After exhibiting in competitive New York, a Kiwi artist has returned invigorated, Ellen Irvine hears
RESPECTED New Zealand artist Meredith Collins exhibited in New York last year, but she's just as happy to have her work on display in Tauranga.
Collins' work was shown at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, NYC, in December.
And the Fisher Brown Gallery in Tauranga will hang Collins' pieces from July 8 in Face & Body, an exhibition of New Zealand figurative and portraiture painting.
Ironically, the Hamilton artist's foray into the international art scene invigorated her passion for the New Zealand art scene.
"New York is full of artists and hopefuls," Collins says. "I think what it really highlighted for me was the importance of concentrating on your profile in your own country.
"You are not going to get noticed in New York if you are not noticed in your own country first.
"They want you to have quite a long exhibiting history; you have to be in all the public galleries.
"It was a reality check. I think a lot of people go over starry-eyed, thinking 'I just need to be discovered', and it's not really like that."
 Although commissioned paintings are her "bread and butter", Collins' collection for the Fisher Brown exhibition features mostly ethereal female nudes.
Gallery director Hayley Brown described Collins' works as "captivating". The gallery was proud to host her first exhibition in Tauranga.
The idea for many of Collins' paintings was born after she organised a photo shoot of a model in a 2m swimming pool.
The resulting pictures inspired a series of artworks.
"The female form is rather attractive and lovely, most people don't mind looking at it," Collins laughs.
"People don't really like looking at nude blokes, which is a shame."
Collins, who uses oil on canvas, chooses to paint nudes in the majority of her works. The nude figure is untainted by any symbolic connection, she says.
"It doesn't place the body in an era, or communicate anything other than the human form. It's kind of pure."
That purity is an important part of expressing heritage and identity, one of Collins' main themes.
"I actually started out thinking more in terms of national identity. Because we are such a young country, what does national identity mean to us?
"A lot of people might say the All Blacks or some sporting reference, which actually doesn't mean a lot to me personally. I'm not a sports fan and don't identify with that.
"What is it that makes a New Zealander?
"It came up from filling out another form that said 'ethnicity', and having to tick more than one box. I thought, when are we going to grow up and have New Zealander and not have to qualify our background?"
Collins' own heritage is mixed, with Maori and English blood "probably among others in the woodwork, which probably makes me a pure Kiwi".
The artist explores her cultural identity and personal heritage using ta moko and evocative symbolism in her work.
In previous work, she has used eels and poi; in others native and exotic birds.
Collins balances painting with a design practice, studying for a bachelor of music, and being a wife and mother.
Her husband Gary Collins is also a well-known artist, and daughters Sunday, 9, and Milan, 6, are already showing creative flair.
Collins has always been drawn to art, and as a child was always "addicted to" her felt-tipped pens.
But her success as an artist now comes despite a crisis of confidence after art school, when she felt her work was irrelevant.
It was through meeting her husband that Collins got back her self-belief.
"He was able to teach me what I was missing," she says.
"He said 'paint what you paint, who cares if you think you don't fit? It doesn't matter'.
"I've been totally embraced [by the art world]."
Having two self-employed artists in the family can be tricky, but the Collinses make it work.
"We decided we just couldn't work for the man any more. Without sounding egotistical, we are too talented to work for someone else.
"We needed to be our own bosses and forge our own way.
"It's blimmin' scary - it's the scariest thing you ever do in your life.
"You've got to constantly remind yourself why you are doing it, and it's okay, and that the money is going to come in."
Also featuring in the Fisher Brown Gallery exhibition are Freeman White, Evan Woodruffe, Dean Tercel, Graham Crowe, Hayley Brown, Bryce Brown, Tim Quirke and Angela Maritz.
* Face & Body, New Zealand Figurative and Portraiture Painting. July 8-31. Fisher Brown Gallery, 57 Ninth Ave, Tauranga. www.fisherbrowngallery.com