By ESTELLE SARNEY
Making puppets for the famous 90s TV show Spitting Image is about as far as it's possible to get from the iconic New Zealand paintings Neal Palmer creates today.
But that's where this Londoner met his Kiwi wife-to-be, and started on a path that would lead him to become one of this country's emerging talents as a portrayer of our flora and landscape.
An exhibition opening tomorrow at the Studio of Contemporary Art (until November 8) will showcase Palmer's almost photographic studies of such recognisable plants as flax, cabbage trees and pohutukawa.
Some works are up to 2m long and make the viewer feel they are peering through flax flowers to a landscape beyond.
Up-close pieces of fallen red pohutukawa leaves, complete with muddiness and black-spot imperfections, remind you of crawling through foliage as a child. You can almost smell the damp earth, feel the warmth of the sun shining on a smooth flax frond.
All of which interests Palmer, 34, who did not reach these shores until he was 23. He grew up in north London, spending a large part of his childhood sheltering from the weather indoors, drawing, while his contemporaries in New Zealand were running around in the landscape he now paints.
After gaining an honours degree in fine art from Nottingham University, he decided he didn't want to be stuck in a studio by himself during his 20s.
"I wanted to work with lots of people and have lots of fun, and to me that meant working in film and TV. I was interested in puppetry, and a friend helped me get my foot in the door with Spitting Image as a runner in sound recording. I later got a job in the puppet workshop, and ended up as puppet co-ordinator, making sure the puppets were in the right place at the right time."
This was how he met his future wife, Angela, who was the boss' PA. They worked together on various projects the puppets were involved in - the TV series, ads, books, appearances - and then fell in love.
When Angela had to return to Auckland due to family illness, Palmer came with her.
"It was a bit of a culture shock," admits Palmer. "I didn't know anyone, and had a hard time trying to pick up work. I ended up doing paint effects - marbling, gilding, that kind of stuff, which was at the height of its popularity in the early 90s."
He might not have been keen to stay here long term if he and Angela hadn't bought a van and toured around the South Island. "I realised then what an absolutely beautiful place New Zealand is."
It sowed the seed of his love affair with this country's natural treasures.
After some toing and froing between Auckland, Sydney and London, the couple decided to live for a while at Piha - an experience Palmer says was life changing.
"That's when I started thinking about using form in its natural aspect. I would walk out the door and it was all there - the views and the unique forms of the plants. Piha got me interested in art again, and I gradually got back into painting."
The arrival of the couple's three children over the past five years has made earning a living from his art a necessity, and Palmer now puts in a 40-hour week at his studio in a steam-train yard below Parnell.
He sells his acrylic on board paintings through the Studio of Contemporary Art and the Artport Gallery at Auckland International Airport. There is a range of cards featuring his work, and a calendar due out at the end of the year featuring him and 11 other contemporary New Zealand artists.
Palmer considers himself a New Zealand artist, although there are still elements in his work of the man-made environment in which he grew up. His natural images are often framed by geometric shapes and surrounded, or divided, by metallic silver gilding.
"I like seeing how a shape around a picture affects its subject. My use of silver is also a metaphor for light, and a reference to the post-modern idea that the ultimate end of the story of painting is a flat, white surface."
These techniques are also an attempt to lift the paintings out of a purely New Zealand context and give them a universal appeal. He and Angela, whose opinions and organisation he credits hugely with aiding his success, hope to take an exhibition of his paintings to London in about two years.
"It will be like taking a slice of New Zealand back to my home town - I'll be interested to see how it fares. I think universality is something to strive for. To me that means achieving credit in the art world, and also having people who have nothing to do with art look at a piece and think it's interesting or beautiful, to want to hang it on their wall as an emotional point to react to, even when it's from a place they may not know.
"To achieve all that is a measure of good art."