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16 November 2017

Painting New Zealand

“The places I paint very rarely feature people, but are all about people.”


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There is no doubt it takes courage to throw in a full-time job to take up painting as a career. Josh Lancaster did. His is a story of determination, self-belief, connections, regrets, and triumphs.

Josh Lancaster was educated at Auckland Grammar School where he was lucky enough to have highly renowned realist landscape painter, Justin Boroughs as his art teacher. Lancaster completed his years at Grammar and left Auckland to attend design school in Wellington. From there he pursued a career in advertising and worked in a number of New Zealand’s top advertising agencies.

Lancaster’s plan was to dabble in painting and to only start painting seriously once he had finished with his career in advertising. For a while the dabbling was a wonderful antidote to his 'real job' as a creative director. But eventually the long hours of work started to fight with his plan, impatience set in, and he decided to end his 20 year-long stint in advertising, before it ended with him.

It was 2008 and he had a painting career that desperately wanted to ‘flap its wings’.

“One day, I found myself writing my resignation letter,” says Lancaster, “within a few months I'd moved to Hawke’s Bay to give painting a go full-time. Now I paint pictures in a big studio surrounded by trees next to a little stream located in the Hawke’s Bay.”

Over the years Lancaster has drawn inspiration from a number of New Zealand artists. He has observed, how through paint, they have represented New Zealand landscapes or buildings found across urban and rural New Zealand.

Jervois Road, Herne Bay

Jervois Road, Herne Bay

“I love seeing how other artists have tackled New Zealand and ‘New Zealand-ness’.”

Dick Frizzell, Rita Angus, Peter McIntyre, Robin White and Colin McCahon are just some that top Lancaster’s list of inspirational artists. But there was another well known New Zealand artist who would make a lasting imprint on his life.

Early on in his artist journey, good friend of Lancaster’s arranged for him to spend time with landscape painter Don Binney. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, after all Binney was Lancaster’s idol.

Lancaster says, “I figured Binney would surely have all the answers to give me direction to be a successful New Zealand artist. So, I thought, I'd just do a few more paintings then take them in to show him. Regretfully while I was waiting to do something ‘good enough’ to show him, Binney passed away - I think about that all the time.”

“Don’t wait until you think your work is good enough; seize the moment and go for it.”

Lancaster’s years of working as a creative director have undoubtedly had a profound influence on the way he works as an artist.

He says, “I still approach each job with thumbnails and a concept sketch as I would have in an agency. I think my advertising background also keeps me mindful of the audience, and what is important to them.”

Coxs Bay

Coxs Bay

Lancaster paints bits and pieces of New Zealand on canvas using acrylic. Often, they are the places that we share a collective ownership of, or fondness for and the places that connect us to the people we love - the family Bach, a beach, a view, or a favourite cafe.

“Painting can be a very selfish thing, it is one thing for you to be happy with the work, but you need it to connect with other people if you want to get paid.”

Last year a woman commissioned Lancaster to create a painting as a 20th anniversary present for her husband. It was of the dodgy student flat in Palmy (Palmerston North) where she and her husband first lived together. When his paintings evoke long forgotten memories, or prompt others to share theirs, Lancaster says for him this is the ultimate compliment.

Lancaster exhibits at Paper-Works Gallery in Te Awanga, Hawkes Bay, but in Auckland he is represented by Kieran Smyth of Smyth Galleries on Jervois Road in St Marys Bay. It was about seven years ago that Smyth got in touch with Lancaster and asked if he was interested in dropping off a ‘few pieces’. He did, and they sold. Then another couple of pieces; they sold and, so it went on.

For a while he continued to drip feed paintings to Smyth Galleries. Then in 2016 they had a sell-out first solo show ‘The Regulars’ which featured a number of iconic Ponsonby buildings and locations. The follow-up show this year ‘The Regulars 2 - More of Ponsonby’, also met with huge success.

The Regulars 2 - More of Ponsonby

The Regulars 2 - More of Ponsonby

Ponsonby was a big part of Lancaster’s life. With 20 years in advertising he says he has seen a fair few Ponsonby white table cloths and more than his fair share of personal memories of great times with some very clever, funny and talented lunch-partners. It's the people and the good times he says he remembers most about these places, and of course the Saltimbocca at Prego - but mostly the people.

“I keep imagery of people out of these scenes; I like the viewer to see it as their place, and fill it with their people and memories.

“When I'm painting a place, I like to research its history, especially its social history. What it meant to the people who were there. I think a lot about the sheer number of personal stories that weave their way through these places, connecting us to people we know, people we don't, and people who have gone before. 

Lancaster loves things that appear timelessly ‘New Zealand’ as if they were always there.  He is intrigued with the way light catches weather boards or corrugated iron. In the case of Ponsonby Road, it is the division between, above and below the awning, that catches his eye.  From the road, the shop window below may change year by year, while the upstairs facade still looks the same as it did 100 years ago.

Josh's working drawings

Josh's working drawings

“I believe for most, we like to define who we are by the things we hang on our walls. In my work this is about people and their connections to a landscape, and how they can find individual and collective iconic moments. The places we define as ours are what make us who we are.

“Identity is essential, both on a personal level, as a community and as a country. I think any community needs a healthy raft of artists, poets, writers, singers, songwriters and anyone who has a thing, to explore who we are as a group of people and define what is important to us.”

There is no question, Lancaster stands to leave New Zealand a great legacy - one that hopefully generations to come will find a sense of connection with in one way or another.

To view more of Josh's work, click here.

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