Way of Life: Oh Lucky Man
Gordon Crook has a routine he’s stuck to ever since finishing art school in London, fifty-eight years ago. Raised in the town of Chichester – his English accent is still strong at the age of eighty-seven – Gordon has worked five hours a day throughout a lifetime of making art. Only quite recently, after a bout of ill health, did he reluctantly make the decision to cut back to three hours a day.
Filled with books and his own art, Gordon’s living room is the heart of the house; access to the lean-to kitchen is through the curtain.
“My way of life is very disciplined,” he says. “As I’ve got older I’ve stuck to the principle of doing a little regularly – if you do a little every day you can achieve an awful lot.”
Best known for the vibrant abstract fabric panels and banners that hang in Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, Gordon Crook came to New Zealand at the age of fifty, following a career that included teaching at London’s Central School of Art – where he himself had studied. He began work in Carterton with textile firm Mason Handprints, set up by a former CSA colleague, but found it was not what he’d hoped for. So Gordon moved to the capital’s early working-class area of Aro Valley, where he’s lived and worked ever since.
He plans his symbol-rich collages – some of which are later realised in the medium of tapestry by weaver Lesley Nicholls – at a drawing board in the front room of his simple, white-painted circa 1925 cottage. Larger works are created in a studio in the century-old stable – one of two remaining in the valley – at the rear of the property.
Linking the two spaces is a fruitful cottage garden that feeds both body and soul while keeping the artist fit, though a recent episode moving bags of compost set him back for some time with a cracked pelvis.
Gordon’s childhood was not all sweetness and light. The years he and his brother spent in the “total incarceration” of a boarding school for disadvantaged boys in Chichester, while their mother worked as a domestic, were to have a lasting impact. But his love of nature goes all the way back to the Sussex countryside, rich in woodlands and waterways, with the sea and the South Downs nearby.
“In the holidays I would bike with friends to the Downs through the turnip fields. In those days I knew the names of all the plants and trees. So much of my work includes them, as in an idealised nature – [it’s] not escapism but a love of the countryside.”
From just two trees – a lemon and a crabapple – Gordon’s verdant plot has grown to include roses, jasmine, clematis and honeysuckle trailing over arches and sprawling along trellises. Fruit trees line the avenue from the back door to a sunny patio in front of the studio – nectarines, peaches, pears, apples, plums and gooseberries. There’s carob too, bringing back childhood memories: “We were given pieces of the dry brown pod in packets of broken biscuits from the corner sweet shop.”
Gordon likes “a wild garden” and is not above shifting trees and roses around, cramming in plants to get the effect he wants and scattering seeds – like the sweet rocket he once slipped into his pocket at Sissinghurst. He makes jelly from the crabapple and sauce, chutney and jam from the plums.
Gordon’s art can be seen on his walls, though he says, “I don’t draw on what I’ve already done”. He is currently sharing his living room with a painted screen from The Goddess, his final exhibition at the now-closed Idiom gallery. (Two others are in the collections of The NewDowse and Sir Miles Warren.) He’s had two successful shows with his new Wellington dealer, Mary Newton Gallery, and has already completed the works for Smoke, which opens there in March.
Fully recovered from the compost incident, Gordon is back to his daily ritual of walking to town, where he spends hours at the public library, researching his next project and listening to the latest classical CDs.
Back home, at his trusty old Remington, he types a few more pages of his memoirs – “a portrait of the man behind the work”. At eighty-seven, the artist claims to have “no regrets at all” – not even over the daily bottle of vodka he drank through a colourful period of his working life.
“It never affected my work!” he says, rather incredulously.
“My mother always used to say the most important thing is to have your health. I’m here, I’m alive. I’ve got good friends. Few days go by that I don’t say ‘thank you’ half a dozen times. I’m a lucky guy really.”
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Story: Ann Packer
Photographs: Paul McCredie