Many people have not heard of Freeman White, but he is one of New Zealand's leading landscape painters on the verge of his newest show at Auckland's NKB Gallery in November. Winning our country's top portrait award at 26, White, now 38, has a meaningful and profitable career.
Nestled into Freeman White's comfy studio in picturesque Hawke's Bay where he grew up, the magnificent pieces for the show almost dwarf the room. Next to White is his precious easel that recently accompanied him on a pioneering trek into the hilly grasslands of the Bay to complete a plein air painting.
He exclaims, "Landscapes are intricately woven into our lives. We can connect to it whole-heartedly as Kiwis."
Creating a living and a desirable lifestyle through art, White resides close to vineyards of some award-winning chardonnays and just a stone's throw from the villa he renovated.
He admits to being an avid DIYer which brings him closer to the land. "I earn a living as an artist but I've spent a lot of time up ladders and digging in hard clay," he says.
Fine Arts NKB Gallery curator James Brown says, ""Freeman's work is a favourite in the gallery. It sells out."
He says, "Freeman displays good form and rhythm and it's gorgeous the way he captures the rolling hills of the land."
But there's an ambitious side to this provincial guy who lives a simple life. He walked the red carpet with Academy Award-winning actor Tilda Swinton at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2007.
His impressive CV includes three international artist residencies - one at the esteemed Scottish Portrait Gallery and two figurative painting symposiums in Germany - and over 25 group shows.
Acclaimed New Zealand painter Dick Frizzell is a mentor to White and has known him for nine years. "Freeman had just come back from Edinburgh and he came to see me in my studio at Haumoana. He wanted to know how to break into the art market," says Frizzell.
His early impressions of White, then 28, started to form. "He wanted to paint romantic landscapes which were unfashionable at the time. I could tell from looking at his paintings that he was very good at what he did and he was bloody-minded about sticking to painting landscapes."
He humorously tells the tale of White's first art exhibition at the Black Barn as "a bit of a mad opening". His memory has White singing a folk song. He jests, "It was very folksie and down home, and I think there was some smoked kahawai floating around."
White seems amused by Frizzell's comedic version of the story. He recounts, "I sang Mona Lisa with my friend Rosey Langabear who played piano accordion." Frizzell quips, "I thought, 'Hmm...what an interesting boy'."
Ten years on and now a mature painter with a few accolades under his belt, White's goal is to make landscape paintings a prominent art form.
Pondering the newly painted Seascape, 30 x 40 oil on linen, for purchase at the show, he says, "For me the scale and level of finish is compelling and also the subject which is our stunning environment."
Frizzell reveals a stellar endorsement of White's work. "Freeman's work is potentially revolutionary. His work is an example of exuding an emotional response or sentiment."
He explains White's appeal, "It's less intellectual and more of a general open-hearted interpretation of art."
He explains that compared to what is termed as "issue warrior art" and "hard abstract conceptual art." Frizzell says, "The potential rise in interest is due to the fact that art became selfish and some forms of art just dried up."
It appears that White has a unique talent, and style and form within the landscape genre.
James Brown admits, "Freeman's landscapes turn heads. He's really pushing the genre and flying the flag."
He agrees with Frizzell that White is doing very well for a young artist.
Discussing the value of an art piece can create an awkward faux pas. White is cautious not to reveal too much about the price of his paintings. However, he does admit that his larger landscapes have sold for $17,000.
Frizzell says, "The value of art is built on the hours that you put in, plus consistency and the perceived value of your work and how well you articulate it. And if it generates a further discussion."
Frizzell, now 75, this year sold an art piece, the Milling landscape, 1987, oil on stretched canvas, to The Warwick Brown Collection for $94,000. Although, he adds, "It was worth $100,000 if you include commissions."
So how can Freeman White achieve Frizzell's success? Well, Frizzell says facetiously, "He can wait until he's 75."
He says, "There's no short cut. When you have a track record like me - I'm 75 - and I've done it through perseverance and survival. It slowly just happened."
In July, during a family holiday in Scotland with partner Lucy and daughter Millie, White reunited with famous friends, Sandro Kopp and Tilda Swinton.
It has been 13 years since Kopp and Swinton first met and fell in love in New Zealand shortly after meeting on the set of the Chronicles of Narnia, where Swinton played the White Witch. Kopp says, "New Zealand has a special place in my heart."
Kopp and White's friendship sparked at art school in Wellington. Kopp's mother is a Kiwi who now lives on Waiheke Island. He was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and his father is German.
Kopp is now an international visual artist who has exhibited at high-end galleries in Italy, Paris, New York and Istanbul. Brad Pitt is a friend of his who owns an art-piece and he often paints celebrities such as Marilyn Manson and Mike Stipe from REM.
White holds the rare privilege of painting Swinton. Of the Dr Strange actor who plays the Ancient One, he says, "Tilda is very striking and has great bone structure to draw and it was a very relaxed sitting."
Kopp says, "Freeman has always been a unique individual." He elaborates. "There is something meditative and hypnotic about Freeman's painting. I think he can proudly hold his own next to any New Zealand landscape painting of the past century."
Reminiscing about their days as bohemian art students in Mount Victoria in the early 2000s living in a flat nicknamed The Factory, Kopp exclaims, "There were 30 eclectic people sharing a stove and you never could tell what you may encounter between the living room and the pots of succulent food."
The tight-knit community was a source of lively inspiration for the fledgling painters. "Freeman was either hunched over his palette in full concentration or fanfaring us with sharp, dissonant blasts on his trumpet, grinning ear to ear," says Kopp.
To celebrate their last night in Scotland together, they dined on what White describes as "a very Scottish meal of haggis with gravy and washed down with some whiskey".
White's commissioned work is in steady demand. Art collectors who own a Freeman White include Sir Bob Jones and the Peabody wine dynasty of Craggy Range Winery. His portfolio also includes portraits of Taika Waititi's vampires in What We Do In The Shadows, currently on display at the NZ Portrait Gallery in Wellington.
White intends to make his mark in an endlessly competitive art scene in which dealers and collectors heavily shape whether you are successful or not.
James Brown says he has people lining up for White's work. "The dark and light in his paintings gets people's eyes circling around and if you look at it every day you are blown away. It's very intelligent."
White says it's a challenge to make landscapes look sexy. But he has an enviable skill. An art lover can almost reach into it and grasp the land, and sea and its surroundings.
When asked if Kopp and White plan to exhibit together in New Zealand, White says, "There's something in the pipeline - it won't be 2018 but it might be after that."
Kopp confirmed the planning of a joint show. He said, "I've started painting now for it but I don't want to say too much at this stage until it's all pinned down."
It seems all White needs to do is keep painting and in time he looks set to achieve the pinnacle of artistic and financial success, that so many painters and creatives dare to dream about.
Freeman White's exhibition opens Wednesday, November 16, at NKB Gallery in Auckland