On Monday night painter Roger Mortimer won this year's Wallace Arts Trust Paramount Award - which means that he gets to go to New York for six months, for a residency, and what's more, he gets money to live on while he's there. Also, his winning painting, Otago Harbour, is bought by the trust for its collection for, he thinks, $4000. He is not entirely clear, either, on the finer points of the award and in particular how the financial side of it works. He is not very clear on how the financial side of things works in general, I think. I told his lovely wife, Gina, that he should be rich and famous and she said: "Yes!" But he's not very interested in being rich, is he? I said. "No!" she said.
She said she sometimes wishes he was a bit more interested in money but I don't think she wishes this very often. She is a psychotherapist and is training to be a Jungian therapist and so is interested in dreams, but not of that sort. She is dead chuffed about his award and so of course is he. But in a quiet way. He was mulling it over.
The artist was having a dreamy sort of week. The morning after he was, he said, "still floating". On Thursday he said: "It makes me feel like I have a place in the cultural landscape. It sounds a bit pathetic - I feel a bit pathetic - but I loved it!"
We looked at one of his paintings hanging over the fireplace in his ex-state house in Sandringham and there he was, in the upper right-hand corner, still floating. You wouldn't know, if you hadn't asked, that it was him. I had said, in a not at all art-critiquey way: "What's the stuff coming out of that man's belly button?"
Oh. That's a bit of personal narrative. I got Crohn's disease when I was about 35 and had an operation and that's called stoma. You don't have to put it in the paper... but that's a kind of metaphor for what I do. I try to turn shit into gold. So it's gold shit.
It was golden stuff, falling from the man floating in the sky, and very strange and wondrous. He said, peering: "I need my glasses!" Then: "Oh. That's a bit of personal narrative. I got Crohn's disease when I was about 35 and had an operation and that's called stoma. You don't have to put it in the paper ... but that's a kind of metaphor for what I do. I try to turn shit into gold. So it's gold shit." He said this in a not at all art-critiquey way.
He didn't want me to bang on about his Crohn's disease because he doesn't want to be defined by it and, "I'm not a sick man!" He's 58 next week. He said: "I went surfing yesterday! Out at Bethells." Not a sick man then, but a bit mad, surely to go surfing out at Bethells in that freezing cold water. "It was really cold. This is the worst time of the year." What does he like about surfing in the freezing cold? "Oh! You can't really express how wonderful it is."
I supposed it was exhilarating, in a mad kind of way. "Everything. It covers all the bases. Like the environment for a start. It's so nourishing. You go there and you look at the landscape, at what you're looking at from the ocean, not wanting to paint it or anything. You're just part of it. Then you're looking all the time for waves coming through and when you get the right one, you just dance on it. You express yourself to the fullest."
He is better at expressing himself about his surfing than he is about his art. He is about as good at arty talk as I am, so we got on (to continue with the theme) just swimmingly. He said he had lain awake the night before I came to see him trying to think about what he'd say about his paintings, but he feared it would be "gobbledy".
But he had a go. He uses old cartographic maps in his work, originally "done by pilot boats and they became very valuable and I was thinking of the Portuguese because they marked the way to get to the gold. They were treasure maps and they became maps of power and maps of domination ... but I was thinking about the relationship between marking the way and then I've introduced images from the [Bible's] Book of Revelation and Dante's Inferno and, in a way, they mark the way too. [Dante's] Descent into Hell and going through into Heaven ... and I sort of feel that may be part of the task of the artist - to try and mark the way. But don't use it if it sounds too gobbledy!"
He has said that his paintings are "exorcisms". His first illuminated work was made when he was on a sickness benefit and had the idea of writing out one of the forms he'd received from the Department of Social Welfare. "I thought it was quite a witty thing to do as a painter. But the exorcism came when I actually decided to do it as calligraphy - because it's not my nature to write it out really roughly.
"I thought: 'I want to do it really carefully'. And I considered that process a way of approaching my conflict regarding being on a benefit and dealing with Social Welfare which was at times quite difficult." People liked that work and so he started illuminating, like medieval manuscripts, other personal documents like his bank statements and letters and "that was the starting point of using the imagery".
It might not have been quite the starting point, when it comes to painting as exorcism. He was raised a Catholic and has less than fond memories of the nuns at his primary school in New Plymouth who he says were nasty and "made a fool of you". He says he is now a Catholic Buddhist, which sounds as rare a beast as one of the griffins in his paintings. He was joking, sort of. Gina told me he is very mischievous. There are often rude jokes in his paintings; of naked bums, sometimes in paintings which at first glance look like religious works. Which might be the equivalent of saying bum to nuns.
We looked at a work in progress. There were men with enormous rocks on their heads and a terrible beast with no nose and creatures with snakes' bodies and others with devils' heads, almost all doing ghastly things to each other. It is (already) a beautiful painting. I wondered what the inside of his head must be like. "No, no! Gina would say these are all psychological images." Well, yes. That was rather my point. "I think they are just manifestations or projections of our own world. Being a human being is actually very difficult and we all go through things that are difficult. How do we visually express that?"
He looked at his painting as though he'd never seen it before and said, of one of the figures: "I find it very odd that she has a fish's tail."
Surfing makes him happy. "Very much so." Painting doesn't. "No. Not really. I think it's been a choice. In fact, it's a mystery." He doesn't spend much time trying to analyse this, or the work. He said he wouldn't want to do it if he knew exactly what it was all about. "That's not my job. My job is to stay open to the mystery of it." Perhaps he really is a Catholic Buddhist.
He paints in a little old garage in the wonderful, jungly garden where Gina keeps bees. They swarmed once, he said, up into the plum tree, an amazing event which looked like some apocalyptic event from one of his paintings. It is cold in the garage in winter and he has to keep it ventilated with the door open because he has developed an allergy to the acrylic paints he uses and dries with a banged up, ancient-looking hair drier. I thought this might be psychological - the artist is allergic to his work - but he said that it's real and it meant he was unable to sleep and would sometimes be awake all night.
I asked the psychotherapist and she said it was "quite a saga" and that she was going to buy him some fingerless mittens to keep his fingers warm. You get the feeling that she is the practical one in the relationship.
They have lived here, with their two sons, since 1991. They met in Sydney, at a physical theatre course which involved yoga and acrobatics and clowning. I was having a hard time imagining him wanting to do anything so outgoing. He said: "I wanted to be bigger because I think I'm sort of held in by myself, by my own psychology or whatever."
He enjoyed the awards ceremony but found the dinner afterwards, at Sir James Wallace's house, a bit tricky. "I'm not keen on dinner things. I find them very complex. And I'm not familiar with them, either." He claims he is a "closet extrovert" but it must be a very deep closet I thought, but perhaps not.
I asked about meeting Gina and if it was love at first sight and he thought for a moment before saying: "I had dyed orange hair at the time", which might be evidence that he can let his extroverted nature out of the closet, just occasionally. He wore his orange hair in a pony tail (now he has long grey hair in a pony tail) "and she pulled it", and that was that, really. He has four other, older children, from two earlier relationships. "I had quite a fickle career in that respect." He is very proud of all of his children and loves them and they love him and he tells you this in a faintly amazed way because he never thought he wanted any children, let alone six. He is now a grandfather. "Now, I'm just delighted!" He didn't think he wanted children because he didn't want "anything I could get attached to".
He is dotty about cats and he and Gina have two Burmese, Furpo (a terrible joke; named after the character Firpo in the End of the Golden Weather) and Bling, because they had no money but paid $400 for a cat. "That was our bling!"
He became an artist late. He went to Elam when he was 35 because he was so ill he thought: "I can't do anything else so I will become an artist now." Really, he had always wanted to be an artist but his engineer father thought there was no money in it (he was right about that) and so he studied engineering, gave that up after a year and became a primary school teacher until he got sick.
He is a quiet, softly spoken fellow who leads a fairly insular life, in his garage, painting, painstakingly, slowly. Each work takes him about a month and he says he does plod at it rather but that's just the pace he goes at - slowly, methodically and intricately.
His paintings are wonderful and so is he and I really do think he should be famous. But if he ever does make any money, I'd advise that Gina looks after it. He'd likely just spend it all on the cats, surfboards and more gold paint.