Wallpaper music of the Great Outdoors

There are some things in life that slip by unnoticed for years until they are explicitly pointed out, at which point they glare you in the face at every turn. Background music in the supermarket is a prime example, but it is not alone in being chronically overlooked. Between hosting travellers down here and visiting rellies in Auckland I discovered that I had been missing more than the soundtrack to the freezer aisle.

Living in the city or in the country you become attuned to certain things and learn to block out others. Last year we took a hitch-hiker over to Tekapo, and he was so stunned by the mountains he had to stop talking in order to take in the view. ‘Is this normal for you?’ he asked. Initially it wasn’t, but there are only so many time you can pull over on the Ashburton to Methven route to admire the snowy ridges before you realise that they look the same as they did yesterday, and will probably still be there tomorrow. This is still a beautiful place to live, but if the breath taking nature didn’t become somewhat normalised then we would all have succumbed to asphyxiation long ago.

Returning to Auckland, I realised I had been doing exactly the same thing up there. Traffic noise, vibrant signage and throngs of people had all faded out to become the invisible background to everyday life. Heading back up, it was these things that jumped out. Suddenly the four lanes of traffic, road cones, motorway exits and right turning arrows were all jostling for my senses’ attention: It was only after becoming accustomed to their absence that I really noticed them for the first time. Such realisations are all well and good if you are a passenger in a car that is crawling through rush hour traffic, but pulling over on the side of the motorway in order to read the fine print of the billboards is not really the done thing…

Neither, apparently, is obeying the speed limit. Down this way a judiciously placed temporary 30 sign is a good indication that loose gravel, a slip, or a herd of stock are around the corner. In Auckland, it is just a suggestion. Perhaps there is a different conversion system up there that I have missed in my time in the South, because 30 seemed to mean 60 and 80 seemed to mean 100, if the volley of beeps from behind was anything to go by. Having become accustomed to narrow country roads with not a car in sight, I found the aural assault to be most pronounced and began to long for the low of a cow to break up the commuting chaos.

These past weeks have shown me that paying attention to the background sights and sounds that we take for granted can provide a totally new perspective on a place, and there are always new things to be discovered. Coming home again I made sure to give the mountains a second glance. As for the motorway billboards up North, the conditions of the sushi deal will just have to wait…

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Family Portrait

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There is nothing like a family gathering to remind you of who you are and where you come from. If Christmas dinner with the second cousins didn’t do the trick this year, there is always an interactive portraiture exhibition at the Ashburton Art Gallery that can help you to see yourself in a new light. Classic portraits by Rita Angus and Frances Hodgkins sit alongside photographs of All Black’s Supporters, while easels around the gallery encourage visitors to try their own hand at the artform. I took my visiting family to check it out, and while drawing your nearest and dearest may not be the best course of action if you are aiming to preserve civil relationships, we gave it a go and ended up seeing a new side of each other.

Mum’s favourite artwork was a sculpture of a man and his dog. This may or may not have been a symptom of canine withdrawal, as she left her own pup in Auckland this Christmas and has had to do make do with skype calls home rather than having a dog on the end of her bed.

Dad preferred Nigel Brown’s lemon tree, while the rest of my cohort made a beeline for the easels. The exhibition offered my man a moment away from the in-laws to try his hand at self-portraiture. Having not sketched since third form art class, the results were impressive. He was not quite game enough to try sketching me or mum however, and decided it was safest to try the light box for drawing silhouettes. Sister two’s hat looked very stylish in profile, and there was less chance of offending her by drawing a wonky nose or forgetting to add eyebrows. (Dad’s abstract version of mum did not go down so well, largely as a result of this omission).

The artworks on display would not look out of place in a city gallery, but the best thing about the exhibition was the range of questions that accompanied the portraits, encouraging the audience to think about what their own version might look like. I never thought I would be answering questions such as ‘What am I wearing’ with ‘gumboots,’ so living in Mid Canterbury has definitely changed the version of me that would be seen in a portrait.

These days I would be with my dog, in my library, with the mountains visible in the background through the window, and there would be a bunch of home grown flowers on the side table, just for good measure. In Auckland I would have chosen a beach setting, with my family in the painting. Gumboots would definitely have been out, and the only thing in a vase would have been a sprig of the impossibly hardy rosemary from under the front steps. Moving south means I have swapped beaches for a beetroot patch and mum and dad for a mutt, but I am proud to show my family this new South Island version of their daughter, in full portrait.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian