Key Points:

On the front of Albert Wendt's Ponsonby house is a plaque saying it was once the home of Michael Joseph Savage, before he became the first Labour Prime Minister. In years to come there may be another plaque identifying it as a home for the premier Samoan novelist of his generation.

It probably wouldn't add the term "painter", but that is how Wendt is increasingly choosing to occupy his time.

"I used to do lot of art as a boy in Samoa, but I was from a poor family so it was just pencil drawings and copying the comics," he says.

Boarding at New Plymouth Boys High School in the 1950s, he was streamed away from the art option, but picked it up at Ardmore Teachers College in 1958. "I was in the same class as Selwyn Muru and Sandy Adsett. I did art for a few years, taught it, but when I went to university I concentrated on writing."

In 2000, the urge came upon him to return to the visual arts. "I went up to the French Art Workshop [on Ponsonby Rd] and bought $300 worth of pencils and crayons and paper," he says. Since then he has been learning to paint with acrylics, something that was barely around in the 1960s. "In many ways I am younger than most of the younger generation of Pacific artists."

Wendt picked up the brushes when he moved to Oahu in 2004 to take up the Citizen's Chair at the University of Hawaii, a prestigious position with a low teaching workload that gave him plenty of time to indulge his new passion.

Wendt's first show was in Honolulu, with abstract and semi-abstract paintings which drew together elements of Hawaii's landscape, its tragic history and legends.

He retired from Auckland University last year, and Hawaii in July. The paintings for the new show at McCarthy Gallery were done in both places.

Wendt has no regrets about not doing art for 40 years. "I don't because I had to spend that time learning how to write. In the process of doing that I also sorted out my ideas about myself, society, the philosophical view I have of the world. I did it through writing.

"I found that since 2000 it was good I have sorted those ideas out and even my ideas about art. Because the thing now is: how do you use the paint? How do you use the canvas? I am absolutely fascinated by it. Physically I love putting paint on canvas. I can spend day and night painting. People are getting worried I'm not writing."

There's no doubting Wendt's mastery of the written word, but as a young painter he is still looking for a visual language. Like many New Zealand painters, he has taken licence from his friend Ralph Hotere to paint words. "I love doing it. Now I paint my poems in colour."

And like Hotere, he is drawn to black, in his case citing the Samoan creation myths, where the world emerges from an incomprehensible darkness. Legends and tales feature in the works, including those around the Lo'olau range and the Hawaiian volcanoes near where he was living.

One of the paintings on his wall incorporates the frigate bird motif familiar from tapa painting. "I try to avoid using any recognisable Pacific Island motif, but I couldn't avoid it in that painting because it is in memory of my mother, and the bird is the symbol of spirits ascending into the heavens."

Wendt says his writing has sharpened his search for the new. He likes the time he now spends staring at the canvas. "It brings to life the belief everything is interrelated. There is a whole philosophical view of the world I have had. So you change the colour up here, and realise the whole thing has to change.

"At least in painting, it is a visual thing so you can see it. I learn from writing you have to just keep working at it, that the actual process is the most important part of it. It gets difficult sometimes. I will wipe the painting, repaint it; like doing the novel, you just keep working at it and working at it until it feels it is right. It never does."

Albert Wendt
Born: Apia, Western Samoa 1939.
Education: Won scholarship to study in NZ, New Plymouth Boys High; Ardmore Teachers College; MA in history at Victoria University.
Teaching career includes: Principal, Samoa College; University of the South Pacific, Fiji; set up the University of the South Pacific Centre, Samoa; professorship of Pacific studies, University of Auckland.
Novels include: Sons for the Return Home (1973), Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (1974), Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1979), Ola (1991).
Films: Sons and Flying Fox.
Plays: Comes the Revolution (1972), The Contract (1972), Songmaker's Chair (2004).