Saturday, 9 January 2010

To Be Frank

There are people one meets who have a profound effect on the personal journey of life. For me, such a man was the late Frank Davis who recognised in me, a modicum of talent in the visual arts and acted as my mentor during Teacher's College years.

My childhood was a lucky one in a middle class New Zealand family in a small North island country town, where the principal industry was a freezing works. My father had been captured on Crete during the War and spent several years in Germany as a POW.

He became a partner in the small legal practice and eventually owned Smith and Brownlie as it was known during my formative years.

My mother who was English, married my father and came out to NZ after the war. Being an English Grammar school teacher by profession my formative years where spent reading the classics and Greek fables and I am sure that this sparked my love of reading, writing, music (the obligatory piano lessons!) and in those days, acting in school plays.

Mum was also very adept at sewing and crafts and would whip up a Punch glove puppet on her sewing machine; which gave me hours of fun in my improvised theatre made out of banana boxes.

My imagination developed as a result and this has stood me in good stead throughout my adult life. Photography was always something that fascinated me and I can recall discovering old folding Kodak cameras in my grandfather's utility shed at the bottom of their Christchurch garden. Dad took photos of seaside summer holidays and visits to grandparents and in his cycling adventures around New Zealand's South Island when he was a youth.

I was about nine or ten years old I got my first camera - a Box Brownie. I still had it until 2006 when we packed up an left for Singapore although it had not been used for decades. The first photograph I ever took was on a journey in our Morris Oxford from Taranaki to Wellington. It was of my father standing on a small bridge in an off-road nature reserve just north of Wanganui.

The visual arts did not figure large in the teaching I received and so my focus remained primarily on the written word. At high school I learnt to develop my own photographs; stripping films from their paper backing in total darkness and loading them into a light proof tank. The alchemy of a black and white image emerging in a print tray was and remains a fascination although digital photography allows so many more creative possibilities.

When I first go to Teachers College I majored in literature and music, wrote a lot of poetry and gazed in awe at work emerging from the art department which was under the stewardship of Frank Davis and Ray Thorburn.

Frank had the build of an ex rugby representative (which he was) - a man's man with a prodigious painting talent. His Te Kooti (Te Kooti Rikirangi te Turuki) paintings (pictured left) and those of the New Zealand bush(New Zealand Landscape Transformed ) still linger in my memory.

At one stage I owned two of Frank's paintings - "The Changing Room" and "Te Kooti Inspires His Warriors" but sold both at auction in 1999.

Noting my enthusiasm Frank gave me the opportunity to prove that I was serious in my desire to change courses from music to the visual arts. During the summer break of 1967 I laboured to a produce a portfolio for consideration and subsequently found that I had some talent as a sculptor - my major. He was one of those rare teachers who could change a students life and he became both a mentor and a close friend over the years, as did his wife Waana.

The upshot was that after a couple of years of general primary teaching (1969 - 1972) I too followed in his footsteps by becoming an art teacher - firstly at Tararua College in Pahiatua. This first appointment was facilitated by Frank who had been art teacher at the same school at one stage of his career and convinced the then principal that I would be a worthy replacement.

From the Wairarapa I took a more senior role as head of the Art department at Rotorua Lakes High School and in 1979 left to run Papua New Guinea's only regional art school in Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands. But that is another story. (Picture: Me on a photographic assignment in Madang, 1981)

My last and most enduring memory of Frank was hosting him in Papua New Guinea. It was a chance to repay some of the kindness and encouragement he had shown me over the years and little was I to know in 1980 that this would be the last time we would share experiences.

Within a year he developed a brain tumour which eventually caused his death. His mobility skills suffered in the last stages of the disease and lost the use of his right hand. He wrote to me shortly before he died using his left hand - the thought of the scrawling letter and the effort that went into this final communication still brings tears to my eyes.

Our friendship clearly had meant as much to him as it did to me.

There is a footnote to this memory.

Two years ago I received a surprise email from a former student of mine from Rotorua days. She wrote to say that my classes had changed her life and as a result she went on to major in photography at a NZ tertiary institution and was a creative photographer in her own right. It was an unsolicited thank you note that moved me greatly.

I like to think that this simple email repays some of the time and interest that my own mentor invested in me. To be able to share, teach and influence a life in a positive way is something to be treasured.

Arohanui Frank.

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