Portrait of Rita Angus: A Poem
News travels fast at The Dowse. There’s an atmosphere of excitement and encouragement for all kinds of creativity, so when I told the team my poem about Rita Angus was going up on the wall of Te Papa’s Nga Toi exhibition, they had to see it.
I’m interested in the kinds of impressions Rita has left behind in the minds of New Zealanders. Most of us have never met her, but so many people I have met hold very strong opinions—usually it’s love or hate for her work, with little middle ground. In a way, the poem looks at all the different ways a person can come alive for us—through books and letters and photographs and, of course, paintings. Rita left behind a phenomenal body of work, including more than fifty self-portraits created throughout her lifetime.
My first meeting with Rita was in 2008, when dad gave me Jill Trevelyan’s incredible account of Rita Angus’ life for Christmas. From there I tried, with varying degrees of success, to use her work as a model for my college painting boards before finding myself in Level 0 of Victoria University’s library poring over ancient copies of Art in New Zealand. The poem was written as part of Vic’s undergraduate poetry course under Wellington poet James Brown.
The Dowse has its own portrait by Rita Angus in its collection, Joanna – Portrait of a Troubled Mind, painted c.1967–68 in Thorndon, which I leave here as an offering.