The environment around us

Marilynn Webb enjoys working in pastels. Photo: Linda Robertson
Marilynn Webb enjoys working in pastels. Photo: Linda Robertson
Tonal, moody prints and pastels of some of Otago and Southland’s most outstanding landscapes are Marilynn Webb’s trademark. She tells Rebecca Fox that today’s political and environmental issues are just as much a concern as in the past.

Backed by a shelf full of begonias, Marilynn Webb works away quietly in the porch of her Mornington villa.

The sound of a nail gun going off periodically draws a frown from the pioneer printmaker who is used to the peace and quiet of her garden - usually only broken by the buzz of the bees she tries to attract.

''I love gardening, it's like painting, growing things. I'm thrilled if I see a bee on my front veranda.''

She has just finished a pastel of Dusky Sound and is pleased with the deep blue she has achieved.

The work has already sold and is about to head off to its Wellington home.

However, it is her work from the past that will be showcased in her latest exhibition.

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery has drawn from its collection of works by Webb titled ''Marilynn Webb Works from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery collection''.

''It is really good they have brought out the collection, especially as I am local and it reinforces the collection policy. People want to see the work.''

DPAG made its first acquisition of Webb's work, Cloud Landscape II, in 1973 and has since built a substantial collection of her prints and pastel drawings. This exhibition concentrates on some of key concerns that have occupied Webb in a career extending across five decades - especially her focus on environmental issues.

''I'm always working in the same vein with the attention on the politics of land and also the use of offering up an image as something that should be protected.''

The exhibition follows these interests, starting with the Protection series of works which ''reflected Webb's desire to position herself, a feminist artist of Maori and Pakeha descent, as an active element of her work'', the exhibition notes say. ''Her own body became a strong presence, often seen in the Protection works as the outline of her hands.''

The Protection works, combined with later series, including the Pacific Countdown Suite, signalled Webb's increasingly urgent message of environmental protection, a prevailing theme from the 1980s onward.

''In these works she claims protection for the physical, ecological, spiritual and cultural elements that are central to her life and beliefs.''

Lake Mahinerangi has been an enduring presence in Webb's art since the mid-1970s.

Webb began visiting the lake in 1974, when she moved to Dunedin as a Frances Hodgkins Fellow.

She purchased a bare piece of land at the lake, and this environment became a major influence in her work.

Over this time she developed a close friendship with poet Cilla McQueen, and Lake Mahinerangi became a shared point of reference.

When the ''Think Big'' schemes came along in the 1980s including the development of the Clyde Dam on the Clutha River, the Mobil synthetic petrol plant at Motunui, the expansion of the oil refinery at Marsden Point and the proposal for an aluminium smelter at Aramoana, resulting in land mined, dammed and cleared, it inspired some of Webb's most politically active works.

The large diptychs in the series Taste Before Eating (each work comprising a hand-coloured monotype and written recipe) and the accompanying unbound portfolio, comment on the ecological concerns raised by government initiatives.

In the 1990s, Webb had the chance to visit Fiordland - the location of one of the earliest encounters between Maori and European.

''I'm a very fortunate woman; I have been into Fiordland with Doc. I hate seeing the big cruise ships going in there. It's absolutely appalling. It's supposed to be a protected part of New Zealand,'' Webb says.

Webb had been developing her pastel works since her move to Dunedin for the Fellowship in 1974, but it was in Fiordland where she employed a new colour palette, using a range of silver, grey and green tones.

Her trips to Fiordland cemented her appreciation of what Doc staff do with little or dwindling funds.

''They're amazing; they tramp around and kill the stoats. That gets up my goat.''

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