10 Questions with Bronwyn Holloway-Smith


1. Why did you want to create this book?

This adventure began when I stumbled across one of Taylor’s ceramic tile murals stacked in three cardboard boxes in Auckland. The mural, Te Ika-a-Maui, was commissioned by the New Zealand government to celebrate the opening of the Commonwealth Pacific Cable in 1962, and stood in the Northcote landing station for many years. I learned of the mural through my PhD research into connections between New Zealand national identity and the Southern Cross Cable — New Zealand’s main internet cable. When I asked to see it I was first told it had been removed, then after further enquiries it turned up in the COMPAC station. It had been removed because of deteriorating cement and left in boxes. I guess the station operators didn’t quite know what to do with it and so the memory of it had slipped through a few cracks.

After learning more about Taylor I discovered he had made more murals throughout the North Island. This led to a research project at the Massey University College of Creative Arts, of which I was the director, titled the ‘E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search and Recovery Project’. As you might deduce from the title this project was set up to find, document, recover and reinstate, and seek ongoing protection for Taylor’s murals.

This book is the culmination of this research — and an important step in reconnecting the public with knowledge of these remarkable public artworks, many of which were paid for with public money but have since been forgotten. We have found that Taylor made a total of twelve murals that are in various states of existence (some still intact, some destroyed and recreated, some hidden, and some lost). I’m hoping that the information recorded in this book will help preserve them in the long term —- and perhaps even help recover some of the ones that are hidden or lost!


2. Did you find yourself inspired by E. Mervyn Taylor as the work on it progressed?

Absolutely, on many levels. Taylor is a real unsung hero in New Zealand art. He was the first New Zealand artist to make a living full-time as an artist (a title that came with a lot of hard work). He is mainly remembered for his engravings and woodcuts work, particularly the work he did as the first art editor of the New Zealand School Journal. His murals are not so well known, which was one of the reasons we wanted to make this book.

As I learned more about Taylor my empathy with him grew. We have a lot in common: living in Wellington and raising a young family while trying to maintain an arts practice that contributes in some broader way to public life in New Zealand.

I was impressed to discover the story of his Academy of Fine Arts Scholarship. This scholarship was set up to support New Zealand artists to travel and work overseas for a period, but when Taylor was awarded the scholarship, he decided to stay in New Zealand, living instead with a Māori community in Te Kaha on the East Cape. The Academy had to make a special exception for him to undertake this residency within national borders. Today I think there is still a lot of attention directed towards New Zealand artists who practice overseas, but I would argue that remaining in New Zealand and focusing on issues ‘on the ground’ is equally important. Taylor had a genuine concern for New Zealand artists — using his associations with the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Architectural Centre (a community loosely modelled after the Bauhaus, of which he was a founding member) to advocate for better private and state-funded support for them.


3. Did you find yourself fascinated by that period of modernism and artistic and economic nationalism in which he worked?

Yes, I certainly found the period fascinating. If I wasn’t a mid-century-modern geek before this book, I most certainly am now! I have also increasingly found the idea of nationalism — so strong in that post-war period —- a very different concept in today’s world of instant communication, globalisation and neoliberal politics. Immersing myself in the world of mid-century New Zealand has given me a new perspective on the ideologies shaping our daily lives today. I address some of this in my project ‘The Southern Cross Cable: A Tour’, which opens at City Gallery Wellington on 3 March 2018 as part of the NZ Festival of the Arts exhibition This is New Zealand. Taylor’s mural Te Ika-a-Maui will be part of it.


4. What were his strengths as a mural maker?

Taylor’s interest in murals came later in his life, and was no doubt further inspired by his only overseas jaunt that took him to the USA, the USSR, the UK and France. His engraving and printmaking skills are quite evident in his mural making process, particularly when looking at the strong narrative form and fine detail in his gouache designs for the painted and ceramic tile murals. Additionally, all his murals are site-specific works: their content variably relates to the histories, bicultural politics, and purpose of the sites for which they were created for — a strategy still used today by public artists seeking to engage local communities with their artworks.

Taylor’s active role in the Architectural Centre in Wellington is also vitally important. Through this network he became close friends with many of New Zealand’s great mid-century modernist architects like Ernst Plischke, Maurice Patience and Gordon Wilson, who was also the Government Architect for a number of years. One idea that he promoted was that every new building contract should include a sum of money set aside to commission a work by an established artist that was in some way associated with the site. The price of an artwork is, after all, relatively small in comparison to the cost of a building.

He was well known for passionately arguing this idea with his friends at the Architectural Centre. Although the idea never entered into legislation, it was adopted by a number of architects who put the concept into practice. Guy Ngan, Jim Allen, John Drawbridge, James Turkington, Roy Cowan, Russell Clark, Milan Mrkusich and, of course, Taylor himself were among the set of artists who completed architecturally associated public art commissions as the idea caught on.


5. Have the works stood the artistic test of time in your view?

Yes, they certainly have, but this hasn’t prevented some of them being destroyed, which leads to the tragic side to this story. Public works, perhaps more than others, are vulnerable to fashion trends in both the interior and exterior built environment. Some of Taylor’s works were lost as a result: his mural for the New Zealand Soil Bureau in the Lower Hutt suburb of Taita was painted over, and the wall on which his National Life Assurance mural was located has been demolished. Now, in hindsight, the value of these works is finally gaining the public appreciation it deserves, but without any formal system for protecting public artworks in New Zealand many are still at risk.


6. How did you select your contributing essayists?  

Biculturalism is one of the overwhelming themes of this book. During Taylor’s lifetime a dramatic urban migration was underway in New Zealand, with the Māori population changing from 83 per cent rural to 83 per cent urban between 1936 and 1986 — one of the fastest rates of urbanisation in the world. This resulted in many Pākehā coming into close contact with Māori for the first time, and it might have been this Pākehā audience that Taylor, with his background in the advertising sector and knowledge of Māori culture, was seeking to communicate with through his public works. Making Māori culture — which had hitherto been marginalised from mainstream New Zealand society — visible to a Pākehā audience had been a defining characteristic of Taylor’s work for many years. In various roles he had actively supported the protection and promotion of Māori culture in an era when dominant colonial influences threatened its decline.

With this in mind it seemed inappropriate for this book — which responds to the concept of cultural cohesion — to have a single author. All the murals are intrinsically intertwined with the communities that surround (or surrounded) their original site. Many of them were created for the people, and so it was quite clear to me from the beginning that the people should be given the first chance to respond. All of the authors in this book have been invited specifically, carefully. Each has a first-hand relationship with both the site of the mural and the subject matter that is depicted. They bring unique, informed perspectives to their essays in order to explore aspects of the murals, focusing on mural content and any relevant context around the commissioning of the works and their lives afterwards. Taylor tried to ensure that te ao Māori was fairly depicted in his works, researching his subject matter thoroughly with tangata whenua. Echoing this virtue (where possible) the murals that depict aspects of Māori culture have been responded to by authors of local iwi descent.


7. Was the project daunting or exhilarating?

Both, and more! It was daunting undertaking the project while also studying towards a PhD and having my third child. It was exhilarating when we discovered new clues and pieces of the puzzle that helped us stitch the stories of the murals together, like finding out that the New Plymouth Post Office mural wasn’t Taylor’s but rather James Turkington’s and, more recently, an important discovery we’ve made about one of the missing murals. It was daunting pulling together all the images for the book (not to mention their credit lines). It was exhilarating when project photographer Shaun Waugh and I tried to beat Cyclone Cook in a race from Wairoa to Wellington after our return flight was grounded. It was frustrating not being allowed to access the Masterton Post Office mural, currently hidden behind a wall. And it was humbling having all these fantastic authors generously contribute to the book. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat!


8. The loss off some of these fine murals is a tragedy isn’t it?

It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also raised a serious issue about the vulnerability of other public New Zealand artworks from this period. One of the goals of the E. Mervyn Taylor Mural Search and Recovery Project was to ensure the ongoing preservation of the surviving murals. It quickly became apparent that this was a complicated aspiration, after we found that it isn’t straightforward to gain heritage listing for public artworks at a national level.

Despite the project’s focus on E. Mervyn Taylor, we were approached by numerous members of the public with information about other works in need of similar attention. We started a list, which we called the New Zealand Mural Heritage Register, to capture this information and it has grown to include over 160 entries.

In 2017 we co-hosted two workshops with Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage that discussed the idea of a New Zealand public art heritage project: addressing issues associated with managing public art, establishing legal protections and developing good management practices and processes. Participants were selected based on their experience in the realm of public art in New Zealand and included representatives from galleries, museums, universities, councils and property investors, as well as those from Massey University and the Ministry.

The resulting outcomes supported the idea of establishing a national-level Advocacy Group/Trust for Public Art, creating a formal New Zealand Public Art Register, and ensuring that good public access to knowledge of the works was made available. Watch this space!


9. What’s one new thing you discovered while working on this book?

This project has been full of discoveries, but if I was going to mention one it would have to be a recent secret but rather exciting discovery that we will reveal at the book launch at 4pm at City Gallery Wellington on Saturday 3 March 2018.


10. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m finishing a PhD and have three small people in my house, so quite an array of things, but two of them are: A Moral Truth: 150 Years of Investigative Journalism in New Zealand, edited by James Hollings — a fine book from Massey University Press — and The Adventures of Hutu & Kawa by Avis Acres, a gorgeous set of illustrated children’s stories that are like a New Zealand response to Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton, first published by Reed in 1955, which I recently discovered at the Owhiro Bay School Fair book stall (where I volunteer every year).