Garden leaves impression

Port Chalmers artist Russell Moses has a soft spot for ponga. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Port Chalmers artist Russell Moses has a soft spot for ponga. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON

A visit to Claude Monet’s 
garden in Giverny, France, has inspired Port Chalmers artist Russell Moses’ latest works. He talks to Rebecca Fox in his own garden oasis.

Patting the trunk of a ponga, Russell Moses moves down the winding track of his Port Chalmers garden, telling us of his fondness for the tree ferns.

The forest-like garden he and wife Lyn have created over the past 45 years is their sanctuary - something that has been brought home to them in recent months since their son was diagnosed with Covid-19 in London.

"It was really hard for us."

The pair felt incredibly helpless being so far away, but drew strength from their own slice of nature overlooking Back Beach and Otago Harbour.

"We found that we were in our own sanctuary. It gave us so much strength. Plants are very powerful. They were nourishing us.

"My appreciation of the healing power of the natural world intensified."

It also gave him empathy for French artist Claude Monet, who created his own garden as a refuge from the turmoil of war as well as a place for contemplation and a subject for his work.

"Monet had the bombs going off."

The Moseses visited the garden in 2018 not knowing quite what to expect.

"It was quite a revelation. What really got me was the reflections. I’d been interested in reflections and metaphors and what that means looking back.

"I’ve never experienced those types of reflection. Here I’ve always seen reflections at a distance and when the clouds come over they play on land and the sea, but at Monet’s there are flowers and overhanging trees so you’re looking at a mirror, it’s an upside down world.

"I was amazed at the lily pads just floating. It’s a very abstract thing to look at when you study it."

Skypool (above) and Sanctuary, by Russell Moses
Skypool (above) and Sanctuary, by Russell Moses

They also visited the Musee de l’Orangerie in the west corner of the Tuileries Gardens, next to the Place de la Concorde in Paris. It was here they stored the orange trees from the gardens in winter during Napoleon III’s time.

The museum is now the home of eight large water lily murals by Monet, which also resonated with Moses.

"It’s an amazing thing. You’ve got to experience it. He was interested in light."

In those days, painting was not like it is now so Monet had to work on six pieces at a time, painting each at the same time each day to get the light right, keeping track of the timings in a diary.

Moses’ new works in "Brave New World" are inspired by that journey and were created during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

Light has always played an important role in his work as well.

"As I’ve painted these [new works] I’ve used paint that shifts - as the sun hits it at different parts of the day it changes," he says.

"So these are the sort of internal conversations you’re always having."

The works have also been influenced by his own garden and the reflections he sees in it.

He was able to recreate that shifting light by using luminescent "pearly" type paints which "harvest the light".

"If you look at a painting from one side its one colour but if you shift it to another side of room its a completely different painting."

It is an acrylic paint he has used in the past, but not to the extent he has in his latest work.

"I’ve really experimented with different colours and light and different shapes and forms."

Moses always works in series. There are 10 works in his latest exhibition all featuring multiple pieces — such as Skypool which is made up of 36 pieces.

He started out creating lily pad shapes with a more elliptical "waka shape" to them, but found as he tilted them forward they changed.

"Close up, the perception of distance narrows and you become closer with the subject."

The Sanctuary works feature emerald green lines which are inspired by the supports they saw in Monet’s garden.

Like Monet, Moses also works on several pieces at the same time as he waits for the paint to dry.

"I mix a lot of paint up and use it, I have a process where I can move through the work."

He makes a maximum of 10 works a year and tries not to work seven days a week.

"You do," his wife Lyn says.

Moses admits he walks down to his studio in Port Chalmers for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

It was also something he continued to do during the lockdown, justifying it in that "Jacinda said we could go for a walk".

Once he finished the work on this exhibition he tackled the garden, as there are always things in the garden that get neglected while he works.

"It’s sort of like a giant installation. You think ‘oh, I’ll do that as it’s annoying me’, but the garden tells what you do."

Moses was also delighted to see Monet was influenced by a Japanese aesthetic, which inspired his own gardening.

"I have a shared love of bamboo, possibly not shared by my neighbours."


‘‘Brave New World’’, Russell Moses, 
Milford Gallery Dunedin until October 27

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