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13 October, 2011 | Page 13
There aren’t many professional
artists who open an exhibition
showcasing a piece they painted
as an 11-year-old, but for Te Anau
artist Wallace Keown it’s a fitting
way to acknowledge a lifetime’s
Mr Keown, now 73, opened
his exhibition “60 Years
Retrospective” at Gore’s ArtSouth
Gallery of Fine Art last weekend,
featuring 106 pieces spanning
The earliest, and one of his
favourites, is a watercolour
of a Dunedin church done in
1949 which highlights his early
fascination with the tones, shapes
and angles of the architecture.
“It’s an interesting little painting
because at that age I’d never seen
any art or any big buildings,” he
It’s unsophisticated and some of
the colours have faded but the
seasoned artist can appreciate
the untapped potential of an
“I must admit I think it’s a very
good painting for a kid of that
age,” he said.
Another early piece is a cartoon-
style birthday card he made for
an elderly neighbour about 1950.
The couple treasured the card and
handed it down to their daughter
who passed it to her daughter who
ultimately returned it to Mr Keown.
“I am delighted that it was
considered worthy of being
retained all those years, through
three generations,” he said.
It’s also the sole surviving piece
of a large bundle of work he
produced around that time, many
of which won prizes at shows and
school displays – pieces done at
a time when he was enamoured
with the works of Walt Disney
and envisaged himself one day
producing cartoons for the same.
Mr Keown was brought up in Gore,
the family moving to a farm near
Balfour when he was about 10.
His artistic talent was recognised
and fostered by his mother and he
attended the Southland Technical
College in Invercargill, boarding
with an aunt and uncle, because
it was the only school in the
southern South Island with an art
course designed to prepare young
people to go to art school.
But the restless teen failed to
follow that path, seeing little
future in an art career other
than teaching or signwriting. He
left school in 1953, discovering
two months later that one of his
paintings had been accepted into
an Australian touring exhibition.
His mother counselled a return to
school but Mr Keown said he was
“too stubborn”. Instead he “drifted
into farming and things”.
It was while recouperating from a
motor accident that he got back
into painting, attending some art
classes in Winton. Soon he was
spending all of his spare time
painting – the Eglinton Valley a
favourite spot where he would
paint all day then sleep in his car.
His transition to professional
artist was triggered by Dr Geoffrey
Orbell, of takahe rediscovery fame,
who bought one of his paintings in
1969 and then agreed to sell his
work in a souvenir shop he had
in Te Anau. Mr Keown was invited
to manage the shop and spend
as much time as he liked painting
“In a sense, he sponsored me.”
Unfortunately the shop closed
at the end of 1970 but Mr
Keown continued to work as a
professional artist, selling most of
his work to tourists.
By 1972 he had staged his first
major solo exhibition in Invercargill
where sales were phenomenal.
Somewhere between 150 and 200
works were sold at the opening.
“The sales record probably still
stands,” he said.
That sales success also gave
him the leg-up needed to exhibit
His art career has been structured
far differently than it might have
been had he gone to art school
but Mr Keown has no regrets.
“All through my career I’ve been
teaching myself how to paint but
always with the crushing weight of
having to create something that
someone’s going to want to buy,”
Never more did he feel that
weight than in the 1980s, the
era of Rogernomics, when almost
overnight people stopped buying
art. However, he survived, sales
helped by his tourist market.
Mr Keown said assembling the
Retrospective exhibition was
“quite a trip”. Some pieces had
been stored away, not seeing the
light of day for 30 or more years.
“It was quite a surprise. They
were better than I would have
remembered them... and they
were in amazingly good condition.”
Followers and collectors of Mr
Keown’s work snapped up the
chance to view and buy pieces
previously known to nobody but
the artist. ArtSouth Gallery director
Bob Martin who has represented
Mr Keown for at least a decade,
said response to the work was
“People are connecting with them
big time... we’ve had quite a few
people in tears,” Mr Martin said.
Ten paintings sold on opening
night. Among those present was
an Australian collector who bought
17 of Mr Keown’s works from a
previous exhibition and flew from
Brisbane especially to view the
Mr Keown confesses that when
he first agreed to the exhibition
he was a bit burnt out and feared
it might have been his swansong,
but the reality couldn’t be further
from the truth.
“Seeing them all in one heap
is wonderful really. It gives you
a chance to see where you’ve
come from and where you’d got.
It also helps point the way into
the future... I think it’s actually
heralded my resolve to carry on
and do some more.”
Hampered by eye irritation and
associated vision problems in
recent years, Mr Keown is now
keen to get restarted, especially
on further developing some ideas
in his recently uncovered abstract
pieces from many years ago.
“I was born with the ability and
now, having taken 74 years to
teach myself how to paint, it
seems a waste not to carry on.”
• Wallace Keown’s exhibition runs
at ArtSouth Gallery, Main Street,
Gore, until October 22.
Painting life in retrospect
The earliest piece in the exhibition,
a watercolour of a Dunedin church
painted when Mr Keown was just 11.
By Kirsty Macnicol
Te Anau artist Wallace Keown in his studio which has been home to decades
of work, some of which is being shown publicly for the first time in his latest
exhibition “60 Years Retrospective” at Gore’s ArtSouth Gallery.
A birthday card created by Wallace
Keown about 1950.
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