Dame Robin White in her Masterton studio. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Lisa Urbani

For Dame Robin White,” being an artist is not what you do, it’s who you are”.

Her long and illustrious career has been an evolving quest, a discovery made in stages, leading her to find her own identity as an artist.

“When you’re young, your urge to create compels you towards a self-awareness that is fostered by the encouragement of people around you.”

With a sketchbook always at hand, her attentive and supportive parents encouraged her and ensured that she received a good education.

Their belief in the education of women as being of the utmost importance, was due to their embrace of the Baha’i Faith.

Under the watchful eye of her art teacher at Epsom Girls Grammar School, Robin was propelled to her next step and her time at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Art where she was awakened to her full “consciousness, that this was for me”.

She never considered it as a “job” and had no thought for the financial implications of being an artist.

She relied on her parent’s advice to “aim high”.

Having been on a student scholarship, she was required to teach art as part of her bond, and this gave her the opportunity during her years as an art teacher in Wellington, to work and exhibit until she could be independent.

The 1960s were a time of creative freedom, of openness of thought, and the beginnings of a life-long friendship with the poet Sam Hunt, whose portrait she painted.

In her growth as an artist, she’s learnt that “from being at work you get the ideas for making more work – it’s a constant process of creating and learning”.

At present, Robin is preparing for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

Called ‘Matisse alive’, it will showcase the artistic responses of four separate artists – Nina Chanel Abney (USA), Sally Smart (Australia), Angela Tiatia (Samoa/New Zealand/Australia) and Robin White (New Zealand) – to the great 20th century artist, Henri Matisse.

Each artist will present an original and different form of art, ranging from a mural, to a cut-out assemblage installation, and an immersive video.

Dame Robin’s offering will be a set of large works on bark cloth made in collaboration with her friends from Tonga and Fiji.

Drawing on her background in painting and printmaking, she is working within a Pacific art tradition of richly patterned tapa cloth.

It is a process that augments the skills gained during her “17 years of glorious learning”, as she described it, in the Pacific Republic of Kiribati, living on the atoll of Tarawa.

When a fire destroyed her house and studio in 1996, she adapted to the lack of her usual art supplies by learning to work with the women, combining her design skill with their love of weaving.

She considers herself “a student” when collaborating with others, learning as we go about each other and the processes we’re engaged in.”

In these uncertain times of covid-19, her Baha’i faith stands her in good stead.

At the core of its teaching is the belief in unity, the oneness of mankind, and now more than ever, she says, we all need to “educate ourselves to work collectively for the good of society”.