Abstract and edgy at 90

Doreen McNeil lets her instinct flow on the canvas at her Brookfield studio.

Doreen McNeil doesn’t do parties – “I can’t stand them,” she admits.

However, the Brookfield abstract artist reluctantly acknowledges that turning 90 is a bit special and she better do something.

So, the not-for-much-longer 89-year-old will compromise and have an art exhibition, because that’s her style and because she can.

It will be a nod to her age – the show’s called XCbition. Get it? XC the Roman numerals for 90, so XCbition is a play on exhibition and she’s more than chuffed with that.

But don’t go down to the Incubator at The Historic Village next month expecting XCbition to be an elderly artist’s typical serving of landscapes, fruit bowls and still life.

“I’ve never been interested in doing that,” says Doreen, “because copying things is boring.”

What’s the point in copying things when there are such great cameras, she argues. “To me, painting something that is there, like a sunset which is beautiful in its actuality, is boring. Why just copy it? Why not create your own sunset?”

Doreen McNeil doesn’t wake up with an idea for a painting or an inspiration on how she will paint. She simply steps up to her easel and lets her instincts flow. She gets her paint out, mostly acrylic, puts a mark on the canvas and paper and sees what happens.

“Once you have one mark down, one colour down, you think something else might go with that and it sort of takes over,” she says. “It has a life of its own, so it’s my feelings on canvas. It’s not meant to represent anything apart from how I felt at the time I did it.”

When she steps back, it’s a collection of colours, shapes and lines, but all in the very distinctive Doreen McNeil brand. It’s for us to make of it what we will, if anything. Just enjoy, or not enjoy; take in the experience, or don’t.

People either like her work or they don’t. “They don’t tell me they don’t like it, of course not, but it’s quite obvious,” she says. Doreen isn’t sensitive about her work, she just enjoys a reaction - any reaction.

“Particularly in the Garden and Art Festival – people stop and stare at my painting and ask ‘what’s that meant to be?’ I tell them it’s a painting, that’s what that is.” The artist has a good chuckle.

There’s oodles of attitude at play here, and she knows her mind. When this reporter remarks that her Brookfield studio is taking over the house, she snaps back: “No, it’s not.” And besides, she says, isn’t attitude one of the privileges of getting old?

This reporter was kind of hoping the attitude was a life-long trait, because it had served her well. “Yeah, I have had attitude all my life, but I have just got more sure of it as I have got older,” she says.

“Why be unsure of yourself? Trusting in yourself is one of the most important things in painting abstracts.”

There was a defining moment in this abstract artist’s life. “I was at art school in England,” she recalls. “They gave me a piece of paper and pencil and set this armless, legless figure in front of us and told us to draw it. That was it, no instruction. I went twice and gave it away.” There’s that attitude again.

She did try painting from life. “It’s good for you,” she admits. “It’s a discipline and you have to control what you are doing, but it’s not what I wanted to do.”

When she was living in the Bahamas when she was about 30, she painted seascapes because, as she puts it, that was the only beauty on the island. “But I didn’t copy the seascapes, I made them up. I went down to the beach, looked at the beautiful colours and shapes, and when I painted them I made it up.”

When she arrived in New Zealand in 1987, the Waikato Society of Arts steered her towards doing what she wanted. “I soon started going off and doing my own thing,” she says.

Doreen McNeil is still doing her own thing, every day for a few hours. But she has a dicky shoulder which restricts the time she can spend at the canvas.

She doesn’t care what the critics say about her upcoming XCbition, between April 24-May 15.

“I don’t care,” she confirms. “I do it because I love doing it. It’s not the end result that’s important or what people think, it’s the actual painting - the doing. That’s what I love.”

But aren’t we hoping for a nice outcome, some critical acclaim, some pieces sold and people marveling at the Brookfield nonagenarian churning out abstracts and holding an exhibition?

“Well, what do you think?” she asks. That’s the very reason this reporter is talking to Doreen McNeil. “Then there’s your nice ending.” Attitude to the very end.

Hopefully Doreen will be there for much of her exhibition, because the abstracts and the attitude are a great package and should be experienced together.

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