In 2004, Michael Rowland and his wife, Jan, abandoned Mt Eden where their lives had been centred for many years, and moved to Oratia on Auckland’s West Coast. For Michael the move constituted a shift to full-time painting, while Jan, who worked as a primary school teacher, supported him, and continues to provide the emotional sustenance supplied by a muse. Rowland hasn’t looked back, though he notes ruefully that as a painter, an earlier era might have been more financially rewarding.
“I knew Peter Siddell who sold five paintings on the opening night of his first exhibition, and the rest the following day, but that was in the days when there were only a handful of good artists and very few galleries.” Now working from a home studio in Helensville since moving there in 2012, Rowland says, “When the family was growing up, I couldn’t paint for years and became very frustrated, so when it was possible to paint full-time, it just burst out of me. I wish I’d had the guts to do it earlier but responsibilities take precedence. Today I aim to paint until I drop.”
Michael Rowland First Solo Exhibition
He staged his first solo exhibition while working as a trainee restorer with the Auckland Art Gallery in 1975. “I’d become disillusioned with restoration which was technical rather than creative work. At the time I was with the Hare Krishnas so the exhibition focused on Krishna subject matter. Three sold and the Mayor, Sir Dove-Myer Robinson, even wandered through for a look.
Michael Rowland Artistic Themes
Themes prove an awkward topic and no particular one stands out, although it’s clear that the documenting of Auckland’s older buildings is a favoured topic, along with Auckland landscapes painted from lesser known vantage points.
Quiet Chamber of the Heart (2009) documents two of Mt Eden’s older buildings on a major intersection, with road, and road markings prominent. Understated in the foreground, two young women wait calmly for the pedestrian signal. Rowland says, “Modern Mt Eden is such a traffic jam. To paint it without the cars, which are ugly, and with those solitary meditative figures at a crossroads, just stops everything; offers a moment of reflection.”
Another work, All the World’s A Stage, depicts the colour of street musicians in full swing on a traffic-deserted street in downtown Mt Eden. Some passers-by listen, some hear, and some are oblivious. “I liked the idea of people standing in the street making music, expressing joy that doesn’t come out of a bottle,” says Rowland. “It’s another kind of Mt Eden.” Performers turn up periodically in Rowland’s work and perhaps are a reflection of a great-aunt who was a dance performer on Drury Lane in his early years.
Paintings of wild fields of vibrant blooms, or land and seascapes, describe completely different but also oft-visited themes. “The design in nature is incredible,” he says, “expresses the power of God.”
“I try to express beauty which isn’t always obvious at a cursory glance. I also like to respond to what goes on in society without being political – to express how people live their lives and how they respond to living in post-industrial society.
“By documenting the buildings of a bygone age I offer homage to an era which was vastly superior in terms of humanity. Today when you look at office blocks they’re brutal, dehumanizing. They’re square, ugly, and monstrous, the same as motorways, because they’re not in proper scale to people. They’re machine-like, and that’s what I hate – it’s become a machine society, brutal and non-human.”
Born in 1949 in Hertfordshire, Rowland discovered painting as an 11 year old. Everything about it thrilled him, from the immediately natural feel of a paintbrush in his hand, to the smell of paint. Thereafter all else seemed shallow by comparison.
“On Friday afternoons we got four hours of art,” he says. “Our teacher, Dick Farrar, was inspirational. He’d play Bob Dylan in class, and sometimes we’d make a trip down to the docks in London to paint tugboats. I’d go into an art shop and disappear into the magnificent smells of linseed oil, and blank paper – spend hours looking at art materials.”
“Drawing attracted me at school, mainly tech drawing which was precise; but I liked all kinds of drawing, and remember going off as a 13 year old into woods near where we lived, to sit and draw trees.”
Painter Michael Rowland Prefers Oils
Although he prefers to work in oils which are more plastic and allow finer blending, he was obliged to extend his mastery to the use of acrylics after he developed toxicity from exposure to oils and turps, in combination with the lead paints and solvents he worked with in renovating houses.
“I’ve adapted my technique and have found ways to make acrylics work for me,” he says, “and these days I work with both.”
Working from photographs for accuracy, he nevertheless allows the muse to have her say. “Because much of my subject matter tends to be realistic, especially the buildings, I have to work with three-dimensional realism which means there are rules to obey around perspective. I accommodate the drafting aspect by drawing direct to the canvas in pencil, then blocking in areas of base colour.”
Working on up to six pieces at a time, Rowland moves from one to the other to keep himself stimulated. “The first few hours into a new painting are totally exciting, watching the process unfold my inner eye. It’s the opportunity to refine my technique, become more sophisticated; and there’s always the idea that I might be able to go further than I’ve ever gone before and really blow the viewer away. I guess there’s definitely an egotistical element to it.
“Mostly these days I’m interested in, and intrigued by, incorporating all that I’ve learned into each work,” says Rowland. “Exploring surrealism fascinates me, and if it expresses humour or entertains, then I think it’s good, but it’s easy to be over-clever with surrealism and produce shallow nonsense. Realistically though,” he says, “themes are tempered by the market which tends to prefer landscapes. I can’t afford to ignore the dollar. I learnt to charge for the value of my paintings because as a graphic artist I was used to being paid for creative work. If you think about it, people get a lot of value from a piece of art. They keep enjoying it for many years. In an ideal world years of experience should be recompensed. I remember Peter’s wife, Sylvia Siddell, saying that Peter’s work didn’t become expensive until it was sold on by dealers, creating the perception of great value.”
“Art is the most privileged thing to do,” says Rowland. “It embodies the essence of freedom, narrowed only by the imagination. You’re self-employed, free to create, free to experience freedom. The only downside is the constant financial tone in the background.”
Michael Rowland Painting Commissions
Amongst many commissions, Michael Rowland has also produced major murals for Progressive Music Recording Studios and the Nambassa Music Festival stage, as well as mural panels utilised in the Future of Auckland display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. His work is consistently acquired by many domestic and international private collectors.
Resources: Interview with Michael Rowland, 21 Dec 2012
Edited September 2015