Paratene Matchitt walks among the everyday people of Napier as if the past five years have been wiped from history. He nods a shy hello to women at the counter of this portside cafe like no one around here hates him for sexually abusing a schoolgirl five years ago.

And he orders a black coffee apparently oblivious to his notoriety as the man who, till just days ago, was due to stand trial on another new charge of rape.

Matchitt, 73, one of New Zealand's most important living artists, inhabits a place where things frequently "just happen" - where it is okay for an old man to have a sexual relationship with a school girl and where the idea that passers-by might think him a pervert doesn't enter his head.

"I kind of live in a world of my own most of the time. I don't necessarily relate to everybody else all around me," he says. "I think if I felt that I wouldn't go. Because I know me. I'm innocent. Innocent. Therefore I couldn't care a stuff where other people are coming from."

Matchitt not only believes he is innocent of drugging then date-raping a 29-year-old woman - charges which were thrown out last week - but that he was wrongly convicted of abusing a 16-year-old girl.

He was jailed for 2 1/2 years in 2001 for sexually violating the girl. But he still maintains the relationship was consensual.

The latest rape accusations saw him in jail for six weeks before a judge last Monday threw out the charges, finding no evidence that the woman had either been drugged or raped.

And while that might ordinarily be the end of things - case over before it began - the officer in charge has continued to fuel doubt about Matchitt, implying that had the woman complained earlier, drugs may well have been found.

Matchitt may insist he is unfazed about what people think, but his supporters are fuming.

"We know there were no drugs because Mr Matchitt is a man of 73, he wouldn't know a drug if he fell over one," says his lawyer Adam Couchman, who had argued that forensic experts could have accurately detected a wider range of drugs in the woman's system had they tried.

"It wasn't as if we were hiding around in the background counting our lucky stars that they did not do the tests."

There is still unfinished business where Couchman is concerned; aspects of the way the officer pursued the case he is still investigating and which, he says, "concern counsel greatly".

Matchitt's wife Susana simply says he has been persecuted.

"It says here he got acquitted 'but'. And I don't like the 'but'. I think he got acquitted because he's innocent."

Though he looks 20 years younger than he is, the man often referred to as the "Maori Picasso" is in many ways like the Spanish genius - a short, balding, prodigiously talented sculptor with controversial ideas about women.

Now a great-grandfather, he was born at Tokomaru Bay, on the East Cape, in 1933. Of Te Whanau Apanui and Ngati Porou descent, he became part of a group of Maori artists, including Ralph Hotere and Cliff Whiting, trained as education department art advisers in the 1950s, who forged an art movement of their own.

He was a contemporary of Colin McCahon and calls Hotere, "a mate". Books and theses have been written about his life and work. His paintings fetch tens of thousands of dollars. His work hangs in galleries around the world and his sculptures define landscapes, including Wellington's famous City to Sea Bridge.

With such talent has come financial stability, fame and women. Just how the latter ended up being a problem, he says, he is still trying to grasp.

There have been "numerous" women over 60 years. Many relationships and many more indiscretions.

When he first came to Hawke's Bay Community College to teach art 30 years ago, he found his reputation had arrived before him. "I walked into the office and I can't remember exactly what happened, there was some kind of recognition that preceded me about my relations with women. That wherever I went, I either followed them or they followed me."

His marriage to the mother of his five children broke up because of his affairs. He went off with a new partner, setting up the studio in Napier only to have that 27-year-long relationship ended by what he calls "a discrepancy in that partnership".

As Matchitt tells it, he fell for a 16-year-old girl - a girl he had befriended several years before, who he eventually mentored, financially supported then showered with gifts.

"You might ask," he says, "why a 16-year-old?" "It was lawful. I wouldn't do it otherwise. And we kind of hit it off."

According to court reports, they ended up in the back of a car with him sexually fondling her. She was too embarrassed to know how to reject this family friend she felt was a "father figure", and went on to fail school certificate and start working as a stripper.

But the man convicted of abusing the teenager says they were enjoying themselves. "It was a discrepancy," he concedes, "to go down that path with that woman. But at the time, at the day, at the hour, at the minute it seemed the natural thing to do."

Prosecutors urged the jury to consider it inconceivable that a girl would consent to a tryst with such an old man and, after nine hours of deliberation, the jurors agreed. He was convicted of indecent assault and sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail.

Today, standing in his enormous warehouse studio, with giant slabs of metal, cogs, wheels and half-finished carved sculptures around him, Matchitt still seems confused about the events of the past few years.

He may be one of the most powerful figures in New Zealand art but with only words to express himself, he seems old and tired. It is only two days since he stood in the dock, struggling to understand as lawyers argued, and eventually the charges against him were thrown out.

"It's not my natural environment," he says. "Put me across the table with somebody and we're intimate and things like that, then nothing can stop me, I can talk the leg off a chair, but here's it's bloody hard."

If he believes he is innocent, I ask, then what is it about his relationships with women that has attracted complaints? Why are women, as he says it, out to get Para Matchitt? "Why me? Why me?" he agonises.

"I've had numerous relations with women. And you might say that these two have got, somehow, I don't know, taken out of context. Out of the context that I've been used to."

It must seem unusual, at the very least, for a 67-year-old man to have a consensual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, I suggest. "Okay, okay. I can probably go down that track and say that I suppose I've been conditioned, or have allowed some sort of conditioning to take place with my relationships with women. And I suppose that in a sense that's followed me around everywhere."

The infidelities, his inability to commit to a monogamous, permanent relationship have become part of his very "being" over the years, he says. And it was in that "context" he says, that the two women complained.

"I've been over and over those things in my own mind, and basically they haven't been any different from anywhere else, any other time with any other woman. And that's why I take the stance that I am now.

"But," he adds with a smile, "that's not going to happen again because I've got somebody who won't let that happen." That somebody is Susana Lustig, the eccentric Chilean-born mother-of-three who married Matchitt while he was awaiting trial on the later charges.

They fell in love a few years ago, but Matchitt's previous conviction meant he was not allowed around her children. (He still isn't - they live apart.) Lustig finally called the relationship off several months before the latest rape allegations emerged.

Then, when he was arrested, and in Mangaroa prison on remand, she started trying to get back together.

He had told her about the earlier conviction, she believed him when he said the relationship had been consensual. "That wasn't hard because I know who Para is. I can see the picture of how something like that could never have happened."

She came to one of his court appearances and, sitting in the back motioned to her ring finger, suggesting she still wanted to marry him. He had proposed once when they were on holiday in Tonga. Then they got home, reality hit and the plans were scuttled.

"She was beautiful, she was all I saw in court that day," he says.

She says: "I didn't really know what he meant to me till he had gone. I used to go to his shed and walk around like a zombie and smell his clothes. How pathetic is that? Because I felt guilty too. Because I wasn't with him at the time. I felt that if I had of been with him he wouldn't be where he was."

It was Matchitt's first night out on the town after the break-up with Lustig that he met the young woman at a gallery opening in Napier.

According to the woman's statement to police, he approached her at a gallery in town, then they met again at an exhibition that night. He offered to buy her dinner and drove to Provedores, one of the better port-front cafes. She had about three glasses of wine, he drove her back to her car, then insisted on following her so she would get home safely. When she got home she blacked out, waking up in the morning naked, next to Matchitt. She later told police she felt numb on the drive home and believed he had drugged and raped her.

His story is different. "I never detected anything that had gone terribly wrong. Or even minutely wrong. The next morning we talked and said 'gee things happened quite fast the night before'. And they did. Really quick. In my life things happen like that sometimes so I didn't think anything too different about it. We talked about taking things a little more easy. Let's get ourselves together. I invited her to come and look at my place and told her that I was wanting someone to come in with me in there."

Does that not seem unrealistic? She is 29 and they have only just met? "No," he says. "I'm 70 years old, right? Do I want to wait around? Have I got time to go dating, you know? No, I'm looking straight away." It was the first night he had been out "free and easy" since Susana, he reminds me.

"These [police] made me into such a predator that I would have been out every bloody night of the year looking for a woman."

Three days later he was arrested, denied bail, and locked up in prison.

Matchitt maintains his standing as an artist hasn't been affected since he was first labelled a sex abuser. Invitations to exhibit still come, he reckons, his work is beginning again, slowly.

No, this hasn't affected him, he insists. "If you cut off my right arm it would make a difference because I'm right handed. My brain functions in a world that I know is there and is a world of innocence compared to the one that's been loaded upon me. And I know that's the main thing."