Dick Frizzell … Seduced by the Hawke’s Bay Lifestyle
By Andrew Frame
Even as one of New Zealand’s most respected artists, Dick Frizzell is still learning art. As I arrive to talk with him, he is learning the art of Facebook friendship. “I don’t know this person, but we have five friends in common. Does that mean we have to be friends?” His granddaughter set up the account for him and he’s finding social media quite a novelty.
I had been to see Dick deliver a talk at the Century Theatre for the HB Museum and Art Gallery a few months ago, and after reading his book “The Painter” wanted to have a more in-depth talk about art, what makes him tick, and returning to Hawke’s Bay after many years in Auckland.
My first exposure to Dick’s work was in School Journals where, due to budget constraints, he says, all the artwork was done actual School Journal size (A5 or thereabouts), rather than painted large and shrunk down. “It made you glad you paid attention to all the little details,” says Dick. He also illustrated a number of children’s books like “The Magpies” with Dennis Glover and “Pukeko in a Ponga Tree” (the “Kiwi 12 days of Christmas”), and created the artwork for various Plunket and school/educational posters in the 1980’s.
“There is a common misconception that I created ‘Charlie’ – the original Four Square man,” he says. “I didn’t actually create him; I just turned him into an icon through my art, which comes pretty close to the same thing. Besides, I’ve pretty much given up trying to put the record straight on that one.’
He was responsible, however, for the ETA Peanut Butter peanut man, and while he didn’t design them, “Dale” (the shorter one) of Ches and Dale from Chesdale Cheese. These things have gone on to become “Kiwiana” – images of pride and national identity. When they were created of course, there was no hint what had been created would become so iconic. His art captures a time, a mood and place in people’s memories and has stood the test of time and public opinion – no easy feat.
So what’s it like being a “famous artiste”?
“I don’t think New Zealand is big enough for anyone to be really ‘famous.’ Picasso used to pay for his meals in restaurants by simply signing the napkin. I can’t do that – not that I’ve actually tried … it might be worth a go some time!
“An artist doing my sort of thing in the United States would be making millions of dollars. Here there isn’t that sort of money to ‘corrupt’ you. I’m too used to being just the guy who does paintings not to still be objective about it all. But you realise you must have ‘made it’ when school children ‘do you’ in class. I’ll get emails from kids wanting to know the motivation for, or how I did certain works they are studying.”
“I’m first prize along with Rhys Darby and Bic Runga in a charity auction coming up in Auckland. It’s funny the links that you develop. I was asked to do some works tied in to Sam Hunt’s poems and I was quite star-struck by it. “Geez! I’m working with the Sam Hunt!” I called someone to tell them about it a while later and they knew someone, who knew someone and apparently when we’d finished our phone conversation, Sam Hunt had been similarly … “Geez! I’m working with the Dick Frizzell!” That was really quite funny.”
What constitutes a typical day in the life of Dick Frizzell?
“It’s much like anyone else who is self-employed. I get up in the morning and walk over to the studio. There’s always something that needs doing – canvases need ordering, prints being purchased, various works in progress. The lawns and garden always need attending to.”
“Then there are the things I need to do as ‘Dick Frizzell the Artist’ – almost like an alter ego. Answering questionnaires emailed from school children, public appearances and talks need organising.”
You do so many different types of work – your own art, privately commissioned paintings and commercial contracts … how do you divide your time amongst them all?
“I think I run on pure instinct on that one. I’m currently working on Tikis for Black Barn, finished artworks for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and a new summertime party pack for Frizzell wines – all at the same time, no hierarchies!”
We have a look around the studio at various works completed and in progress. I come across a landscape of two railway bridges – a commission that fell through he tells me. I ask Dick how much the painting would be to buy. He tells me and I let go a low whistle – it’s too expensive for me to say the least. “Don’t worry,” he tells me “I couldn’t even afford to buy some of my own works.”
A set of four of your Auckland cityscapes were on Trademe recently for $60,000. Many of your works are worth far more. While the art market and buyers ultimately dictate the end price, how do you decide the initial value of a work?
“Some of my early stuff went for about $475. Now my prints start from $750, paintings even more. Ultimately demand and desire dictate the price. I did the artwork for “The Great New Zealand Songbook” and a copy was auctioned for charity. The $50 book ended up going for about $500 because I had signed and done a little doodle in it. One of Bill Hammond’s works went for $120,000 recently!”
You say you “escaped Hawke’s Bay” as a teenager to go to art school in Christchurch. What were you escaping and what brought you back years later?
“As a teenaged guy in 1950’s Hastings, being really into art made you different, which made you a target. To a degree I was escaping for my own personal safety. At the time Christchurch was where the art scene was the most intense, just as it would be later in Auckland.
“Eight years ago we were seduced by the Hawke’s Bay lifestyle. We found we were spending more and more time here. There was family here, of course, and we developed a number of friends. We’d rented a bach at Waimarama and Ocean Beach a couple of years in a row and when this section came up we decided to sell our place in Auckland and make a go of it. You need to have adventures in life and this was one of those adventures.
“Initially I’d wonder why we’d made the move. Things were just a bit too slow. I’d go back to Auckland for something, be walking down Ponsonby Road and go into one of the shops I used to frequent, or spend time talking with old friends, and wonder “why did I move?” But eventually, even after a few days, you felt a bit too busy or drained. I’d get back here and just feel better. We timed it very well too. Just as we moved here Hawke’s Bay’s “Wine Country” brand and associated programme were really taking off.”
The pictures of giant swells smashing into the Cape Coast shoreline, roads and houses are a very vivid image. But coming out here to see you the sun was shining and the sea was calm and tranquil. I could see what would draw someone to a place like Haumoana.
“A while after we’d built our home, we had someone who had lived on the site previously come to say hello. Their place had basically been a concrete bunker perched on reinforced concrete pylons. They described living here as “99% paradise, 1% sheer terror.” Initial studies said our property was supposed to be gone due to coastal erosion by 2012. When we were building here, the Tukituki River Groyne was also being built. As a result we’ve been very fortunate – I think our end of the beach has actually increased in size. We still support the Cape Coast/Walk on Water campaign – this is something you do as a community, its very important.
“There seems to be some sort of historic grievance that there was nothing worth protecting here on the Cape Coast. The infighting between the Hastings District and Hawke’s Bay Regional Councils hasn’t helped and their claims that the Department of Conservation, or central government wouldn’t let them do anything were incorrect. The councils need to be far more proactive.”
What’s next for you, any big ambitions?
“On a commercial front, next year’s Rugby World Cup is going to be huge. I’m very proud of the work I’m doing for that, including a clothing line. If everyone in New Zealand had a Dick Frizzell T-shirt or hoodie that would be very cool. Otherwise I just feel very fortunate to be accepted as an artist.”
As I leave we hear a noise in the sky. A seagull is in mid-air combat with a hawk. It appears the gull is trying to scare the predator away from its nest – the old cliché about the hunter becoming the hunted coming to life as we watch an almost artistic aerial display. Wingtips make long, fluid brushstrokes across the seafront sky. It seems a suitable way to end the morning.