On seeing and feeling
Flash Frontier: You have noted before: ‘For me art is about ‘feeling’, poetic descriptions and stories are in aid of ‘seeing’, and are an integral part of my work.’ Could you tell us more about this relationship between ‘feeling’ and ‘seeing’? Art is a visual (external) form: something to observe. And yet, there is an internal element that is essential for the communication. Can you please tell us more about how these two concepts connect for you – to the artwork (between artist and composition), and then also for the artwork, (between composition and viewer)?
I remember sitting in class drawing. Every day this was what I did, and then I would go home and draw some more. I remember other children always asking me ‘What are you drawing?’ like there was a task at hand that I had a brief for and that I needed to fulfil. I remember confounding them with my answer ‘I don’t know yet’. And then I would draw animals going to the circus with propellers on their heads, I drew vampires in ink with drops of blood across the page, I would draw people with colourful fountains shooting out of the tops of their heads. Then when I was finished I would sit down and write the story.
We had a print in our lounge, a reproduction of a blue horse. I am not sure, it was by Matisse or Franz Marc or Miro or perhaps another artist entirely, but I fell asleep enveloped by its energy, the feeling of being a wild horse and the intense feeling of the colour blue.
For me ‘good art’ creates an emotional response, it needs to tickle at your senses, like a colour combination that can make you salivate or an expression that makes your heart feel pricked.
When I create I need to lay down my intellectual side. If I didn’t, I would only hear that little voice that goes ‘what is art for, what can you contribute, are you any good?’ and I would not create anything. I need to set that aside and allow myself to swim in the energy of creation and create from that pool within me and of which I am a part.
I have come to realise that what I see and feel in my creative process is my own story. I hope that the energy of it is what is conveyed to the viewer. Others do not have to see what I see, and I welcome the viewers curiosity and personal connection. I write stories as a part of my completion process – it is when i become the viewer of my own work that I can see my stories reflected back at me. It’s a circular process, a reveal not too dissimilar to the reveal of block to paper: the negative becomes the positive and something new can be seen.
On the idea of ‘creating’
Flash Frontier: First, how and when did you decide to become an artist?
For the past 22 years I have been parenting, and I’ve been a ‘stay at home mother’ for the past 12. For our family this role was more valuable than me going back to teaching or any of the other roles I have done in not-for-profit organisations. In today’s world being a stay-at-home parent is in equal measures looked upon disdainfully or with cloaked envy. I feel fortunate to be able to make art while my children are at school AND be there for them afterwards. I feel fortunate that my husband’s business supports the family and I can be the parent, gardener, cook, maintenance, madness coordinator and artist I enjoy being.
I have worked in offices and schools and as a writer, illustrator and sexuality educator. I’ve been the partner of a more successful artist, and doubted my own voice. I think being a young parent I needed to be responsible and look after my family financially in the early years, and art making felt so uncertain, almost frivolous. So it is now in my ‘middle age’ that I am able to play catch-up with myself. Making art is about taking myself seriously, listening to what really makes me tick and expressing that unapologetically. I’m in it for the long haul. I like that my children know that I have ‘work’ to do, work that will stimulate me and engage me even after all my beautiful boys have grown up.
In the past five years I have committed myself to being an artist full time. After a lifetime of running away from art I decided it was time to give myself permission to make art with no parameters of success other than enjoying the process. In a world that values your financial contribution to society above all else this felt like a radical rethinking of my ‘purpose’ and identity.
Flash Frontier: You note: ‘I do not begin a piece with a preconceived idea but rather in the process of creating, a story unfolds from within me and is depicted first in wood and then, with ink, is transferred to paper.’ We are fascinated by the layers of the artwork – the way it’s a many-layered process for you. Each step there is more space for the ‘creating’. Can you perhaps talk about the spaces between steps, the way the intervals between what you are ‘doing’ allow for more conceptual work/ more pondering/ more ‘creating’?
If I make art each day then I am artist; making art can be thinking, feeling, imagining and also making art. Working on wooden boards is incredibly meditative, it is soooo slow. I am by no means a patient person and some part of me is deeply challenged by the slowness of the printmaking process. But this slowness also provides me with time to sink inside myself as I create, and to find things over time in my work that I would not if it were a faster creative process. Some boards are easy. Some I can labour over and rework over years until they feel just right. Rona and all her nighttime creatures was the first work I created in for my 2018 series ‘The Imperfect Pull’. The images in that work had been partly drawn in 2009, but the inspiration for what it became only flowed easily in 2017.
I am equally inspired by textures and pattern-making as I am by finding and bringing out creatures and beings in my work. Each exhibition (or years of work) is usually inspired by the learning of the last, an area of curiosity that I want to explore further. ‘Spirit Animals’ was all about exploring the visual language of animals to express the feelings that I experienced during lock down, particularly in relationship to my husband, and the growth of that period. It is very much an exploration of couple energy. ‘The Taniwha of Te Ākau 2022’ is like a collection by an artist in residence: it is so much about place and connection to land and people and the spirituality, the mauri of the whenua. This place is so alive with energy, the works in this series are my way of processing this energy into something tangible, as much for myself as to share with others.
Flash Frontier: We notice that you only create limited numbers of prints. You state: ‘I am committed to the ethics of printmaking and as my art making process shifts from pure print to print/mixed media.’ Can you tell us about your approach to printmaking, as a philosophical approach to art?
My printmaking journey began with screen printing at home and in the art rooms of the schools and eventually teachers’ college that my mother worked at as art teacher and lecturer. We made prints for material that my grandmother would sew into cool clothes, that I would wear. So printmaking and fashion are two of my favourite ways of expressing myself. I love printmaking and yet the process of printmaking runs counter to all my natural tendencies, patience, precision, perfection. These things do not get my juices flowing. I create about 8-14 new matrices a year. When I am in a state of flow I make a lot. Fortunately it is not like this all the time; there are ebbs and flows of creativity and also there are different aspects of creating in print making, each like a season in a creative cycle, cut, cut, clean, test, change, test, print. Wait. Print some more. Recut. Reprint. Contemplate. Like. Dislike. Wait. Print more. Get excited about colour. Choose favourites. Frame. Write. Organise exhibition. Then: hanging. Opening night. Exhaustion. Exhaustion. New learning. New ideas. Sketching. Writing. Prep new boards. Start again.
Cutting the boards is one part of the creative process.
For me printing is another wholly separate part of the creative process. I like to experiment and play with printing. I feel like a pizza chef, throwing new ingredients on each one before slapping them into the fire. I am better at getting my prints lined up straight on the paper. I am better at keeping the edges clean. But I really am not so interested in accuracy; this is the part where colour can transform the feeling completely. Finding the right colour is a new part of my process that requires lots of trial and error. It is quite a lot like finding the right flavour or mood.
I still love black and white prints, particularly as it can help to declutter the piece and make viewing the content easier, but colour creates such strong feeling responses that I am drawn to explore this more and more.
I am committed to the ethics of printmaking, and this year I have engaged in a number of conversations with fellow printmakers as I attempt to edition prints that although the same print, have been radically altered in their ‘feeling’ through the use of different colours and applied paints. I feel myself walking a tricky line currently, but the intellectual stimulation of these conversations has definitely occupied a chunk of my brain of late.
I feel myself drawn to reimagining my use of print, reusing print in collage and also exploring more colour and texture in one-off pieces containing print but not always needing to exist first and foremost as a print.
On textures and patterns
Flash Frontier: Your art immediately draws the viewer in, as there are multiple layers to first see, then imagine further. The images are intricate and alluring. They require the viewer to take them in at an intellectual level (observation/ examination to see what’s there) and also the emotional level (let it sink in). I wonder if a lot of this comes from the way these are wood prints – the many cuts, lines, curves and overlaps, angles and overlays. Do you think the way you present your ideas (form) has direct connection to the way they encourage further thought/ imagining? If one looks long enough at any one piece of your art, one sees repetitions, cycles, suggestions of more. Can you talk about how this idea of ‘cycles that repeat’ plays a role both in life and art?
Wood block prints create a certain aesthetic through the material carved and the tools used. Some shapes are easier to create than others, some patterns are just really enjoyable to create and are great for defining shapes. I begin most pieces with some defining curves and lines and then work out from there, uncovering the totality bit by bit. My work doesn’t necessarily have a top or a bottom, some pieces can be seen in landscape or portrait mode equally well. I like the idea that what is initially seen is not the final image but rather a first impression, and hopefully with time more will be discovered, new corners explored new wholes perceived. I hope to leave a question behind rather than an answer. Like the inverse of the question I was asked as a child – not What am I drawing? but rather What are you seeing?
On dreams and movement
Flash Frontier: Quite a lot of your work evokes movement – not just a static image to view, but something that is alive. Can you tell us more about this idea in your art? Related to that, your art holds clear Māori and Pasifika motifs, but also connects across time and space: there is a suggestion of a Canada goose and Canis lupus, there are horses and zebras, there are pomegranates and ancient mountains. You state: ‘Papatūānuku is my goddess’, and we see that in your art. But there is more here, too, reaching across space and time. Can you tell us more about your own background, and how it might influence what flows in your art?
I am so happy to hear that the movement in my art is perceived. I consider myself an energetic person, in all senses of the word ‘energy’. I want my art to convey life, energy, movement and emotion. In pieces like ‘Hongi’ (2021 Spirit Animals) the touch of two lovers is both about a snapshot in timer frozen and the nexus of explosive energy that is thrown out into the world when we are seen and loved.
In ‘Mountain of Tenderness’ (2022 The Taniwha of Te Ākau) the feeling is one of being hidden in a private and safe place, but to me the touch of her hand on his shoulder and the quiet smile on her beak expresses immense tenderness and intimacy. I like the way that composition and shape can create movement.
‘Taniwha! Here! Now!’ (2022) expresses its energy through shape and colour. ‘He Kanikani te Ao me te Mate’ is to my mind equally about the joy of life as the struggle for survival.
My art making is an extension of myself so it documents my experience, my relationships, my conscious and subconscious thoughts. I have pieces of my own work on my walls spanning more than two decades. I see them changing and evolving but being recognisably of my making. The more I create the more my ‘style’ both evolves and crystallises.
Flash Frontier: Can you tell us about how Taniwha play such a central role in your life and your art?
Taniwha have travelled through my art for many moons. I grew up on the back of Whataitai in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington on my beautiful maunga—Matairangi/Mt Victoria. I love that mountain/Taniwha with all my heart. My grandparents who were a huge part of my upbringing were matua whāngai, my mother is a tamaiti whāngai. My whakapapa is imbued with love but is a bit like being a tree with questions for roots. My father is German, my history on his side stretches back to the time Māori arrived in Aotearoa.
For me my roots are where I feel I belong, and in Te Ākau I feel like I have grown new ones. Taniwha appear as differing iterations. For me Taniwha are kaitiaki or nature guardian spirits. They embody the spirit of place. These works are in honour of the Taniwha of Te Ākau, in whose presence I feel an immense gratitude for their gracious welcome.
This past year has been one of great beauty and one of great uncertainty. Being a creative in these times has meant using my art both as a means of processing these uncharted times as well as describing pictorially my family’s new relationship with place, hence ‘art works inspired by a special place in unusual times’.
‘Embrace’ is like two clouds that take shape and are seen as commingling creatures, dark and light in twined. I also see birds and fish like beings swimming in what feels like water. I get the impression of an inlet, of dragon and birds in the sky and a mer-person on an outcrop. But then why is the sky below? This piece could be hung any way and it would not be incorrect.
Flash Frontier: The taniwha is a healer. Related to the question above: this idea is both specific to Aotearoa but also perhaps more universal in the way you convey it in your art. Could you talk about this a bit more?
I was not brought up with a religion, my spirituality resides in an eclectic mix of many traditions. I believe we are all connected – to nature, earth, sea, sky, fire and wind. We are made of energy and star dust, just like everything else. For me, humans and animals, myth and legend all form part of a whole that gives our lives meaning. I love being from New Zealand, being both Māori and German. My background in anthropology means that I observe the world through a lens of culture. We swim through our existence in our own cultures like fish in water. But of course now, in a time of globalisation, we are fish swimming through many waters simultaneously. I do borrow from my own cultural history. I make up new symbols too. I like being Noa Noa of Aotearoa, but I don’t wish to be put into a box where I can only use ‘appropriate’ symbols ‘correctly’; instead, I prefer the freedom of my own symbolism tinged with the flavour of my history but not marinated in it.
On taking your time
Flash Frontier: And what of ‘The Taniwha of Te Ākau’? You state it took longer to complete this than the others in the series. Can you tell us a bit more about that? And ‘Society’ is a piece that took some time to evolve – to ‘become’, as you say. How does this idea of becoming relate, for you, to both individual and society? Is this also a reflection of your own path as an artist and person expressing ideas both of the Self and beyond the Self?
‘The Taniwha of Te Ākau print pays homage to this specific Taniwha. But making this particular print was a bit like painting a portrait for someone you hold in high regard. I really wanted to get it right. But at first that pressure to capture a likeness, a feeling was too much, and I couldn’t proceed. Only once all the other prints were done and I was able to re-enter a playful headspace was completion possible. I still don’t know if it is finished. Maybe there is still more to come.
‘Society’ began as a shape and pattern that I had wanted to use in conjunction with another print ‘Iti Taniwha’. I did print some of these but somehow they never really worked. Then as I sat in the bush in Te Ākau I tuned into the shapes and saw a completely new way that these shapes could be used. All the faces emerged. I created this piece on the site of the place I consider the opening to the Taniwha’s residence. It feels like the beginning of a new explorative direction. The community in Te Ākau comprises many unique characters, united by a deep love of this place. They are big hearted and generous people. The works in this series are for them to see this place we share explored and re-imagined through my art.
Noa Noa Von Bassewitz is a Wellington-based print maker of German and Māori extraction. Noa Noa is the daughter of an art teacher and writer, and her work reflects these twin influences.
Her fascination with the medium of print began more than 20 years ago when she attended a print making course run by Jenny Dolezel at Elam School of Fine Arts. Wood block prints are her chosen medium for expression. Her art works are often raw and filled with both personal and Pacific symbolism and a rich cast of ever-evolving characters. Each piece is accompanied by a short, written piece, a story that is both an adjunct to and integral part of the work and the artist’s creative process.
She regularly exhibits new work in Wellington and around New Zealand. Her prints are in private collections in New Zealand as well as in Germany, Austria, the UK and USA. Her work has been featured in takahē and in Asian Art Review in 2013.
An anthropologist and teacher by training, Noa Noa has also worked producing educational resources, as a sexuality educator, as well as a freelance illustrator.
After an elongated hiatus Noa Noa is back working full-time as an artist, with two of her four beautiful boys still living at home. She manages a loud, hungry and highly creative household along with her Austrian surfer husband and two black animals, one feline and one canine. She works out of her concrete studio in the garden, affectionately referred to as ‘The Bunker’.
Noa Noa can often be found walking the hills of Wellington wearing a black outfit. Some who encounter her might consider overdressed for dog walking but hey, every day is a special occasion!
Recent exhibitions include ‘Rona and the Moon’ 2010, ‘The Imperfect Pull’ 2018, ‘The Rorschach Series’ 2019 (Gilberd Marriot Gallery, Wellington), ‘Spirit Animals’ 2021 (Imprint Gallery, Tauranga), ‘The Taniwha of Te Ākau 2022 (La Petite Galerie, Raglan). Noa Noa also regularly contributes works to Art Auctions and fundraisers for various Wellington schools.