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Wellington couple artist/writer Gregory O’Brien and writer/anthologist Jenny Bornholdt enjoy the...
Wellington couple artist/writer Gregory O’Brien and writer/anthologist Jenny Bornholdt enjoy the renovated artist studio at Henderson House, Alexandra. O’Brien and Bornholdt are the newest artists-in-residence at Henderson House. Photos: Pam Jones
Another chapter in the story of a landmark Alexandra home is set to be written by an artistic husband and wife duo. Pam Jones talks to Gregory O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt about their shift to a Central Otago landscape.

They have made important contributions to New Zealand’s arts community, juggling words and visual images to celebrate the ordinary and extraordinary.

Now Gregory O’Brien and Jenny Bornholdt are turning their lens on Central Otago, making history in a "strange transplant" of a house with an "intelligent design".

Henderson House was the home of Alexandra arts philanthropists, the late Barbara and Russell Henderson, and since 2007 has been host to writers through an invitation-only artist-in-residence programme.

Now visual artists can be invited too, following a six-figure project that has renovated an arts studio at the house, which was designed by Austrian architect Ernst Plischke in the 1950s.

O’Brien and Bornholdt are the first artists to take up the residency since the studio renovation and say they are looking forward to creating the next chapter in the house.

Arriving from their home in Wellington last month for a year in Alexandra, the couple said they felt "marvellously in exile" but firmly rooted in New Zealand’s landscape, and loved the "intelligent design" of Henderson House.

O’Brien, who has previously referred to himself as having a "chameleon-like existence" as a poet, writer-about-art, essayist, printmaker, illustrator, artist and curator, has various arts projects in mind and will spend much time in the studio.

Central Otago stone and clean lines fill a room at Henderson House, in Alexandra.
Central Otago stone and clean lines fill a room at Henderson House, in Alexandra.
Both he and Bornholdt have various fellowships and awards to their name, including both being Arts Foundation Laureates, and both being made Members of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 2013.

Bornholdt, a poet and anthologist whose work is also prolific, has several writing projects on the go, but both have deliberately arrived without "piles of stuff to do", looking forward to the artistic and financial freedom the year will bring.

Already they were exploring the "tough, gritty, difficult, interesting, disconcerting landscapes of Central Otago ... fascinating, powerful, elemental places", O’Brien said.

A lover of architecture, he already feels an affinity with many of the buildings here, for example noting "the conversation" between Mitchells Cottage and Henderson House, both solid of  stone and "built by imports" — Mitchells Cottage by Andrew Mitchell, of the Shetland Islands, and Henderson House, by the Austrian Plischke.

O’Brien talks about the modernist Henderson House being "a strange transplant". (Henderson House trustee Grahame Sydney once said Plischke’s designs were models of European modernism dropped into a faraway Pacific context).

O’Brien is also taken by the wilding pines so controversial on Central Otago’s landscapes, joking he and Bornholdt could be likened to them, "blown in, but also gone in a year".

But they plan to "breathe the air" and meet people during what they consider a precious year; they’ll drift down cycle trails on bicycles left behind by former artist-in-residence Roger Hall, be available for discussion in the community and are planning "some sort of" artistic project about the house.

Bornholdt says it is "really lovely" as a poet to be in a different landscape.

The Ernst Plischke-designed Henderson House sits beneath Central Otago hills.
The Ernst Plischke-designed Henderson House sits beneath Central Otago hills.
"I always find that really exciting. It means you’re responding to place."

The New Zealand Book Council says Bornholdt’s work is "marked by understatement, quietness and a mesmerising contemplation of the world, both interior and exterior". She is noted for her "wise and warm appreciation of the world".

O’Brien is described by the Arts Foundation as having "one foot in the literary world, the other in the visual art realm". His great achievement was to "uncover, and bring into the light, the overlooked and the undersung", the foundation said.

Both Bornholdt and O’Brien follow structured mornings to start their daily work as artists and writers, although Bornholdt says the reality of writing is that "you are always working", observing and thinking.

She enjoys working on anthologies, shaping books and thinking about how people’s work relates to the work of others. Working out what sits well beside what is "a lovely process", she says.

O’Brien says similar things of curating art exhibitions.Both do collaborative work, sometimes with each other. O’Brien has also done collaborative paintings with Euan Macleod, and curated a large exhibition of his work that was staged in Central Stories Museum and Art Gallery in Alexandra in 2016.

The couple said they valued the awards they had received, although viewed their MNZMs partly as a "shout out" to the arts. It felt like they were accepting them on behalf of the "often under-valued" arts community, Bornholdt said.

But the Henderson House residency was a special one, she and O’Brien said.

"What’s so great about this award is it’s a whole lot of possibilities," O’Brien said.

pam.jones@odt.co.nz

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