In the opening scene of Shared Harmonics, part of two of a 10-part documentary series, acclaimed artist Michael Smither sits on the beach — possibly Otama, near his home on the Coromandel Peninsula — and talks candidly about death.

"Everything that I'm painting now, every subject that I choose is somehow symbolic because I am painting at the end of my life because everything that I am looking at now is looked at through the whole lifetime of seeking out imagery for the mood that I am in and the mood that I am in now is that I am ready to die!"

And then Smither, whose work can now command six figures at auction, chuckles.

Visit him and partner Gian McGregor at their home and it doesn't look like the residence of a man getting ready to check out; he's as busy as ever but acknowledges age — Smither is now 79 — is slowing him down.


Nine years ago, when he turned 70, his friend, film-maker Tony Hiles, asked what Smither was going to do. Told he had 10 years of unfinished paintings to complete, Hiles offered to "video-diarise" the completion of the unseen works. It also seemed like apt timing because Smither was, or so he said, about to hold his final dealer-gallery exhibition.

"I said 'how about we do something about the whole business of being a painter and painting?' like an educational sort of thing," Smither says. "That was my idea, that it would be an educational sort of thing and younger artists who could be interested would be able to look at it and see the way things develop so we started on that premise and, so far, we've made nine 40 minute documentaries of my life here, as an artist, and what I am doing.

"It's actually quite unique, I think, I don't think there's ever, in New Zealand's history of art, there's been that sort of a follow-up of an artist's life."

Nearly a decade on, he and Hiles are still filming; Smither continues to complete work, start new projects and exhibit at dealer galleries. Old habits die harder than the man, perhaps.

Now, as part of the annual Mercury Bay Arts Escape Weekends, a special compilation of the first eight parts of Artist Michael Smither: The Next Ten Years will screen.

"It's all cinema verite with him talking to me while I'm working, filming me when I'm working."

Continuing to work gets harder; Smither experienced a minor stroke in 2014 and lives with the painful effects of shingles but doesn't plan to put down his paint brushes and walk away from his easel anytime soon. He says he's scared of retirement.

"I would rather die with my brush in my hand or boots on of whatever you like to call it. There's no attraction to me in the idea of retiring and going on long holidays overseas and stuff like that. To me, I've always had to have a quotient of art involved in whatever it is I am doing. It's either music or painting or sculpture or environmental efforts."


Smither has been making art his entire life, possibly spurred on by his parents who ran a screen-printing business and definitely influenced by garden rambles with an elderly neighbour.

"I was looked after by a Mrs Niven who was an old, English school teacher who had come out after marrying a New Zealand soldier," he says. "She used to take me out into the garden and say, 'now lift up that rock there' and she taught me to look through microscopes and see what was in a drop of water and I was hooked. Some of the first drawings I did were of insects and creatures. That aspect of life that we all just trample over every bloody day without thinking about it was so important to me and still is."

After Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1950s, Smither returned to Taranaki to paint its coastal and mountain scenery — some of his best-known works feature the Taranaki boulders — and scenes from family life. Since 1970, when he became the fifth Frances Hodgkins Fellowship recipient, Smither's lived and worked all over NZ.

Also an accomplished composer and musician, he spent decades exploring a system of harmonic relationships where musical and colour theory was applied to his art. Paintings and prints made during this time might be many and varied, but they have vibrant colour in common. Smither says he can't work on this material anymore because it's too much for his brain.

So, now he's returned — almost — to the beginning. He's painting landscapes again, saying he didn't do so for a long time because it felt disloyal to Taranaki, and portraits.

What: Mercury Bay Arts Escape — Michael Smither Film Evenings followed by Q & A with the artist and director
Where & when: Mercury Twin Cinemas; Saturday March 3 & 10. Tickets are online or at the cinema.