Michele Hewitson Interview: Greer Twiss

By Michele Hewitson

Greer Twiss' bronze sculpture on the corner of Symonds St and Karangahape Rd was much derided 40 years ago but has become a much-loved inner-city landmark. Photo / Greg Bowker
Greer Twiss' bronze sculpture on the corner of Symonds St and Karangahape Rd was much derided 40 years ago but has become a much-loved inner-city landmark. Photo / Greg Bowker

Greer Twiss is An Important Artist. When I told my editor this I got ticked off for being pompous and quite right, too. When I told The Important Artist, he laughed, because there is nothing pompous about him.

He told me about the time he gave a talk to some Christchurch art students. "And one of them said, 'There's a lot of humour in your work.' And I said, 'Yes.' And he said, 'Don't you think it rather demeans it?"' "I said, 'I don't."'

So I should have said that he's a Very Funny Artist. He is 73, a little fellow, but wiry and strong. If you were to sculpt him you'd probably choose as your material the galvanised steel he sometimes likes to work in. He's in his working clobber and has a hole in his black jumper. "My wife refuses to darn." Perhaps a moth had been at it.

I told him that when I opened his file, at 1955 - he was a teenage puppeteer - a moth flew out. He liked this. "Ha, ha, ha. I think that's the opening paragraph of the story."

It's one way of noting that he's had a long career, as whatever sort of artist he might be described as.

Another is to say that he's having an exhibition, Survey: 1963 - 2002, at John Leech Gallery. A wonderful invitation arrived, with a picture of his 2002 sculpture, Degas Passed This Way: a young girl made from sheet metal, wearing a ragged fabric tutu. An armour-plated cat is clawing at her legs. I met that cat. She appears to be a friendly, good-natured little thing. The cat's owner said, with relish: "Be warned. Her name is Piranha."

The sculpture is for sale, for $28,000, but if it ever sells his family have made him agree to make another, because the girl is his granddaughter, Heron. He is, he thinks, sentimental about things - he collects junk, it might be a sort of obsession. He says he's got better about throwing things out, but you do wonder. He has drawers and drawers of treasures and likes the surprise of opening one to find that he's forgotten what he'd stashed.

But of course $28,000 would be handy. He'd been to the opening of Survey the night before I saw him and he groused a bit, on the way, to his wife, Dee. He said, "I'm beyond this. I don't want to go to any more openings. You're sort of on show. You've got to work the floor, if you like." Why does he think people want to meet artists? "I have no idea."

But he enjoyed it once he was there - he can put on, but not sustain, the role of A Grumpy Old Artist - because lots of his friends came, which is always nice, although strangers with open wallets might be even nicer. He said, "It was quite interesting, I had so many people coming up to me and saying, 'These prices are ridiculous, far too cheap. They should be twice the price'." But what did he think? "Well, I don't sell at twice the price. I don't sell at half the price!"

He's not at all bitter about that fact. He will own to "disappointment" that "sculpture doesn't sell all that well". What he thinks about this is, he said, shrugging: "It's a pain."

He had a bit of an "amused" grump about the two big art awards, one which gives money to younger artists, and one which gives no money but "just a pat on the back" to senior artists. "You know, I wouldn't get one because I'm too old and I wouldn't take the other one because ... I'm buggered if I'm going to have it. Give me the money!"

I asked what he was like to live with. I meant: was he grumpy? Or difficult? I was thinking about the junk collecting, for one thing, and about his reputed temper, for another.

He insisted, quite reasonably, that I ask his wife, Dee, the psychologist and non-darner, the answer to the question. I do, later. He said, in the meantime, "You're over-blowing this!", about his temper, but I think he enjoys being known to have a short fuse.

He told me a glorious story about a Judith Binney book launch. He was having a bit of a spat with art consultant Hamish Keith at the time (they have been friends since the 1960s, with what you might call intermissions). "And I got really fed up and I said, 'Oh, bugger you, Hamish', and I threw the book and gave him a black eye."

A few years later, Binney had another book launch, and "Hamish rang me up and said, 'Are you going to Judy's book launch?' and I said, 'Yes, of course', and he said, 'Do you think we could make a latex copy of the book?' And that's Hamish."

What fun. You wouldn't want the art world to be boring, now would you? "No, of course not."

He taught at Elam Art School for four decades where he had a reputation as a fiery teacher. He gave me a look, and said, "Where did you get that from?" From a book on New Zealand sculpture, by a Head of Elam and art historian. "Oh, this would be Michael Dunn's book? Yes. Right. Well. Michael Dunn and I didn't get on very well." He was much tickled by the idea of getting his own back by telling me this and wheezed away merrily.

I am not to make much of what he says is his now-mellowed temper. I didn't need to. He took inordinate delight in making more than enough of it himself. He told me that he once flipped his desk over on top of a student. A very annoying student? "Yes, he was swearing at me - 'get f***ed or something', and I said, 'you too', and flicked the desk up and walked out." He'd get the sack for that now, but, no regrets? "No."

He said, mock-innocently, "The telephone in my office regularly got damaged. I don't know how. It used to fly off my desk and hit the wall on the other side of the room." Wheeze, wheeze.

He had terrible asthma as a child, which is presumably why he wheezes, and missed a third of his schooling. He had the asthma and, "Oh, well, I was little. I was red-haired. I was temperamental. I had odd talents. I couldn't spell. I couldn't do arithmetic".

He was probably an outsider, he says. "I was an only child. Only and lonely? Probably yes." He was hopeless at everything at school except making puppets and theatrics, he says. So while he has never much enjoyed the aspect of being the artist on show, "I must have liked the applause."

He never had a girlfriend until he met Dee and they have been married 46 years, according to him, and 48 years, according to her. I know whose arithmetic I'd trust.

That is going a long way back. The Survey goes a long way back. He has said that viewing his own work at such retrospectives is like looking at the work of another person.

In 1965 he was asked to submit a design for what would become the now much-loved, but then much-derided sculpture at the corner of Symonds St and K Rd.

A councillor, Mr Beechey, said: "From what I've seen of it, I don't like it."

The artist didn't see much of his sculpture, for years. He drove past it most days on the way to work at Elam and would turn his head away. He had a difficult relationship with his sculpture. It fell on him, for one thing, and broke ribs and a foot. "I never wanted to see it again."

Then, in the 80s, he thinks, somebody wanted a photograph and he realised he didn't have a decent one. So he thought he'd better take one and took his camera up to the corner early one morning and encountered two bums, sitting near the sculpture, with bottles in brown paper bags.

One said, "Greer Twiss." And he said, "Yeah, I know." And the bum said, "No, no. Greer Twiss. He's the guy who made that." And Greer Twiss said, "Yeah, I know. That's me." The bums said, "Come and have a drink". It was eight in the morning. He didn't have a drink but he had a chat and left feeling "warmer" towards his sculpture.

But, in an odd way, he didn't make it. He looks at earlier works and thinks of that Bob Dylan line: "I was so much older then."

The person who made the work is the young sculptor pictured in his mothy files, in a tie and jacket, he has short back and sides. He could be an accountancy student. By 1969, when the sculpture was officially opened (or whatever it is you do with sculptures), by the mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, the artist has grown side-burns, longish hair and is wearing a leather coat. Had he become hip, or hippyish, overnight? "That's pretty well right! We went overseas, in 1964, and I've got a photograph of me riding a camel in Cairo, in a tie! Then we went to London ..." He was never very wild. "No. I remember the 60s, let's put it that way."

He was probably too busy throwing telephones.

He said, to Dee, "She's got this idea that I'm ..." She finished his sentence, by saying, to him, "Feisty?" She said, to me, "Yes. I met someone in the street who said: 'How are you getting on with that feisty fellow?' It's true. But that feistiness is not every day and it's issues-based.

"So even if I don't agree with him, I always understand where it's coming from and if it's with other people, I'm usually applauding loudly - though embarrassed as hell!"

I don't believe her for a moment, about being embarrassed; I do about the applauding. I don't believe him at all when he says, as we're leaving, "I should have bitten my tongue." I called back, down the street, "At 73, I fear it's too late."

I could hear The Very Important Artist wailing and wheezing, utterly unrepentant, from the corner: "Too late! Too late!"

Only a very pompous sort of person would have failed to applaud.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a3 at 18 Sep 2014 03:58:02 Processing Time: 753ms