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Published: 20 August 2022

By Andy Ross

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Greymouth Mawhera's surprising art history

Greymouth Mawhera is the largest town on the West Coast and some research is uncovering its unique place in the history of New Zealand art. 

The town is sizeable for the Coast, around 8,300 by the latest estimates, and is often overlooked for its contribution to art. People visit for adventure tourism and scenery, surrounded as it is by hills and mountains, and lying alongside the river that gives the town both its Maori and its Pakeha names - Mawhera and the Grey. The settlement has been important for coal and gold and fishing; in its heyday it was a prosperous part of Aotearoa New Zealand. Now it is quieter and the businesses are smaller and fewer than they were. The West Coast population is declining and with a lack of people and jobs, the town struggles a little. 

However, there is another history here, a proud one, and one that has been often overlooked. Greymouth's place in the art history of New Zealand is important. From its earliest depictions of the town through to the present day, artists have visited and created lasting images. This is a history that deserves to be told so a research project is underway to uncover and reveal a different side to Mawhera, one that may change perceptions and alter the ways in which The West Coast is viewed. 

Over the next little while these stories will be posted on the blog and, as always, if there is any information that readers can share on the topic of art in the West Coast, please email it through. It will be gratefully received. 

To start, here are a couple of interesting snippets.

Rita Angus, one of Aotearoa's most famous artists and a pioneer in the development of a New Zealand artistic identity, had a sister, Jean, who lived in Greymouth. It was here that the artist created an iconic work - TreeThis piece was inspired by a cherry tree in her sister's garden in July 1943. 

In a similar vein, Colin McCahon, the Modernist painter, visited another artist who lived in Mawhera, Sir Toss Woollaston,  where he found the inspiration to paint Toss in Greymouth.The painting depicts the landscape of the town with a black Tau cross guarding its harbour entrance. The painting's text  comes from a poem by Woollaston:

Alit on the flax

a tui at dusk

and broke the late evening open with song.