Janet de Wagt

On a five-degree Dunedin afternoon I park outside Janet’s house, slightly early because I want a chance to view her cottage exterior. I’d heard it was spectacularly arty and the hearsay is correct! Within a few minutes Janet pulls up in her truck and we wander indoors with Janet lighting the coal range, organising hot drinks, and feeding Zoe, her foster Norfolk Terrier, before settling down for a chat.

Janet’s spent a busy afternoon working with students at Bathgate Park School where she is based. She has her own studio there – a real meeting place for teachers, students and community groups. They all get the chance to experiment, interact/work with Janet, plus access her materials.
My head is swivelling and although it may seem rude I can’t help myself! The walls, ceiling and floors are covered in art, her plastic collections, bric a brac, recyclables, cleverables and fun things. This is a house like no other, it’s not just amazing but AMAZING, and Janet and Mary aren’t finished yet – this home is an art installation in the making.

The phone rings, Janet tells the caller she’s in a meeting. Oops I think, who’s taking the minutes, this sounds official! But it’s Janet’s mother ringing for a chat. “Well she’s more like a cousin than a mother,” Janet says. “She had me quite young.” We chat about how most people our age don’t have parents but Janet still has both!
We start talking about school days and Janet recalls the two teachers who made a lasting impression on her life. Her Form 1 and 2 teacher realised Janet’s abilities and when the other students were writing stories Janet was asked to paint a frieze on the wall which the stories would be pinned against. And then at High School the teacher who took her for Art from the Fourth Form and beyond mentored Janet.

So, after school days what then I prompt. “Well,” says Janet,” I attended Christchurch technical college, studied graphic design and that led to my first job as a photographer with the Ministry of Education. I’d always wanted to travel so three years later I moved to Australia. And from there, I travelled the world painting and immersing myself in a variety of art forms wherever I went.

Janet admits it’s only since her return to Dunedin 13 years ago that she started painting landscapes. But, I say, I thought Janet de Wagt was landscapes. “No,” she laughs. “In the UK I painted portraits, and made huge embroidery banners for churches – that was when I worked for Bannerworks and oh I illustrated postcards for Leeds Postcards – a political publishing house.  I was their first feminist artist. In North Africa and Tonga I painted marketplaces – fascinating watching and capturing all the goings on/interactions between people.” So, I interrupt, what don’t/ won’t you do? “Hmm well I seem to take on things with no idea how to do it and then go away and have to figure out how!! I’m not into commissions though. That would be disappointing for people, if they asked me to paint a specific scene and I didn’t interpret it the way they’d expected.”

I want to find out about Janet’s vehicle art. I’d seen pictures of her working on the bonnet of cars, and back of a truck, that made me wonder what the next vehicle might be. “Well I can’t be bothered worrying about an easel being knocked over by the wind,” says Janet. “I can always tie my canvas to the truck and not working on an easel means I can go large. I’ve got a caravan trip planned when I return from Ireland.” So when’s Ireland? “Oh at the end of the month. I’m going to have a look around, sit in a few cafes and see what happens – I’ve got no preconceived ideas. I’ve got an exhibition at Gallery de Novo on my return – Paintings from a suitcase – and that will be my Irish paintings.” No pressure though Janet? “No,” she raises her eyebrows, “no pressure!” So going back to your outdoor painting what’s the attraction? “Well I’m right there, I just see something, stop and set myself up.” What about the Southern weather – it’s very fickle. “Fickle is good, I’m keen to paint in a storm. Late summer to late spring is best for outside – summer light is flat and boring.” How much preparation is involved before you start painting, I ask? “None. I just hit the canvas running, well I work it out in my head and then go for it.  Once I’m on location I’m very focussed.”

And now for the dreaded money question, how much time do you spend applying for grants, I query?  Janet is quick to answer, “None. I’m totally self-supporting, it gives me a freedom.

Any regrets about returning to New Zealand? “No the time was right. It’s much easier painting here  – New Zealanders are more accepting of eccentrics.” You must have had some interesting encounters while painting? “I remember painting in Florence in the gardens, looking out over the city and there was a bit of noise behind me but I just thought it was people walking by until I turned around and there was a crowd of over 30 Italians all watching me!! Back here, I’ll never forget a weekend workshop at Borland Lodge with a group of woman. We packed trestles and canvases into our vehicles and headed up to the Borland Saddle to paint. We were, you know, right in the middle of nowhere and this vehicle pulls up, a couple get out and ask if this is where the cake stall is!!!  That was straaange,” Janet laughs. “Often when working on a huge canvas, tourists will stop and want to get their photos taken beside me. That’s not too unusual.”

You’re very involved in the community Janet, groups and schools. “It’s very much give and take. I like to think I can help make art more accessible and I enjoy working with people. I can feed off them….. I once worked in Christchurch on a mural project but never again. I hated the idea of painting a mural in a neighbourhood and walking away and leaving them to live with my art. That’s arrogant. I’d much rather work with people to create their own art/design for their neighbourhood.

I’ve recently spent time working with students from Glenham School in Southland. They’re coming up to stay at the camping ground, have a house tour and they’re going to make a film about Janet the Artist.” What, the whole school? “Yep all 20 of them.”

As I stand up to leave Janet says, “Come and look out the back. There wasn’t a tree here when I arrived.” And now two handsome cabbage trees, a vege patch, a marvellous washing line, a decorated wall….. Every turn of the head my eyes are drawn to an arty fact. As I walk out the gate I note the oven letterbox and realise Janet lives her beliefs – art is not paint and paper.

One Response to “Janet de Wagt”
  1. jenny baker says:

    hi janet its jenny baker was Dickinson we still live in Rakaia if your passing we have a motorbike shop at the red shed behind salmon tales hope your well jenny

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