Father christmas doesn’t make grown-up girls cry normally but, when a snowy-bearded gentleman in Yuletide dress delivered a gold-embossed certificate to New Zealander Terrie Reddish at the Royal Horticultural Society’s December 2008 exhibition in London, she burst into tears.
“I was standing in the middle of Lawrence Hall in awe of the exhibition. The big-name British botanical artists were all showing; their work was beautifully restrained. I was thinking my own was too contemporary. Then I opened Father Christmas’ letter and the judges had awarded me a gold medal,” she says at her Havelock North home.
Terrie’s eight coloured pencil on paper works in the London show featured a single theme of New Zealand flax – Phormium tenax (harakeke). She chose it because “it reflects this country’s culture as well as its botany. For me it was unthinkable that I would win gold. It was the first time I had even attempted to exhibit with the society. When we had to hang our own work, I didn’t even have a level with me,” she says, laughing.
Later that night, Terrie and her husband Steve raised a glass of French champagne with their London-based son James, then 30, and his English girlfriend Katie at a brasserie overlooking the Thames.
In the lead-up to the British show, says Terrie, bits of flax had been dragged right through her previous home in Auckland. On a Coromandel holiday she filled the back seat of the car with specimens and later a work colleague from her former job at the Auckland City Council, where she was a procurement manager, made a special delivery to her house.
“The nursery manager lent me some fully grown flax bushes to help me with my drawings!”
One of those eight gold-winning flax works is now held at the Lindley Library in London, which houses the world’s most important collection of botanical art and literature. Another is in the private collection of Dr Shirley Sherwood, a leading collector of 20th century botanical art. Back in New Zealand there’s a hot demand for limited-edition prints.
But that French champagne by the Thames toasted more than Terrie’s medal. The London success, says Terrie, has “given me the nod and now I feel able to say I’m a botanical artist without flinching. It’s no longer a hobby.”
A decade after she enrolled in drawing classes at Auckland’s Artstation – a community visual arts centre based in a former police barracks in Ponsonby – Terrie is hitting her straps.
“On one occasion the tutor arrived with a crab’s claw he had brought over from Waiheke Island and said, ‘Draw that’. Afterwards he said, ‘You’re good. You’d better come back next term,’” she says with a chuckle.
It was her mother’s major stroke at the age of 65 that triggered Terrie’s decision to explore her artistic impulses in her early 40s. “I thought, don’t wait, learn to draw now. Mum had so much to live for. She never recovered and died at 70.”
Terrie says she had relished art at high school but never pursued it. “I had an inspirational teacher, Dennis Greville, who is now a well-known gardening author, photographer and sculptor. He always told me I had ‘more to come’.”
Thirty-five years on, Terrie’s high school art teacher has been on hand to witness Terrie’s success. “I read an article Dennis had written about his Christchurch garden in a magazine and was able to make contact with him. He has inspired me all over again and he now has one of the flax drawings as a way of thanking him for his part in this whole journey.”
But there are others who have helped to encourage this mild-mannered illustrator on her way. “A few years ago we were in Dorset. I took the train up to the Lindley Library to search out what the best botanical artists were doing and the librarian was amazing. Wellington botanical artist Sue Wickison (featured in NZ House & Garden, November 2005) also made me believe I could do it and has been so giving.”
And then of course there is the Englishman she married in 2003. “I just think Terrie’s work is out of this world,” says Steve, appearing from his home office. “You could pick it off the page. It makes you see a plant in a way you’ve never anticipated.”
The couple made the move to Hawke’s Bay two years ago and they are both besotted with their new setting. “I can leap on my bike and buy coffee beans from two coffee roasters five minutes away and there is a cherry orchard at the end of the street,” enthuses Terrie.
In her sunny studio she’s working on an illustration of creamy freesias – it’s a birthday-gift commission from a husband who asked Terrie to recapture the flowers that were in his wife’s wedding bouquet.
“My art never drains me, rather it fills me up,” says Terrie, selecting a blast of opera on her iPod and a green pencil.
See more of Terrie’s work at her website www.terrie-reddish.co.nz
Story: Ann Warnock
Photographs: Paul McCredie