Alan Duff: I rue my father's wasted talent

Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff
Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff

My father's animal drawings are finally framed and up on our walls, 24 years after his death in 1992.

Done from the ages of 10 to 12 years, I think they're extraordinary. Two horses rearing up at each other; chooks in various poses of calm, or ruffled feathers competition; a horse pulling a man on a cart; a sheepdog; a placid milking cow.

These sketches, of perfect proportion, scale, shade and perspective, were done in the years 1920-22. My grandmother has written his name, Gowan, and his age when he drew them.

I know good art when I see it. They remind in their perfect proportions of the 12,000 -14,000-year-old cave drawings my wife and I were awed by in Dordogne, France.

Dad's mother must have kept the drawings and handed them over, perhaps when he came home from World War II. I have no memory of him showing us his drawings, though we did witness his ability to whip up amazingly life-like studies of animals.

They make me sad, too, for the talent that got wasted. My theory is that shyness corralled Gowan "Pat" Duff. I'm not saying he could have been up there with even the moderately great. But you'll see by the accompanying photographs he was better than just good.

Should it have signalled a career as an art lecturer? Isn't drawing skill a pre-requisite to being an architect? His work reflected sensitivity, he loved reading; could he have been a writer? Anything but the career he chose after the war: measuring irregular tree volumes to the nth-degree, at which he was so accomplished he was considered a world leader in his field of complex mathematics.

But that work was not creative, artistic. Maybe he lacked the necessary multitude of life-traumas to have been an artist or a writer. His childhood thoughts and emotions were not formed like those of his children: in the cauldron of a raging mother's violent carry-on. He grew up being loved and intellectually stimulated.

Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff
Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff

But could he have done more with his gift? A man fascinated by near everything on the planet, in the heavens, of abstract thought, philosophy, music, the humanities, and of course that war he was in, he came up short.

This column has said before: we all have relations and friends who showed so much promise at a young age only to end up lost in obscurity, the talent dispersed by opting for social frivolity, by laziness; and one inevitable day, disappearing.

My view that my father's talent was wasted is less a judgment than a call for responsibility. I think those lucky enough to be gifted by nature ought to develop that to the max. Or is that being too hard?

Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff
Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff

No, say I. Shyness be damned, I inherited a dollop of it myself but refused to let that stop me speaking in public, being sociable. My dear dad just stayed at home, hardly ever entertained, much as he loved company that allowed him to pour forth on his every curiosity; never about himself. All the while, those drawings sat in a drawer, unmentioned.

One of our greatest writers, Janet Frame, suffered terribly from shyness. I met her and was delighted she felt comfortable enough to chat merrily away. In my father's case, yes, he let that artistic talent stay in the past, and he was not sociable.

Yet he faced a nightmarish marriage to Mrs Angry herself with such dignity that even hinting he was cowardly in not facing his shyness demons is the real disgrace. You're reading this thanks to that man's genes and gentle influence.

Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff
Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff

No, I didn't get the drawing gene. Just an empathy with words from being exposed to books and conversations with dad. My mother's fraught, emotional, volatile take on the world I learned to emulate, to my shame. Then control; to shift off Me, Myself and I, and so to be empathetic to others' emotions.

So narcissism be double-damned. I'm grateful to a father whose sense of wonder and curiosity no shyness could restrain, his every thought pure art.

Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff
Photo / Supplied by Alan Duff

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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