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Sarah Hillary remembers family holidays near Wanaka, climbing the relatively benign Mt Maude.

"I seem to remember it had a wonderful cave near the top, which we used to love going into as children. It was very exciting," she says.

The Mt Maude in Hillary's new show at Anna Miles Gallery is a copy of part of Rita Angus' Mt Maud, done on an ancient pipi shell collected from a beach at Whangarei Heads. What is different from many of the other mountains featured in the show, all sourced from paintings by 20th-century New Zealand artists, is that it has the "right" name.

The mountain in Mt Cook, which draws on a familiar Rita Angus painting of a bare tree at Lake Wanaka, is probably Treble Cone. The Cook is a reference to Angus' married name. Angus is also the source of Mt Rita, which samples her painting of the railway station at Cass.

Hillary thus joins a line of homage - which includes Julian Dashper, Peter Peryer and Dane Mitchell - to a work voted New Zealand's greatest painting in a 2006 poll conducted by television arts programme Frontseat.

Marjorie Marshall, whose painting May Morning, Wanaka gives rise to Mt Marjorie, was a friend of Angus.

Rata Lovell-Smith, who is the source of three of Hillary's mountains, Rata, Ida and Teitei, was also a member with Angus of Christchurch's Group painters, as was Olivia Spencer Bower and Doris Lusk, who also feature.

Another Christchurch painter, Bill Sutton, provided elements which, blended with a Lovell-Smith work, become the brooding Back Country, while Christopher Perkins' Mt Taranaki provides the sole North Island reference.

"A lot of the mountains in the original paintings were not named," says Hillary. "They don't tell you where the mountain was, so that's all the more reason to make up my own names.

"It's sort of like the Sherpas were never given names. It was 'also the Sherpa' that climbed the mountain [Everest]. Alexa [Johnston, biographer of her father, Sir Edmund Hillary] named them in her book. Well, I named the mountains. They're not going to be unnamed."

Each shell mountain is set above a watercolour of a page of fern specimens collected around Dargaville by Hillary's great-grandmother, Ida Fleming. "There are all these botanical specimens squashed in crazy patterns. I thought it was such a wonderful idea and, like the mountains, I don't know what the names are."

Landscape has been a powerful driver of New Zealand painting, usually unblemished by the human form or presence. Meaning is distilled into hills and sky.

There's a consistency to the way Hillary's sources approached the land. They are not going for the gestural symbolic mountainness reached for by McCahon or Woollaston, or the painterly scenery of Peter McIntyre and his imitators. "Virtually all of these ones are quite defined, crisp, tidying everything up, which I quite like, because I have never managed it in my own life," she says.

Hillary has been developing her miniatures, often juxtaposed with patterns such as textiles, for several years as an offshoot of her day job as Auckland Art Gallery conservator.

"There is always an investigation of art history even if that is unfashionable in today's art discourse.

"I am sure I'm completely unfashionable," she says, with laconic unconcern. "I started looking at these things when I was doing my conservation research, looking at things for paintings and taking bits out of them, and that's what I kept doing. It's a good way of looking at things. Often you just glance over things, but if you are copying a bit of a picture you are looking at it really closely. "When I did the Frances Hodgkins series, some of them were abstract and it's really hard to copy them. You have to work out where things are going and what's under and what's on top."

Hillary says working on a small scale has improved the retouching she does as a conservator. She is also using watercolour, and getting an appreciation for those of her sources who would have worked "en plein air".

"I have done the occasional things out of doors and it's wonderful having that luxury but you need that time to sit there and not freeze to death and, hopefully, not have a whole crowd of people around.

"I remember painting a watercolour on a Northland beach and getting eaten by midges and just ignoring them, and it was a big mistake. I ended up having these big sores on my legs for the next two weeks."

Hillary's output is increasing in recent years with regular shows and contributions to group collections.

She says that comes down to finding a routine that works.

"I am always trying to think of more ideas. There are lots of ideas. It is interesting, because it does make you look in a whole different way from your work. It gives you a whole different world of interest."