Street art: A Tribute to Rita Angus by Sam Hollis
How did you come to be involved in A Tribute to Rita Angus?
The Rita Angus tribute was a project spearheaded and run by Bruce Mahalski and had a long life prior to my involvement. He really wanted to see it happen and coordinated all the moving parts. There was actually another artist involved in the beginning stages who had a personal situation arise that stopped them from being able to travel [to New Zealand] to paint. There were also loads of logistical issues to organise that meant from when I was first approached to when it happened, there was about a year’s interval. I really have to hand it to Bruce for persevering, it definitely was a labour of love.
Rita Angus is one of Aotearoa’s most iconic artists, and I imagine eternalising her through this tribute felt like a mammoth undertaking. How did you react to this opportunity and did you feel a lot of pressure?
I was honoured to be the one to render the final image. It was loads of work but also lots of fun. I had painted a tribute to Ralph Hotere based on one of Marti Friedlander's photographs in Auckland shortly after his passing and feel it's important to honour the artists that came before us. I've always loved Rita Angus’ work, and the Theo Schoon photograph of her is really iconic. It was great to pay tribute in a location that had personal significance, too.
Did you develop more of an appreciation for Rita Angus throughout the process?
Most definitely. I think she had a way of painting that appears simplistic but is very unique and hard to imitate. I tried my best to mirror aspects of her own self-portraits into the treatment in this mural and kind of struggled to get it authentic to her hand. I think that’s a testament to her genius – even with years of painting large-scale murals, this one had a lot of challenges.
Most of your street art could be categorised as post-graffiti, often featuring colourful, distorted portraits. How did you go about adapting your style to mesh with Rita Angus’?
I mean, in all reality, I didn't strive to bring my own aesthetic into this; I was trying to conceal it behind an attempt to achieve hers. If it looks at all like my hand then that was unavoidable, I guess. I'm only able to paint to my own limitations. I come from graffiti. That informs everything I do, but it wasn’t my goal with this mural.
In what ways is this mural special to you?
I was back in Aotearoa awaiting my visa to return to the US. It ended up being a six-and-a-half-month ordeal. I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work and support my wife and I from afar doing meaningful projects. Bruce was heaps of fun to work with and of course, I really love Wellington. I was born in Palmerston North but moved to Auckland in 1984. I always had a pull towards Wellington and have relished any opportunity for a long stay there. Also, one day I met Rita’s nephew, who came past the wall to say hello. That was a real standout as well.