Prints from a lofty realm

John Z. Robinson in his Stuart St studio. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
John Z. Robinson in his Stuart St studio. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
Behave (1981)
Behave (1981)
Self Portrait (2005)
Self Portrait (2005)
Ivan Hill (2008)
Ivan Hill (2008)

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor. Jeweller, painter, printmaker. Nigel Benson meets John Z. Robinson.

John Z. Robinson ("The Z doesn't stand for anything. I just thought it looked good.") leans back in an old chair in his studio.

The studio sits on the top floor of Lure in Stuart St, perched like an eagle's nest above central Dunedin city.

From here, Robinson surveys all.

The space is comfortably eclectic. A bit like the artist, really.

Robinson arrives here promptly at 7.30 every morning, after a bike ride from the Andersons Bay home he shares with partner Simon Daly, and clambers up the three flights of stairs into his creative loft.

Then, he settles to work, crafting whatever catches his eye.

The 56-year-old artist has worked as a painter, jeweller, sculptor and printmaker for nearly 30 years.

"I think the thing I enjoy about art is just the pleasure of making something," he says.

"I also like the balance I get from working in different art disciplines. Painting is a very subtle thing. You use a soft brush and apply paint and it's all about that gestural type of thing. With printmaking, you've got to push a chisel through the lino, whereas jewellery is all about metal and sawing and hammering, filing and shaping. One has no resistance; one has a little bit of resistance and one has a hell of a lot of resistance. One feeds the other, feeds the other."

At about this point in the interview our photographer interrupts: "Your eyes crinkle too much when you smile," he says.

Robinson obligingly "uncrinkles" his eyes for the photo.

Last night, Robinson released his latest book, Red Studio: Forty-five prints, published by Longacre Press.

"The book came about three years ago, when I had a retrospective exhibition at Mary McFarlane's old Port Gallery in Port Chalmers. [Longacre Press managing editor] Barbara Larsen came up to me during the exhibition and just said `John! Book!' You know how she talks," he laughs.

Robinson grew up in Foxton and started a jewellery apprenticeship with Max Wilson in Palmerston North in 1970.

"It was a four-year apprenticeship in those days.

"And it was four years of hard grind," he recalls.

"Later, I became interested in painting and decided to go to the Dunedin art school and get more serious about it."

Robinson attended the art school from 1978 to 1980, training under the late Bernard Holman (1941-1988). An anecdote in the book fondly recalls his old mentor.

"Returning from a party late one night, I met him on the street. 'I'm drunk,' he said, 'but you're wearing a fur coat!'."

"It was at the art school that I started getting into printmaking. A technician who was leaving offered me an old converted mangle, like a washing machine, and I got a bookbinding press and a roll of lino with it.

"I never imagined, when I got that press, that I would still be using it 30 years later. But, printing has become a habit, really," he says.

"I started doing prints of things people gave me; like a present or a bunch of flowers. Little things like that. The small scale suits me."

He has also produced larger works, such as printed promotion posters and designed sets, for Globe Theatre productions.

The works in Red Studio: Forty-five prints range from window views of inner-cityscapes from his studio, to portraits of Dunedin naive artist Ivan Hill, Shakespeare and Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.

"I wanted to show what I can do, so there are portraits, landscapes, abstracts and more conceptual works. There are also different techniques, like monoprints, and works using different inks," he says.

"I wanted to make it interesting as a book and I thought lino cuts, as a collection, hung together more cohesively than my paintings. But, I've done over 400 prints, and, so, I had to make some choices.

"There's not a lot of technique to printmaking, but there is some technique. Lino is quite different from wood. It's much softer and there's not that fine etching involved, where you get a graduation of tone. It's no more sophisticated than a potato cut, really, so it has to be fairly bold.

"Subject matter is everywhere and the ways of describing it are endless. Even on something as uncomplicated as a small piece of brown linoleum.

"It's a perfect medium for simple and straightforward graphic expression. This simplicity is what appeals to me. I distrust the merely decorative in art - and in life in general.

"Generally, I prefer paintings and art that has a calming sort of presence, as opposed to . . . well, let's just say I'm not interested in adolescent angst any more."

• Red Studio: Forty-five prints is published by Longacre Press (RRP$39.99).


The Otago Daily Times and Longacre Press have four copies of Red Studio: Forty-five prints to give away. To enter the draw for one, write your name, address and daytime telephone number on the back of an envelope and send it to Editorial Features, Response Bag 500014, Dunedin, or email with "JZR" in the subject line, to arrive before next Thursday (12.11.09).


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