Artist continues to use palette for protest

By Dionne Christian

Margaret Lawlor-Bartlett  and her grand-daughter Mila Vanderlaan have collaborated for the exhibition. Photo / Doug Sherring
Margaret Lawlor-Bartlett and her grand-daughter Mila Vanderlaan have collaborated for the exhibition. Photo / Doug Sherring

In the heady days of anti-nuclear protests, artist Margaret Lawlor-Bartlett cut up her children's bedsheets to make protest banners emblazoned with the words "no nuclear ships" and hung them from boat masts.

She joined the Visual Artists Against Nuclear Arms group, directed the final stage of its mural with 22 panels by 22 top NZ artists, and earned a QSM for her work with the peace movement.

Years earlier, Lawlor-Bartlett had walked out of Elam School of Fine Arts - never to return - when she was advised not to finish her painting Nuclear Holocaust with Aunt Isobel and Uncle Rupert Having A Cuppa and to concentrate instead on painting Adam and Eve.

Seven decades since she started painting - and with a non-nuclear US warship finally heading our way in November - the social commentator and protest artist continues to use art as a call to action. In her first solo show in 16 years, the mother of six and grandmother of nine has turned her attention to one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.

What Will We Leave Them? includes paintings and prints, rich with figurative imagery and symbolism which ask us to consider the world future generations will inherit if carbon emissions are not reduced.

"New Zealand is just the right size to get our act together as we did in 1985, when we led the world with our anti-nuclear arms policy," says Lawlor-Bartlett. "We can find ways of reducing carbon emissions so that our scientists can use their magnificent global brains to work out ways to keep our planet liveable longer - with us on it."

She's hopeful it can be achieved, saying that the "responsible people of this planet, helped by the vision of artists and scientists, have so far avoided the nuclear extinction of the human race for some 70 years".

"I have moved to a new optimism in my work."

Lawlor-Bartlett says she's always had the urge to work toward social change.

"I think it came from being bullied at school which made me quite political."

Because What Will We Leave Them? is an exhibition about the future, her mokopuna (grandchildren) Mila and Arlo Vanderlaan and Ren Bartlett-Porteous have helped create the work.

Mila, 10, and Arlo, 8, spend Thursday afternoons after school in Lawlor-Bartlett's Devonport studio colouring and printing woodcuts or modelling for paintings. Ren, 11, joins in whenever she's in Auckland, holidaying from Dunedin.

As well as learning about making art and preparing for an exhibition, Lawlor-Bartlett talks to them about climate change and the role they can play in reducing carbon emissions. She shares with them her memories of being involved with the peace and women's movements.

But she doesn't talk about age.

"People hear a number and automatically make assumptions," she says. "There's such ageism out there, but I feel young and still have the energy to do something to change things. We older artists who still feel that way should be used. Why not use the wisdom and knowledge and energy of older people?"

- NZ Herald

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