As he releases his new book - a collection of his doodles and quotes - Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson visits Hill on his yacht, The Beast.
Herodotus, the "father of history", was the first to document the mythical Phoenix and how it rose triumphantly from the ashes. The scribe never really believed this tale, but Michael Hill can certainly relate to it.
Hill lost a newly built family home in a devastating fire in Whāngārei some 40 years ago. While watching the flames engulf his life, Hill was suddenly struck with an awakening. Not only to rebuild the home but to rebuild his own life. Had this tragedy not happened, perhaps we would only know of him fleetingly as Michael Hill, Jeweller, Whāngārei.
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Today, of course, we are all too familiar with the giant Phoenix that rose from these ashes. I'm aboard the immaculate multi-hulled Superyacht, The Beast, at Westhaven and Michael Hill, Jeweller, is looking tailor-sharp, gym-slick and indestructible, totally belying his 80 years.
The crew are crisp in dress and manners and bonded by a definite camaraderie and respect for their chief. In Hill's mind, there is no rank or class: "We are all equal". An axiom he has carried throughout his entire life.
"It's always about people," he's quick to remind you. "You nurture them and allow them the space to grow to their full potential."
But rest assured, there's no room in his path for "egos or "fake personas".
Hill's life experiences and the countless goals that have been conquered, afford him the ability to natter charmingly on almost any subject. This aside, his mind can be a very busy place and like many high-functioning creatives, it can fire like a mini reactor. There's a confession to regularly using yoga and meditation to keep the grey matter steady. No doubt balanced with a damn fine wine.
On the table in front of us, is yet another "beast", titled, Catch and Release. As he explains: "Catching an idea and then releasing it".
This is a monumental 412-page visual chronicle of his life as a surprisingly prolific cartoonist. A kaleidoscope of thoughts and observations sketched to paper on a whim. To talk of the book is to traverse a visual diary of his life. Woven into the cartoons and whimsical sketches are maxims and quotes that will surely be a gift to those wishing to be granted the elixir to good health and a better way of life. Even better if you could rummage through the hundreds that must lay on the cutting room floor.
Scribblers emerge from all cultures and backgrounds and cover a range of genres, with the most common thread being astute observers of the human condition. They record the full spectrum of humanity, from the utter madness to the sublime. Hill delivers this in doodled spades. He will wave a lot of it off as nonsense yet the cover artwork could easily be a window into the man behind the pen. Hoisted high by a crane is a naked man in a box crate labelled Fragile, Endangered Species, Handle With Care etc. Is this the real Michael Hill?
As we chat across a range of subjects, I detect a driven, passionate, complex man capable of great vision, wit and fragility, yet embodied with the courage to make mistakes and a wish to leave no one behind. The voice is radio-rich and polished and the tone is unpretentious. His etchings nestle neatly between Michael Leunig and Peter Bromhead. Fanciful, mischievous and enlightening.
A favourite of mine is No Strings Attached. A puppet on strings that is now in control of its own destiny. For the author, he turns to the last page and points to the violinist bowing to the audience. On the adjacent page is a paragraph message titled Grand Finale. Engraved words of wisdom that will hopefully be mulled over and nourished by a new generation.
As an artist, there is always something that will constantly trip you up and his stumbling block is one that we all struggle with - hands and feet. He's tried life drawing classes to rid himself of this curse. Walt Disney simplified hands to gloving them and reducing them to 3 fingers and a thumb.
"Mine can end up looking like spikes or pork sausages," Hill says with a belly laugh. For me, I try to skilfully hide the feet and have long given up on the hands.
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Winding back the jeweller's clock nearly 70 years, Hill admits to having an unusual upbringing. Growing up in the rough and tumble of Whangarei Boys' High School for a lad who was impeccably dressed by his parents and nurturing a desire to play the violin professionally, you're a fridge magnet for eternal bullying. Winning a school art prize may have not alluded to another creative side that was yet to surface. They were all regularly caned. A lad would be dispatched into the bush behind the school to select a birch that would administer the punishment. As the school years tumbled, so too did his interest in schooling: "I couldn't wait to get out of the place."
The musical gene came from his father, who was an accomplished pianist. The golf gene came from his mother. The desire to draw would come later, but for now, his goal was to conquer the violin. The Herald at the time held a violin competition, which he didn't win, but coming fourth was enough incentive to cement a life-long fervour for an instrument that has been idolised as the pinnacle of human creativity and ingenuity. His parents and uncle had other career aspirations, of course, and decided he was far better suited to watchmaking.
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Dispatched by the family to Auckland's Queen St jewellery store of Stewart Dawsons, he began to draw caricatures of one of the senior staff, who had a rather large nose. A cartoonist's dream. This drifted to drawing other members of the staff, and soon the gift was momentarily recognised. It was then decided that he should draw the company advertisements that would appear in the Herald. This, in turn, led to window-dressing the shopfront, which demanded a combination of creative flair and commercial skill.
These were all innovative skills that would be taken back to the family business in Whāngārei. This creative flair for window-dressing didn't exactly gel with his uncle, who harboured a rather robust Whāngārei difference of opinion on a range of Hill's ideas. Eventually in 1969 Hill won an international award for this unique skill, bringing with it exposure and, finally, some respect. The old pink-sheeted Women's Weekly, which was then published by the Herald, featured his skill in windows. The fate was sealed and the arguments ceased.
Yet another pursuit that features in this beast of a book is the game of golf. The mere mention of the word flushes out a host of tales and anecdotes. His entrepreneurial skills kicked in early as a youth in Whangarei, where he had mowed a section of neighbouring ground and created a putting course using old baked bean tins. For a couple of bob, you could play the course and enter a putting comp.
The opposing bookend to this youthful experience is the sprawling complex in Queenstown that is now the envy of the global golfing community and the home of the NZ Open, The Hills in Queenstown. You can loosely thank radio announcer Mike Hosking for planting that seed after a tongue-in-cheek acceptance of an invitation to come and play at a charity game of chip and putt on a small course Hill had created around the family home. One green led to another until eventually the decision was made to finally build a real course.
Not to do anything by halves, the result is a jaw-dropping exclusive golfing retreat designed to suit all skill sets. He's quick to point out that there's an unwritten rule in golfing circles about designing. No matter how fast or slow you build, it ultimately costs an eye-watering $1 million a hole to create.
Then comes the masterful window dressing - you can't have a magnificent course without a striking clubhouse or towering sculptures that line the fairways. Something to admire while you look for lost balls. Soon to appear is a series of totem poles that are currently being passionately carved in the Bay of Islands, not dissimilar to the ones seen at the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi.
Getting the NZ Open to The Hills became the crowning moment of a long and hideously expensive journey that continues to evolve daily. The game itself has produced some great players, but does he have a favourite? The names roll quickly but "you can't go past Bob Charles", Hill says.
I mention my favourite - Lydia Ko, although she's hit a bunker career-wise for the moment, he was in awe of her early skills and only time will tell how she progresses.
As we casually chat on The Beast's deck lounge, I flip pages in the book and seize upon the violin. "Have you been to Cremona?" I ask. This is the Italian town that has been the home of violin-making since the days of Stradivari and Amati. The eyes light up behind the tinted glasses and the smile broadens - and he's away with yarns about yet another life passion, the violin. This is an instrument that has long been called the pinnacle of man's creative genius. He's walked Cremona's streets and absorbed its historical ambience but is yet to walk the Forest of Violins in the Dolomites.
This is a precious forest of unique harmonic timbers that were used by the classical violin makers like Stradivari and are still used to this day. A film for any music lover is The Red Violin - a 1998 fictional piece based loosely on the 1720 Red Mendelssohn Stradivarius. The Stradivari was varnished in Burgundy, but the film version has it stained in the blood of the deceased violin maker's wife and follows the violin through the ages to an auction house in New York, where it is sold for the price of constructing a couple of Michael Hill golf greens.
Over the years, he's collected precious violins and fosters its playing through his internationally renowned biennial Michael Hill Violin Competition. The problem now is that with so many young talented players, you have to look beyond the skill to the person. I quiz him about two classically trained cellists, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, better known as the 2Cellos. They launched a career on YouTube playing contemporary rock music on classical instruments, eventually scooped up and promoted by Elton John at one stage.
Hill is all in favour of experimenting and breaking moulds and points to the splendid work being done by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, which is doing precisely that. After all, Hill has dedicated the last 40 years of his life doing the same.
As a cartoonist and observer of the human condition, I ask him how are we doing collectively, as a human race. "Oh, I think we're headed in the wrong direction … We're very fortunate to live in New Zealand but we're now catching up with the rest of the world".
He hints of a fear of a disconnect in a new generation that has embraced an all-consuming technology but overlooked the wondrous surrounds of this fabulous country.
By the same token, we don't need an inferno to shake us out of any intransigence. Hill now has a regular spot for his cartoons in Queenstown's Mountain Scene and deadlines and subject matter are a new beast to wrestle. There is simply no end to his craving for challenges.
As I head back up the marina and into the city, I'm thinking how lucky New Zealand is to have Michael Hill. Quietly pushing from behind with tireless enthusiasm, constantly creating new goals and inspiring all those that come into his orbit to push boundaries and think outside the square. Once you are caught and released by Michael Hill, surely you are forever the better.
Catch and Release
By Sir Michael Hill
Released October 19