Welcome to Philips Website

An edited interview with Philip Trusttum by Wayne Lorimer (1997), Courtesy of CoCA

When did you first realise you wanted to become an artist?

I used to draw when I was about seven. My grandmother and mother picked up on it, and I remember them saying things like "That was a good cat." But they weren't necessarily like kids drawings, they were more like proper drawings.

Then I went to Oxford (in Canterbury) when I was around 12 and had teaching by a Miss Cederman every Friday night. It was good technically because we started off with watercolours and this led to oils. But all copied from other painters and reproductions.

Then we went up to Hawarden (in North Canterbury), but the landscape was too big. I didn't know how to handle it, so I gave it away at 15 and went horse riding. Then I went to high school; and did some good stuff. Bold, romantic landscapes of barns, trees and stuff in the cold easterly wind and things like that. They showed us Monet and it meant nothing to us, but it was in that Impressionist style.

Between 1955 - 60, when I was working at Hays (a Christchurch department store), I would do pastel sketches of Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Stirling Moss - car magazine stuff. I was working in the Manchester Department and found out that two guys from the ticket department were going to art school. I thought that if they can go, then I can, so I took my car drawings out and the guy said "Fine. If you sit the prelim then you're in." So I worked at the art school in the morning, and Hays in the afternoons. In the next three years I got the Diploma of Fine Arts (1964), went up to Auckland, married (1965) and came back, and worked as a postman until I was 30 (1970).

I was picked up very soon after for a show in England (Contemporary Painting in New Zealand at the Commonwealth Institute, London, 1965) because I was referred to by Rudi Gopas. There was Rita Angus, Pat Hanly, McCahon, Walters - all the big names and they picked a couple of young guys. Of course, I didn't really realise what was going on. It was like a guy playing high school rugby and then being picked for the All Blacks, but not really knowing the implications. I was a non-entity. No one had ever heard of me.

Then I showed in Auckland, which was my major source up until Mr & Mrs Hoss (New Vision Gallery) died, and I lost my gallery and have never been the same since in Auckland. The galleries there haven't really known how to market me or handle my type of personality.

So that was the start of it really. I went to Australia and lived there in 1967, quit the post office, and have been painting ever since.

How difficult was it to decide to become a full-time artist?

Well, I was selling work quite well then. The post office was only paying about $80 a fortnight, but this was before the big wage increases. So we were living minimally, but I was getting cheques from Peter McClevey's gallery which was equivalent to two months wages. I was selling for $600 then, so I would get $400, and that was quite a lot of money.

So Peter McClevey was probably the main one to twist my arm. He said if I kept on the way I was going I'd have more money but I wouldn't be a good painter. So I quit the post office not really knowing what was going to happen. And there had been some bad years when I've only earned around $2000. But my wife (Lee) was working, so she was able to pick up the slack. I've never had a boom, and I've never had a bust, except for my early 30's which were a bad time.

Who were some of your inspirations as a young artist?

Rudi Gopas was the main one. Then there was Don Peebles, Pollock, De Kooning. The first nice influence was Dick Lovell-Smith when I did quite a good still-life that we had to paint for the prelim exam (for art school). I put subtle colour into some white plates, and he commented on how good it was. He needn't have said anything as he was an adjudicator. That was when I was 20.

Gopas was the teacher in the next room, for the next year, but you heard him yelling from next door. We thought we were really for it, but it turned out he was the best teacher in the school. Russell Clark and Bill Sutton were there, and they were very good, but Gopas was the one who really wrenched you out of the kiwi 'sleep' and into a universal frame of mind. You belong to the painters who have come before: Ingres, Delacroix, Rembrant, and when you go over and see these works you understand why. And you float past all these other paintings thinking ' I might come back and look at them later ' but you don't.