By ELEANOR BLACK



Behind a plain wooden door with an old-fashioned brass knocker lies a treasure trove of contemporary New Zealand art. Paintings suffocate the walls; still more are stacked against them. My eyes fly over canvases soaked in orange, purple and green, seeking the most arresting piece - and light on the small woman who created this fantastic mess.



She is Jan Nigro, one of New Zealand's best-loved artists, an 82-year-old powerhouse with a keen wit and singular sense of style. Her huge glasses are tinted, with brown-and-white striped frames. Her hair is red, cut into a bob, which she keeps patting into place with fluttery hands bearing big silver rings. Her thick jersey, navy blue and oversized, tops a pair of pale blue jeans and ultra-white trainers with red stripes.



Settling into her chair with a mug of coffee, she looks up, a wry smile settled on her lips.

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"Do you mind if I have a cigarette?"she asks in a sandpaper voice. "It's funny how you have to ask people now."



Nigro is, arguably, doing the finest work of her 65-year career in this small Takapuna flat with a slice of ocean view, painting every afternoon when she gets back from her daily 90-minute walk along the beach. That she is still painting, let alone producing her best work - at her age! - always surprises people who don't know the engaging artist.



Flipping through a portfolio filled with newspaper articles about her work ("I'm a compulsive sticker-downer of things," she says) Nigro finds one that makes her mad. The headline reads, "Octogenarian's art on show at Northcote Expo", referring to an exhibit last year.



"I was so upset when I saw that," she says. "[The word octogenarian] kind of grabs your personality off you." She does not like to be reminded that she is "still going strong"; nor does she like being called "unstoppable".



"I guess I'm going to have to stop one day," she says, one side of her mouth pulled up in an ironic half-smile.



Not yet, though, and not because she is old. In spring, Nigro will exhibit her latest work, a series of nudes, her favourite genre. The subject is Alice, a beautiful woman in her 30s, as she is about to head overseas for an OE.



In one painting, Alice is surrounded by peacocks, Nigro's symbol for herself. When she was a restless teen living in Napier - the plainest of three female cousins - Nigro would sit on the seawall, longing to turn into a peacock and fly to Damascus, the most exotic place she could think of. Large windows and doors represent the model's journey to another world, possibly the one the artist longed to see in the 1930s.



Nigro is known for developing themes around models, who she has always regarded as much more than just bodies to paint. She takes an interest in their hobbies, their passions, their politics, and uses them to produce a truer portrait. Alice has a special interest in ecology and Nigro worries about what will greet her when she arrives in "the real world".



Reading a book of essays about Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Nigro was struck by the parallels between Alice the storybook character's journey to a strange fantasy world and Alice the model's journey away from her safe New Zealand home.



One of Nigro's more controversial nudes, The Sunbather, painted in 1973, is now displayed at the Auckland City Art Gallery. It is considered the first sexual nude to be seen in New Zealand, partly because Nigro had the audacity to paint pubic hair. The sunbather is a young woman who lies on a towel, facing the viewer. Her eyes are closed, her legs slightly open. She does not appear aware that she is being watched.



After decades of struggling for acceptance in a country that considered nudes risque and acceptable only if painted elsewhere, Nigro is pleased to see her painting on display and recognised as a benchmark. "My nudes are possibly arriving," she says with a smile.



Her love for painting the human form, and studying the human condition, led Nigro logically to the other great theme of her career - gender-bending. She was fascinated by the gay and bisexual stars of 1930s cinema, such as Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. When she painted Gary Cooper in 1985 she gave him a heavy coat of lipstick.



B ORN in Gisborne, where she spent her first nine years, Nigro began experimenting with art when she was 3 years old.



Like all children, she drew basic houses and stick people with lollipop heads. But Nigro's pictures were different. She gave her stick people elaborate hairstyles, after watching a babysitter top a stick woman with long, loose hair and a fringe. Her houses were two and three stories high, cut open like dolls' houses to reveal fully furnished rooms.



Her family owned a dairy in Manutuke, a village 13km from Gisborne. Nigro's earliest memory is of lying in a cot at the shop and hearing Maori keening at the pa, where a tangi was under way. Two girls had drowned in the river that flowed past her family's orchard, where they had eaten peaches before going for a swim. The orchard was tapu for years.



By the time she was 15, Nigro had decided she wanted to become famous. A practical child, she judged herself too chunky and not pretty enough to become a movie star and without the necessary personality to be a dancer.



She was furious when her Uncle Will told her she'd never make an artist, having seen her drawings of movie stars with "prissy lips and kiss curls" and deeming them mediocre.



Undeterred, in 1937 she enrolled at Elam School of Fine Arts, where she was considered a talented and promising student and met her future husband, the painter Gerry Nigro. After two years in which her potential was recognised and fostered (in 1938 she was named "Student Making the Most Progress During the Year") she quit her studies after Gerry was expelled for being a disruptive influence on other students.



He organised a students' strike over the school's acceptance of part-time students. Fulltime students such as himself tended to be more serious about their studies, but arrived in class after their counterparts had already taken the prime positions closest to the life model.



"I more or less had to support him - we were very close," says Nigro of her hot-blooded partner, who died in 1994. "I suppose it was loyalty to him, I don't know. I missed [Elam]. They were the best years of my life."



World War II squashed Nigro's exotic travel plans. Instead, she and her new husband went to Australia for five years. She was impressed with the country's dry expanses and the way artists enlivened their landscape paintings by adding a human figure, something that was not widely done in New Zealand at the time.



By the time they returned to New Zealand, Nigro was recognised by Australian art critics as one to watch. At home the critics were not always so kind - Nigro says she felt stifled for years - but she had her husband to turn to when the reviews were vicious. Their shared love of painting was a mighty bond; in later years Nigro wondered if it was restrictive, especially when it came to their four children, none of whom became artists.



All the more reason why granddaughter Adrienne Vaughan, an art student at Unitec Institute of Technology, is such a source of pride. Vaughan paints abstracts that comment on society, just as her grandmother's work has done for more than six decades.



Nigro is impressed with New Zealand's fine crop of emerging artists. They are lucky, she says, to have grown up in a society that is more receptive to experimentation than it was when she began working.



Still, it has been a satisfying career, which shows no sign of slowing. Nigro has another six to 11 paintings of her friend Alice to complete for the new exhibition. Her place in New Zealand's arts heritage has been recognised with a retrospective of her work, A Portrait of Jan Nigro, now at the Rotorua Museum of Art and History. Nigro lived in Rotorua in the 60s, when she experimented with abstraction, before returning to the human form, which occupies her still.



"Painting just keeps me alive," she says, smoothing her hair into place and getting up to open the door. She gives one of her half-smiles. "Friends say, 'You're better than ever.' I think I'm still holding."



And then she closes the door behind her, leaving us in a far less colourful world.