Just before Christmas, New Zealand artist Richard Lewer, long based in Melbourne, won the A$25,000 ($24,500) Blake Prize for religious art. His work, Worse luck ... I am still here, was a lo-fi animation softly voiced by Lewer based on the real-life tragedy of Perth pensioner Herbert Erickson, 81, who killed his severely disabled partner, Julie Kuhn, in a murder-suicide pact.

Once Julie was dead, he killed their two small dogs then stuck his hand in the toaster. The result was burns on his hand and a murder charge. Outside the court, he told reporters, "I want to be with my partner, really, but I'm still here, worse luck." He later walked into the sea at a beach in Fremantle and drowned himself.

The judges described Lewer's work as "inviting reflection ... the format is really very beautiful and the soft compassionate voice of the artist leaves us questions to consider".

Lewer, who had moved to Fremantle from Melbourne for a couple of years just as the Erickson story unfolded, describes it as "a tragic love story".

Advertisement

"I did quite a lot of research into it. He was the nicest guy," he says on the phone from Melbourne. "The response to that work has been amazing. I've had emails from all over the world saying, 'My mother's in that situation or my partner'. I didn't want to take a stance on euthanasia; I saw myself as documenting it."

Five editions exist of Worse Luck, held in Australia's most prominent public art institutions; it is also viewable online at richardlewer.com.

Lewer, 45, has long documented real life in his art: crime, sport, religion being the most dominant of what he describes as his "obsessions". A 2004 show, at Auckland's Oedipus Rex Gallery (now Orexart), was called Impending Doom, with images from The Omen and The Exorcist painted on Formica.

He won the Wallace Art Award in 2008 for a painting on billiard table cloth from a series called Skill, Discipline, Training, about ordinary people setting themselves sporting goals. The award came shortly after showing a 50-piece series of paintings in Melbourne called True Stories: Australian Crime. He once created drawings - and a book - based on what he heard each night on a police radio scanner during a residency in Whanganui. His works are held at Te Papa, the National Galleries of Australia and Melbourne and the Universities of Melbourne, Auckland, Waikato and Victoria.

He also trains two professional boxers in a Melbourne gym each afternoon.

Lewer is back in New Zealand next week for the opening at Gow Langsford Gallery of It's More Than a Game, which marries his lifelong love of rugby with his experimental approach to materials and technique. The show includes three large works painted on 1.1m x 1.1m sheets of steel, not the easiest surface on which to make paint stick.

"I put an epoxy resin on top of the steel, which repels the paint," he explains. "Why I have done that is the physical struggle to put paint on there. It's the physical challenge, like the game itself. These things are heavy, 25kg each, so you have to manhandle them. I have it flat, I spin them around. You have to really physically scrape off the paint. On the sides of the paintings is the evidence of the layering process because it drips down."

The show also includes framed works on paper - photos of rugby players from books he has collected since the 1980s. The images are covered in his signature primitive white writing, phrases like "It's hard to be a man", "You have let the family down", "Sometimes your best isn't good enough" and "I just want to be liked".

"My collection of rugby books - I used them as references for the paintings for many years and they've got paint all over them so they've become sacrificed as paintings," he says. "I like the idea of cutting these things out of books. That is a response to my history and to the game itself. They have that nostalgic position."

The works do not glorify individual players but celebrate the game, which, he says, connects him to his New Zealand roots and his Kiwi friends in Melbourne.

"You don't escape. It drags you back. It's a funny show because it's quite self-indulgent. It means the most to me. The commonality when I catch up with people from New Zealand immediately is rugby. It's a big thing."

After the opening of the Gow Langsford show, Lewer will return about a week later to start work on a project at AUT's St Paul St Gallery. Custom of the Sea, a large wall drawing, which will become an animated work, will be made with about 50 volunteers from, says Lewer, "all walks of life".

Based on a book by Neil Hanson, it's set around a real-life incident in 1884 when the yacht Mignonette set sail from Southampton bound for Sydney. The yacht was crushed in a storm off the coast of Africa and the four survivors drifted in an open dinghy for 24 days before being rescued. Only three men remained in the boat; they had applied "the custom of the sea" and eaten one of the crew members.

"The whole thing of custom of the sea is that they were meant to draw straws but they didn't, so when they got taken back to England and [were] put on trial they were guinea pigs because that sort of thing was happening at sea a lot," says Lewer.

"They had to define what was law and what was not. As soon as I read the book I thought, 'Wow!'. This is the most extreme sort of story and an amazing story to tell and animation is the best way to do it."

Back in Australia, his next project is huge, a three-four year travelling show based on World War I trench art which he is working on for the Australian War Memorial.

He is working on the paintings for that in his studio right now but tomorrow he'll down tools to watch the Cricket World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia, and he'll be backing New Zealand all the way. As we all know, it's much more than a game.

What: It's More Than a Game by Richard Lewer
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 2 Kitchener St, April 1-25
What: The Custom of the Sea by Richard Lewer
Where and when: St Paul St Gallery, AUT, 40 St Paul St, April 16 to May 22