in West Auckland and said, "The hard questions?"

Stephen Ronald Bambury's mother was an amateur painter, his father an Anglican minister.

A self-portrait of his mother leans against his studio wall; he's recently started using her artist's brushes.

"I can still smell her oil paints. I can still be out in the field while she's painting the gum trees and I can see this thing being created and it left a really big impression on me that art was somehow important."

At Mt Albert Grammar, Bambury excelled at "English comprehension, Shakespeare, all of that" but he was — and is — dyslexic. "I couldn't do maths, I couldn't spell. In many ways, I considered myself to be dumb."

He would eventually study at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts but the deep-rooted sense of failure he had arrived with had not abated by graduation.

"At art school, they taught you critical theory and it crippled me. I was scared to go into the studio for most probably half of my career. I was terrified, but I managed to get enough therapy."

He was taught, he says, to absorb the notion of uncertainty and see within it opportunity.

"You've got to know when to stop. You've got to know when to let it go. You've got to get rid of the idea that it has to encompass all of those things you want to load into it, because that's the stumbling block. You can't see what you've done, because you're already projecting so much consciousness on to it."

How important is art?

"I'm utterly driven. You see, I think art is a question of life and death."

If Bambury learned about paint from his mother, from his father he understood, "There are two ways you can be in the world. You can have a job and you can take that road. Or you might be called to have a vocation and for me, being an artist is about having a vocation, not a job."

Wellington City Gallery and the Auckland Art Gallery have shown major retrospectives of the artist's work. He has exhibited extensively overseas. In 1989, he received the inaugural New Zealand Moet & Chandon Fellowship to Champagne and went on to live in Paris for two-and-a-half years. He travels frequently and expects, at age 67, to begin spending more time in France where has a second studio.

His new gallerist (and old friend) Trish Clark describes his work as a fusing of intellect and emotion. In 1982, arts writer Leonard Bell referred to Bambury's "uncluttered directness" devoid of decorative, metaphoric or autobiographical reference. Come 2001, and curator Alan Smith says his "clarity of geometric image and constructional signposting is visceral". The populist press will say, more simply, that Bambury paints crosses. This is true — but not, insists Bambury, the whole truth.

"I've done books with poets, installations in rooms and you won't find a cross anywhere near them. The issue is, the voice you get given is not necessarily the voice you have. I don't work with one form, I work with a huge number of forms, but the cross has always fascinated me.

"I might say to you, 'You see a cross, I see a compass, I see the cardinal points.' It's like this problem people have when you mention the word 'spirituality' or 'Christianity' — you've never seen people get so frothy at the mouth and livid and intolerant around issues that are actually worthy of looking at."

Tools in artist Stephen Bambury's studio in Avondale. Photo / Doug Sherring
Tools in artist Stephen Bambury's studio in Avondale. Photo / Doug Sherring

He is interested in Gnosticism (a religious movement that considers the human body contains a divine spark), "But I am not necessarily a Gnostic any more than I am necessarily a Buddhist or a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic ... my whole thing is about an attenuated notion of uncertainty."

And, once again, the interviewer finds herself lost in the artist's articulations. What does it all mean?

"You've got to remember that every night, I still sit School Certificate in my dreams.

"I'm thinking about this the whole time. You say 'when I'm making them' [paintings] but there is no time when I'm not making them. Even if I haven't got a brush in my hand, the making is constant.

"Every time I do them they're made anew. As though I have to ask the question again: What is it? What is a painting?"

There is a stainless steel workshop next door to his studio. Outside, you can hear the real world's commercial radio stations, the beep-beep-beep of its trucks in reverse, the bang and spark of something metal being made into metal other things. Bambury likes this buzz.

"When I'm painting, I'm invisible to myself. I go whole days or weeks in silence. The solitude is a real issue. I'm alone, but I'm surrounded by activity and that makes me feel part of the stream of life."

Bambury is that rarest of creatures. A living, financially successful New Zealand artist. You can buy a small painting for a few thousand dollars, but his largest works have $150,000 price tags. The new studio is extraordinary — a mezzanine floor, a room for making paint, equipment for cutting aluminium, an office, a library and enormous white walls with old works, new works and works in progress.Stacked geometric forms are pegged together, "They're in my peripheral vision and, as I walk past, I just touch and I play and at a certain point, they make themselves."

There is another studio in France, and an architecturally designed house in a gentrified inner suburb.

But he is uncomfortable talking about all of this. Bambury was also, once, aged 19 with zero job prospects and married to Jan, who was expecting their first child. They are still married. They have two children, and one grandchild.

"After I left school I had no career path. I looked like Frank Zappa or Freddie Mercury. I was completely unemployable. I can show you photographs. It was frightening. My first job was tailing out timber in Morningside."

He thought he would make a career in advertising; he almost went to architecture school.

Colour swatches in artist Stephen Bambury's studio. Photo / Doug Sherring
Colour swatches in artist Stephen Bambury's studio. Photo / Doug Sherring

"You're trying to find your way in the most dire of circumstances, really. The thing that sent me to art school was that Jan bought me a briefcase. We were living on the North Shore, I was commuting into the city every day to work for Bond and Bond, designing their graphics and supermarket interiors.

"I really questioned the way people lived their lives. I didn't want that kind of life. They said I was either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Well, I was both really."

He's been through the mill, he says.

"I didn't reconnect with my feelings until sometime in my mid-30s, really. I've had two major breakdowns, I've been suicidal ..."

Now: "I'm more focused now than I have ever been about my mission, about what I have to do, come thick or thin. I painted for all those years when I never sold anything. I'd paint tomorrow again, if people didn't buy or like what I'm doing. I would choose freedom."

What does the plaintiff remember most about Bambury v Jensen?

"The pain."

Bambury took up boxing during the trial ("and it wasn't shadow boxing!") And he kept painting.

"My work ... is like a missile that's shot from somewhere and it's a heat-seeking missile and it's looking for a target and the target is audience — and if you're lucky, you find it."

It's earlier in the interview, when he was in full stride through the studio, explaining the paint wall with the labelled aluminium swatches that ensure he can mix the same colour every time. He stops by a pile of black and gold cut-outs to show the "necessary correction" he is performing on a copy of a Colin McCahon painting. He pulls out plan drawers to reveal dozens of notebooks containing collaged scraps of his world travels. He points to a painting and then the space beside the painting: "It's in our space, it's sharing that with us."

To be honest, he says, he'd like to keep it all.

"But, also, I don't want to have the biggest collection of Bamburys in the world. The more I let go, the more abundance I get. I don't mean more sales, I may not get sales. The abundance I'm talking about is that gold of alchemy, which was never gold — it was knowledge.

"I learnt through the last few years how important, at a personal level, the therapeutic nature of art was to me. Once I understood that, I also understood it might actually have a function like that in broader society, in the bigger world."

All those crosses, all that geometry — it's a portal.

"Do you know what I think is most under threat today? The contemplative. Our ability to spend time in solitude. We have a generation of young people who have been brought up addicted to their phones. They have social media where they think they've got 300,000 friends. They don't have any friends!

"What I'm interested in is the authenticity of that contemplative place."

It moves him deeply, he says, that his art might mean something to someone when they take it out of a gallery and put it in their home.

"We've created this culture, for better or worse, where we put art works in these white cubes and we interrogate them under these lights as though it were a torture chamber. Art is actually meant to be out in the world. The way it was in the cave, the way it was in the monasteries and in the Byzantine chapels. But I go into most museums, and whilst I love the idea that I can see this work, it's more like going into a prison than a nice place, often."

If you live with a painting, you can catch it off-guard.

"You don't interrogate it like Guantanamo Bay. You catch it as a glimpse, or as you pass a window. This is terribly important. I don't think art is something that you need to sit in front of and bow to for hours on end."

Up those stairs and on one of the mid-century modern chairs he favours, Bambury knows what he wants people to get from his new paintings.

"I want to give people joy. I want to give people beauty. I want to give them the chance of solitude within the work, the contemplative space of being themselves."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
The Word
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
CASPER Suicide Prevention
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
Stephen Bambury's Lines of Desire shows at Trish Clark Gallery, Auckland, until May 27.