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Nick Austin image

Nick Austin next to the University of Otago 2024 calendar which features his painting 'Books with Cake', 2006.

Ōtepoti artist Nick Austin feels surprised to have his painting ‘Books with Cake’, 2006, featured on the University of Otago’s 2024 calendar.

Each year, staff from Hocken Collections assemble a selection of artworks from which the University then selects two to feature on its calendar. This year, Nick’s is on one side, and a historical work by Eileen Mayo ‘Pigeon in Winter’, 1974, is on the other.

Nick – Art and Photography Collections Assistant for Hocken Collections - painted ‘Books with Cake’ in 2006, not long after he had completed his Master of Fine Arts in 2004.

During his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he studied sculpture, however upon graduation he transitioned into painting, seeing it as a more sustainable practice that didn’t require a large workshop.

“Is Books with Cake a painting? Is it sculpture? Is it abstract or is it figurative? There’s a liminality to the work, a quality that has been present in my work since then,” Nick says.

The painting was done using acrylic paint on hardboard and features a red button. Five books, differing in size, are stacked on top of each other, with the slice of cake sitting on top. The button forms a cherry atop the cake.

The longest book, one which has a grey spine, forms the base, while the other four sit haphazardly, some jutting out over the top of others. The work is not painted on a traditional 4-sided ground, instead on a 24-sided shape. Nick is pretty sure he would have had a plan for the work, and that he would have cut the hardboard to the irregular shape he needed it to be, before painting it, the colour of each book reaching the very edges of its allocated space.

“That’s generally how I make the work, I’ll make a plan and then it’s just a matter of execution. But there also needs to be an element of contingency in there along the way.”

‘Books with Cake’ was purchased in 2006 by Michael Lett, of Michael Lett Art Gallery. Since then, the work has been shown publicly at The Dowse Art Museum

Michael Lett then gifted ‘Books with Cake’ to Hocken Collections in 2023.

“As I remember, I exhibited the work in a fundraising exhibition and sold it at a very affordable price. I think it’s wonderful Michael has given the work to the Hocken. There’s a reciprocity of the spirit in which it was first traded.”

'Books with Cake' Nick Austin image

'Books with Cake' was painted by Nick Austin in 2006.

‘Books with Cake’ still “makes sense” to Nick, who says work he makes nowadays draws a lineage from it.

“[Books with Cake] has a quietness, and also a kind of mystery to it For me, art-making is enduringly strange - you can’t pin it down, but that’s the thing that keeps you going. I remember as a student attending a slide talk by a well-known artist. One of my peers asked them why they had a made a particular work. “I don’t know”, she said. I actually think that was a very helpful answer.”

His ideas for artworks start out as notational sketches, often done in bed in the evening.

“Sometimes the longer you look at a word, the stranger it becomes. I think I bring that experience to the arrangement of materials – it’s that old Surrealist trope of making the familiar unfamiliar.”

Nick was both “surprised” and “quite humbled” to learn ‘Books with Cake’ had been selected to feature on the University’s calendar for 2024.

“It’s an unusual situation, having your artwork reproduced in your workplace’s calendar.”

Nick’s work hasn’t featured on a calendar before, but he has self-produced greeting cards and put his work on postage stamps.

“It’s an online service that the New Zealand postal service still offers, and they do custom personalised postage stamps. Anyone can do it! I have made series of works over the years that use the envelope as a motif.

"For my show at Whangārei Art Museum in 2022, the gallery’s education team thought it would be fun to reproduce some of those works on stamps. Visitors could then write letters to loved ones and send them with one of my stamps. It was such a simple and cool idea.”

'Pigeon in Winter' Eileen Mayo image

'Pigeon in Winter', 1974, by Eileen Mayo.

Nick has several shows this year he will make work for while also working as a Collections Assistant for Hocken Collections, a role he has held for five years.

Hocken Collections Curator Art Hope Wilson says Nick and Eileen’s art was selected for the calendar because of their connections to Ōtepoti Dunedin. She notes Nick was not involved in the selection of his work.

Nick was the Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago in 2012 and he has lived and worked in the city since then. Eileen was born in Norwich, England, emigrated to Australia, then moved to Aotearoa in 1962. She lived in Ōtepoti between 1972-1975 and made the work on the 2024 calendar, ‘Pigeon in Winter’, during this period.

“Both works make interesting use of line and colour to convey forms—books, cake, bird, branch—with bold and economical or sparing shapes. I think these qualities make both Nick and Eileen's works a great fit for the 2024 calendar,” Hope says.

Eileen began her career in England—she studied art and began to specialise in printmaking before going on to teach and write and illustrate books. After emigrating to Australia in 1952, she continued to teach and make work, including murals, tapestries, a series of stamps, and posters.

Her move to Aotearoa saw her settle in Waitaha Canterbury before spending three years in Ōtepoti from 1972-75 which inspired ‘Pigeon in Winter’.

Both works were gifted to the Hocken. ‘Books with Cake’ was given by Michael Lett and Samuel Holloway, Auckland in 2023 and ‘Pigeon in Winter’ by Professor F.N. Fastier, Dunedin in 1980.

- Korero by internal communications advisor, Koren Allpress

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