|Central Otago artist Rebecca Gilmore is relaxing at her parents Invercargill home in the bush-clad, bird-filled suburb of Otatara where she grew up. Renown for her fine-detail paintings of New Zealand native birds, she has just finished an exhibition in the city where she took nine commissions and sold one original painting and 21 prints. 'Many were to return customers,' says Rebecca, who has consistently experienced high demand since she began painting birds in late 2001.
A small selection of Rebecca's work is clustered at the end of the dining table, where she and partner, Greg Slui, are sitting. Outside their good natured Airedale Terrier, Tussock, is bounding around. It is an inspiring environment for Rebecca who’s father is an artist, retired art teacher and bird lover. His bird feeders attract Tuis, Wax Eyes and Bellbirds.
But Rebecca's decision to paint birds was something of a progression. She started out making 'gourmet' fridge magnets and little flax cards to sell at her local Queenstown market. 'I wanted to do something New Zealand oriented for tourists,' she says.
Finding the magnets time consuming to make, she tried painting her bird design directly on to flax paper. 'It sold within 30 minutes,' says Rebecca. She says she ultimately decided to focus on native birds because several others were drawing and painting plants. 'Now I'm fascinated by them,' she says.
Rebecca paints in acrylic on canvas, and sometimes on handmade flax paper. The impact of a pair of Tuis perched, on a bare branch outlined subtly in charcoal, is striking and life-like against the flax. 'To me it's really important to get my anatomy right,' says Rebecca.
Her paintings of chicks and stones are painted on canvas and are a complex interplay of the birds and their environment. Says Greg: 'Whether you're back 10 metres, or 10 centimetres away the level of detail in Rebecca's work doesn't change.’
Recently Rebecca began painting stones without the birds. In one painting there is a stone with a crack in it that looks so real you want to touch it to check if it’s scoured into the canvas. It isn't. 'I often see people wanting to touch,’ says Rebecca, 'I like the interaction.'
In recent years Rebecca has won a number of art awards. Currently her paintings on flax fetch NZ$700-NZ$1800; and paintings on canvas start at around NZ$4000. But it is the limited edition prints of the original work that provides the all important income stream. 'I wouldn't make a living solely from my paintings, they take too long,' she says.
Still it doesn't slow down her ideas. She is currently painting a series of close-ups of New Zealand bush with birds in it and in the near future she would like to paint the Kokako and the Saddleback. Rebecca says she’s also keen to capture the 'solid, flat, shapes' of rocks along Central Otago's Clutha River, near where they live.
Rebecca and Greg own the old double story post office on the main street of the small town of Roxburgh. They live upstairs, and Rebecca works from the gallery they have developed downstairs. With two years worth of commissions ahead of her, she can barely keep up with demand. 'Some paintings sell before they're off the easel,' she says.
Entitled, Endemic, the gallery has become a real family affair. Since arriving in Central Otago, Greg, who had always used photography to record his mountaineering expeditions began taking photos of the region's expansive landscapes. Says Greg: 'I thought, oh well, lets try and sell a couple, and it just took off!'
Rebecca's father contributes a range of art from intriguing brass sculptures, subtle etchings to bold paintings on canvas and painted stones of Maori design. Rebecca's brother, Josh, also sells his brass, wood and stone jewellery at the gallery. And of course, Tussock takes pride of place on the gallery’s front steps.
Rebecca says the gallery's range of art often surprises visitors. It is a combination that works well, and sells well. 'It's exciting because everyone does everything so differently, but it all matches and blends,' says Rebecca enthusiastically.