When acclaimed artist Max Gimblett talks about New Zealand, tears well in his eyes and he uses the word "beloved" to describe his homeland.

"I get very emotional when I talk about New Zealand," says Gimblett, who has lived and worked in New York for 44 years. "I come back to my beloved New Zealand once or twice every year. I love the nature, the ocean and memories of childhood [he grew up in Mt Eden, Grafton and Newmarket]. It's my belief that one is strongest in one's childhood landscape so I stand on the corner of Kitchener and Wellesley Sts and feel totally at home. Which I don't feel in New York; I feel like an immigrant there…"

His latest visit, the first time in 14 years that he has been accompanied by his scholar wife Dr Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, may be more emotional than some previous trips because AUT awards him an honorary doctorate on Wednesday for his outstanding and sustained contribution to the arts.

Gimblett studied at AUT in the early 1950s, when it was Seddon Memorial College but he didn't pursue art saying it wasn't a career option then and, besides, he wasn't interested in it. Instead, he attended money, banking, and finance, a three-year twice weekly night class, and graduated in 1955 as an Associate of the New Zealand Institute of Management.

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He'd left school at 15 to work as a messenger boy then salesman at Classic Manufacturing and decided, a year later, to get serious about business. After graduation, he went to London for work, married and travelled.

Influenced by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, Gimblett briefly considered becoming a writer but a chance meeting with a Ukrainian potter in Canada saw him take a different path. Aged 28, he drew, in crayon, a self-portrait and showed it to his wife who declared, "you're a painter, Max".

He's been making abstract art ever since, with his work finding its way into international collections including New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, the Queensland Art Gallery and, in New Zealand, the Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery and Te Papa.

"Hemingway said he learned to describe landscape by looking at Cezanne; I say I learned to paint abstract paintings by reading Hemingway. I love his symbolism and his concise, short style and the way he sums things up; I am a gestural painter and I think of him as a gestural writer," says Gimblett who was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2015.

St David's Church, in Grafton, became a canvas for Max Gimblett's quatrefoils during 2017's The Art of Remembrance to raise awareness of and money for preserving the church. Photo/Nick Reed
St David's Church, in Grafton, became a canvas for Max Gimblett's quatrefoils during 2017's The Art of Remembrance to raise awareness of and money for preserving the church. Photo/Nick Reed

In 2017, he was pivotal to our largest philanthropic art fundraiser when he made hundreds of solid brass quatrefoils – his favoured shape – to cover St David's, the Soldiers' Memorial Church in Khyber Pass, to sell and stave off its potential demolition.

The practising Buddhist attended St David's as a child and remembers fondly the Very Reverend Owen Baragwanath, whose grandson, Paul, spearheaded The Save St David's campaign. The artist's efforts enabled a $1 million donation for the preservation of the Presbyterian church.

Now 83 and having been married for 55 years, Gimblett says the honorary doctorate from AUT is an endlessly deep honour which will ensure he maintains a profound connection with the institution. He already has an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato for his philanthropy and achievements in the artistic world.

"My wife has three doctorates so it means I'm getting some mana in the family," Gimblett says. "My view is that you can't get enough of education. Education is the key to life and education brings with it networking so you find your peers and mentors in education."

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Max Gimblett's work for Gow Langsford's stand at the Auckland Art Fair in May.
Max Gimblett's work for Gow Langsford's stand at the Auckland Art Fair in May.

Exhibitions of his art are currently on around the country and he remains hard at work, having spent time during this visit preparing art for his Auckland gallery, Gow Langsford, to display at Auckland Art Fair in May. On Monday evening, he'll deliver a lecture, Always in these Islands, at Auckland Art Gallery where he talks about his life as a painter and, on Saturday, March 16 at AUT, runs Sumi Ink workshops.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is also lecturing while she's in New Zealand, speaking about museums and the politics of history at the AUT on Tuesday and the University of Auckland on Wednesday.