The Port Hills Re-Discovered
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Returning to Christchurch after three years in Australia, one of the first things to strike me is how much I have taken the Port Hills for granted.
You can’t live in Christchurch and not be aware of them of course. They are a singular presence on the city landscape – a marker, a way finder – and it’s common knowledge that if you get lost on Christchurch streets, you just look out for the Port Hills to get your bearings.
They’ve been there for over 12 million years – a remnant of the Lyttelton volcano crater – eroded and shaped by time to form the striking zig-zag of rocky outcrops, steep peaks, rolling tussock-covered hills, bluffs, cliffs and walking trails
All the more surprising then, that my photographic files, which are extensive, contain hardly any photographs of The Port Hills. That astonishes me. Admittedly, when I’ve lived in Christchurch previously, I’ve worked full-time as a writer and perhaps I wasn’t as focused on the landscape then. Certainly not as much as I am now that I’ve returned to my painting career.
I returned to painting in Australia after a 30 year hiatus (also known as the writing career), where I was constantly inspired by the Australian outback, the Victorian bush and gum trees. I worried about what I might paint when I returned to Christchurch – what would inspire me, what would drive me forward? After my first week here in February, I decided to relax and just let things happen. I decided to continue my daily sketching, waiting to see if any one theme would emerge as a key inspiration.
It quickly became evident that the Port Hills were ‘filling up my sketchbook pages.’ Every day I set out to re-discover Christchurch and every day I returned with another sketch from the Port Hills.
I just let things evolve. I wasn’t ready for painting on canvas. To be honest, I didn’t know where to start. I had finished painting in Australia at the beginning of December 2019 because I had to pack up my studio contents for shipment to New Zealand; and I had yet to finish creating a small studio in one of my Christchurch bedrooms. Instead of writer’s block, I had painter’s block.
Then, two days ago, I opened my paint tubes, picked up my paint brushes and began throwing paint around – on papers to begin with – the first stage of book covers for handmade books I intend creating during the Covid-19 lockdown. But then a strange thing happened. I picked up a canvas and began moving paint around the surface. The painting above, is what evolved. "Beneath the Surface." Acrylic on Canvas.
I had no intention of painting the Port Hills but somehow hills have just ‘emerged.’ I think all those Port Hills sketches I’ve been doing are bubbling around, ‘somewhere under the surface.’ For me, that’s exactly how paintings should happen – a subconscious response to the landscape. It’s how I have always painted and that’s what I should have trusted in, right from the beginning of December – that it would all just come flooding back to me when the time was right.
I find there’s a dark and broody side to parts of the Port Hills – something sombre and untamed. And certainly, during the major Christchurch earthquake of February 2011 and the many subsequent aftershocks, the Port Hills demonstrated just how powerful and ‘unknown’ they can be. A previously unknown fault line in the hills above Sumner ‘snapped’ and zig-zagged through the city like a deadly lightning bolt. The central city business district and numerous suburbs were destroyed, 185 lives were lost and for many, life has never been the same since.
Despite the ‘brightness’ of most of my sketching, my painting seems to have subconsciously tapped into this deeper vein of darkness. I like that. Most of life is about two sides and if it wasn’t for the darkness, we wouldn’t see the light.