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A lifetime of colour

Tuesday July 17, 2018 Written by Published in Weekend
A prolifi c producer of colourful art in a highly distinctive style, Kay George often works on a number of projects at once - and in several diff erent media. 18071611 A prolifi c producer of colourful art in a highly distinctive style, Kay George often works on a number of projects at once - and in several diff erent media. 18071611

The upcoming solo exhibition, Years of Colour by Kay George, at Bergman Gallery marks 30 years to the very day since the well-known visual artist arrived in the Cook Islands with her late husband and fellow artist, Ian George.

Opening on Saturday, July 21, Years of Colour includes the first work Kay ever painted “Te Akumanga - The Beginning”. It’s about arriving in Rarotonga pregnant with their youngest child, daughter Ramana.

“I remember 30 years ago, sitting on the porch of our home in Arorangi watching the brilliant pinks and purples of the sunset. This exhibition is the culmination of the colours of my life in Rarotonga.”

For the past two years since Ian passed away, Kay has been working through the grieving process by creating pieces for the exhibition.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in Rotorua and Tokoroa, New Zealand, Kay was continually inspired by pop culture, music and fashion. She spent her first 10 years in Tokoroa, where her grandparents had settled from Ireland. Her grandfather was the local signwriter in Tokoroa and everything in their house was painted in bright colours, which for Kay, was like walking into a candy shop.

“It was from there my art career and connection to the Cook Islands began”. 

“Every weekend I stayed at their house, I always remember being on my knees, looking out the push-up window and staring at the strange but beautiful looking people across the road going to church. Some had mats wrapped about them, others had flowers in their hair and carried fans. They absolutely fascinated me.” Many years later, Kay found out it was the newly-built Cook Islands Church, which was attended by other Pacific Islands communities too. Her grandparents’ house became the local Cook Islands community centre. 

As a child, Kay would watch her mother make clothes for neighbourhood families.

“It was during a time when haberdashery shops were popular and my mother would walk in and feel the fabric, which is something I still do to this day.”

In her 20s, Kay took to painting cotton and linen fabrics, selling them at local markets in Sydney before eventually opening a boutique with a friend. In Sydney, Australia, Kay was reacquainted with Ian, a Cook Islands artist and educator. Kay had known Ian since their school days in Rotorua. Eager to explore his Cook Islands heritage, they moved to Rarotonga on July 21, 1988. 

“In those days, it was hard to find good art supplies here. This meant that I had to use whatever materials I had at my fingertips, which led to some interesting pieces - painting on wood and dried banana leaves.”

With no galleries on Rarotonga, Kay and Ian were involved in their first community exhibition on the veranda of the Banana Court. The following year, another exhibition was shown at the Paradise Inn.

Over the years in Rarotonga, Kay produced works in several mediums - layering colourful paintings, photographs and screen prints on clothing, fabrics, wood, furniture, canvas and tiles.

In 1994, Kay and Ian returned to New Zealand. Over a six-year period, the two became heavily involved with the Pacific art scene, regularly showing in solo and group exhibitions. By 2000, Kay’s printed fabrics were being featured in an exhibition at the Biennial of International De-sign in Lyon, France.

Returning to Rarotonga in 2002 with the dream of opening their own art gallery, Kay and Ian settled back into their family home in Arorangi. The doors of the Art Studio (in Dr Fariu’s old building) opened the same year, hosting group exhibitions by local artists.

By 2006, they had their own purpose-built gallery. The Art Studio building now stood alongside their family home and was used as a studio until 2016. The Art Studio showcased local artists as well as artists from across the Cook Islands and the Pacific. Annual shows included the Vaka Eiva exhibition as well as four group shows a year. “For many idyllic years, we lived what I consider the artist’s dream,” says Kay

In 2006, Kay presented the solo show Endangered Species at the Art Studio. “As an outsider married to a Cook Islander, I have had the privilege of observing the community through these eyes. When we first moved here, I noticed how the kids would run freely and neighbours would sit on the walls in the evenings telling stories.”

Soon hedges on the island were being cut down to make way for wooden fences. Concrete walls followed not long after. Observing these changes, Kay began taking photographs of friends and family in the community.

“I took photos, put them on silkscreens and printed the images as a social commentary and visual documentary of the changes.” Several of the pieces from Endangered Species can still be found on exhibition at the USP Campus Centre in Avarua.

In 2008, Kay received a Cook Islands scholarship to complete a Masters of Art and Design at Auckland University of Technology.

“My work has often focused on young women, and so I looked at the changes in Cook Islands’ women’s adornment for my thesis. I observed how changes in adornment have become disconnected from cultural traditions and how patterns have evolved from pre-missionary days to today’s social media and online buying.”

For her final exhibition, Kay combined her love of photography, Cook Islands’ women, and adornment. Experimenting with printing photographic images on a number of surfaces, Kay finally chose glossy PVC. Her work includes striking two-metre tall pieces which are held in private collections and were shown as part of the Manea Exhibition presented by the Bergman Gallery in New York City in 2010.

Since closing the Art Studio in 2016, Kay has had greater freedom to create new work - moving between various mediums while working on commissions and exhibitions.

Whilst continuing to observe the changes within the community and with new technology emerging, she is always investigating new ways of visually representing work.

On a typical day in her workshop, she can be found screening pareu, painting blocks of colour onto canvas, or taking photographs for new prints. Kay works quickly and prolifically between projects, continuously adding layers.

For Years of Colour, Kay has experimented with new surfaces, dying organza silk this year and creating folding silk screens that act as vibrant room dividers - showing how art can be functional. “I see my work with digital images growing as commissioned functional art.” 

The exhibition includes a work entitled Fading Memory, featuring screen prints on canvas with the prints almost faded representing a Cook Islands’ culture that is changing and being replaced by a technology-driven generation with more contact to the outside world. 

This piece, and others, also look at climate change, specifically at the loss of fish, fauna, and the rising of tides. “For this show, I experimented with using organic matter such as ferns to screen print fabrics.”

Over the course of the past two years, Kay’s focus has been on creating and preparing for Years of Colour’. It has also given her time to reflect upon and appreciate the last 30 years of work.

“I have gone from a front lawn artist to exhibiting locally and internationally with a loyal following.  Today, I still sit on the porch, but see colours changing and fading.”

            - Amelia Borofsky