A portrait of an artist in a small town

July 28

Wanaka-based artist Stephen Martyn Welch paints people, because people deserve to be painted.

PORTRAITURE. IT GETS A BAD RAP. FOR MANY, THE WORD EVOKES POWDERY ARISTOCRATS IN RUFF COLLARS, GREY AND WHITE CEOS LINING THE WALLS OF GREY AND WHITE BOARDROOMS, AND THE QUEEN. STEPHEN MARTYN WELCH (KNOWN LOCALLY AS MARTY) IS A PORTRAIT ARTIST, BUT THE WĀNAKA PAINTER’S WORK HAS LITTLE TO DO WITH ANY OF THE ABOVE.

(featured painting: 2009. Fuck you Gary. Oil on board. 1200x910mm)

Marty blames portraiture’s poor reputation on its history as a “pat on the back” service. It was something the inheriting classes did to show off; after all, he points out, the Mona Lisa is just a commissioned portrait of some rich merchant’s daughter. Marty does not do “pat on the back” paintings. His portraits are real, a chronical rather than a reward, a record of both the inner and outer selves of the people who sit for him. They are not all beautiful, and yet, for this very reason, they all are.

As an artist, Marty is best-known for his two-year stint on the TVNZ series The Sitting, in which he chatted with, then painted, 43 notable New Zealanders including Tiki Taane, Graham Henry, Lucy Lawless and, in 2011, an up-and-coming MP named Jacinda Ardern. The show was a success – an auction of the works raised more than $140,000 for Starship Children’s Hospital – and in 2012 Marty won the prestigious Adam Portraiture Award.

Making a living as an artist was not always on the cards. Marty hails from Te Kōpuru, a rural farming town in the far north, and he failed art at secondary school despite a childhood love for drawing and for comics. He only took up sketching again after his second son, Scott, was born with Kabuki Make Up syndrome, one of only 350 people on earth diagnosed with the rare genetic condition. Marty was in his early twenties at the time. “We lived at Starship Hospital for a couple of years,” he says. “I picked up hobbies to keep sane. Really looking at people’s faces and figuring out how to draw them gave me purpose, and purpose was good.”

Marty started practising more, moving up from pencil, to kindergarten paints and gradually to professional oil painting. He got work as a milkman in Auckland; the four days on, four days off schedule gave him time to paint seriously. He started to make a name for himself on the Auckland art scene. But Marty is a big believer in the community that small towns afford their residents, and he wanted to live somewhere his kids could walk down the street and see a mate.

The specific choice of Wānaka came out of a solo roadie in a V8 camper van. “I drove into Wānaka and the inversion was about 100 metres above the lake. It was that kind of day. I sat on the pebbles and thought, I could see my kids living here.” There was also a spot of drinking involved: “I fell into the ditch on Pembroke Park, and thought, this is a great place to get drunk.” He was sold.

“THE MONA LIST IS JUST A COMMISSIONED PORTRAIT OF SOME RICH MERCHANT’S DAUGHTER”

A few months later he brought his wife Amanda down, and it was a bluebird day. She was blown away by the scenery. Marty’s reaction? “Where did all those mountains come from?” Six months later, they moved.

Marty’s focus on painting people, rather than the famously resplendent landscapes of the region, makes him unusual in the canon of Central Otago art. But he’s not into canons. “I can go outside and say what I’m looking at is beautiful, but do I get anything emotional from it? On a small level yes. But can it make me sad, can it make me angry, can I disagree with it?” In short, there is so much more to people than there is to the things people look at.

This is the point of the EVERYONE DESERVES A PORTRAIT (EDAP) project, a body of work based on the premise that all of us have something worth recording, and for which he has been painting everyday folk who have a little bit of the exceptional about them. Subjects have included young people with special needs, a burns survivor and the barista who makes Marty’s morning coffee. “You might think your life is plain and boring,” Marty says, “but I guarantee once you start talking, you’ll say something interesting.”

He’s recently worked on a small-scale community EDAP series focused on Wānaka and Hawea, the two lake communities near his home. He has painted 12 locals (he finds his subjects everywhere – one is of a cool-looking a guy he hit up in the Wānaka New World), and each subject gets to keep her or his own portrait.

Marty’s main day to day work, commissions, is not so different from what the portrait artists of old did. The modern-day lack of aristocracy, however, means people get portraits done for all kinds of reasons, from parents wanting a unique image of their kids to marking an occasion, like retirement. He meets all his clients. “I don’t paint from supplied photos; I need to know the person, and I’ll usually go to them. Let me come and sit at your dinner table on a Tuesday night after netball practice, then I’ll see the real you.”

There’s also a bit of technical talk – options like head to hands or head to feet, standing or sitting, different styles (textured, layered, photographic, painterly, hyper-realistic) – and it’s about six months from sitting to the client receiving the completed work. Turns out oil paint takes a long time to dry.

A selfie is cheaper and quicker, sure, but there’s this: today’s canvas and paints will last 500 to 600 years. “People get a really cool buzz out of that,” Marty says, especially when they think about their kids, and their kids’ kids, and their kids’ kids’ kids, looking at the work. “People I will never meet, who have my DNA, will see my painting. How trippy is that! It’s like Henry Ford’s descendants driving the original Model T.”

Even better, 15% of what he earns on every commission goes towards EDAP, enabling Marty to travel the country and do free paintings for people who, often because of disability or disfigurement, don’t see themselves as portrait material. But they are wrong. We all are.

LAURA WILLIAMSON


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