January 27th 2020. Robert died this morning, losing his battle with pancreatic cancer. He was in Te Omanga Hospice in Lower Hutt where he had been for a while, happy to be there and family were present including a sister from Vancouver in Canada.
I first met Robert when, in 1997, as the newly appointed Curator for The Dowse Art Museum I spent my first weekend in Wellington wandering around downtown trying to orient myself. Along a wide dusty street there, in a furniture shop window, I spotted a cluster of ceramic ships, large and small, loosely modelled in earthenware and slip painted with a clear glossy glaze on top. I had never seen anything quite like them as they sailed wildly across a maroon carpet around some oak chairs, a coffee table and a sideboard seemingly extracted from the 1940s. Surprised, intrigued and wanting some close-ups I tried the door but the shop was closed.
Monday morning I reported my titillating find to some of the Dowse staff who were not at all riveted and told me the maker had to be Robert Rapson and “simply everyone has one of his ships in their collection”. I learned he had never exhibited at any gallery in Wellington and simply sold through that furniture and framing shop, who were friends of his. I had to accept, in my Auckland ignorance that this was how he wanted things. Later, once I got to know him a little he told me that he had always wanted to be an artist from childhood but was deterred by an adult’s remark that there was “no money in it” so he did a B.A. at Victoria instead and became a civil servant. He learned to make in clay as a sort of therapy when he was a client at Vincent’s – a Wellington public arts facility. He told me then he was clinically depressed sometimes and also had Asperger’s syndrome which kicked in in the 80s after Rogernomics scythed through his workplace and his job disappeared along with the rest of the Government Department he worked in.
His health issues came and went over the intervening years but his enjoyment working with clay never wavered. And it was ships that were his enduring passion – not just any old ship but huge ocean-going steamers of the mid-20th Century were central. Luxury vessels taking lengthy, romantic and expensive cruises such as the great Cunard liner the Queen Mary or the Italian Angelino Lauro – on which he made his first sea journey at age 20. You could name any such vessel and you’d find he had files containing details such as where built, how fuelled, passengers carried, numbers of decks, cabins, lifeboats and funnels. I once told him the name of the ship by which my family emigrated to Australia from England. On my return to Auckland the next day I found an envelope with copies of that ship’s details, an image, records of its history as a troop carrier in WWII and the later numbers of immigrants it carried and where they boarded, and finally its demise on a Bangladeshi wrecker’s foreshore. He had further files on our NZ coastal shipping – the smaller vessels – steamers, tugs, and ferries that chugged up and down the coast with goods, animals, and passengers of every sort. He was fascinated with almost anything that floated, particularly if it sailed NZ waters in some capacity as his father had been a wharf worker. He spent much time executing commissions for clients who had memories of particular ships and while made in his loose, spontaneous, yet direct and expressive style were nevertheless, always very precise in detail – physically and formally but also usually recorded beneath the work in tiny script.
‘RMS ORIANA visits Auckland and Wellington‘. Portage Awards 2006. Photo: Howard Williams.
He invested into broadening his subject matter by producing cars and airplanes sometimes, as well as making additional pieces to embellish the environments around his ships – whales and sharks, mermaids, buoys, small yachts, windsurfers or lighthouses and edges of landscapes as well as recognisable icons which might point to where this particular ship was sailing under or around such as distinctive bridges, Opera Houses or white cliffs.
He had many successes for his work over his more than 40 years of practice. He was invited to be resident artist at Otago School of Art Ceramics Department in Dunedin and he won the Molly Morpeth Canaday prize in Whakatane when it was (possibly last) designated for ceramics. When Robert won a second prize at the Norsewear Art Awards in Hawkes Bay, Premier Award winner, Jim Cooper said, ” It’s not about polish or sophistication, it’s felt, it’s got heart and I think that’s bloody spiritual. That’s what I like about Robert’s work.” Most notably he won the Premier Award in the Portage Ceramics Awards when Canadian, Amy Gogarty, writer, painter and historian, was judge. She commented on the “quality of his painted surface”. She observed that he, “combines efficient drawing, delicious scumbles and keenly observed detail with beautifully modelled plastic form. He reconfigures vivid childhood memories with imagination and wit, creating a vivid tableau that invites engagement” She continued that his work ‘taps into collective fantasies of far-off places and celebratory events” … and that “he deserves my highest recognition and respect.’
‘Himalaya serves the World, 1949 – early ’70s’ Premier Award in Portage Awards 2013. Photo by Sean Shadbolt.
Robert celebrated this $15,000 win by taking a three month round the world trip and on return was rewarded with yet another prize, the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award which recognises the ‘outstanding achievement and contribution of an artist with a disability, sensory impairment or lived experience of mental illness’. For this, he received a trophy that he had made himself as he had carried out the commission for the award for the previous four years. He was included in an exhibition of ‘Outsider’s Art’ that was shown in New York. His work sold out and he received fifteen commissions for new (ship) works. Another ‘Outsider Art from NZ” exhibition took place in Paris and this too sold successfully for him. His work popped up in surprising places. I was with a couple of Australian friends in Los Angeles and as we walked along Third Street following a visit to LACMA, we spotted some very large pots in a small shop window. The ‘small shop’ turned out to be a very hip ceramics gallery called South Willard. On entering I strolled up the long narrow space and was stopped in my tracks by a display shelf of oddly familiar ships and had an animated exchange with the owner when I asked him how on earth he had Robert Rapson’s ceramics there. On another visit to Los Angeles last year I met a ceramist (Stan) who had helped Robert on a residency there making work for another show at the same gallery (see July 5th post in this blog). So just a year or so ago Robert was in the USA, working. His illness appears to have been not too protracted.
He was happiest working around people. He remarked one time that on inheriting his mother’s former house he tried to “go it alone and failed miserably”. He joined Mix – a creative space that provides artistic opportunities for people with lived experience of mental illness, and the Hutt Art Society, and enjoyed having people around while working on his ships. “I have a community – somewhere to go and social contact. It’s much more interesting and helps my head.” He lived alone (with his cats) but was far from solitary and was a friend to many. He will be missed.
‘Rocket Gas Service Station and Centre’, Portage Award exhibition, 2015. Photo, Haru Sameshima.
‘Cars’. Collection R. Fahey. Photo: Sam Hartnet.
P.S. A Gathering to Celebrate the Life and Art iof Robert Rapson will take place at Hutt Art Society 9-11 Myrtle St, Lower Hutt next Wednesday Feb 5 from 10-30am.
If attending, please send notification to Katherinewgtnsmyth@gmail.com so that space, chairs, food, etc can be catered for….