Jeanne Macaskill’s left eye had a small spot in it that glistened like the surface of the sea. Perhaps it was a pigmentation or vision glitch, or something else, I’m not sure; it was like a glitter flake that had travelled its way to her iris. When we spoke I’d find myself caught by the glint, like something in her iris was signalling me by heliograph, bouncing flashes of light from a tiny mirror.
Jeanne, who was born a Bensemann in Motueka, was one of the artist-educators who trained in the third year art specialist programme at Dunedin teachers’ college, in the fifties. Ever a prolific artist, Jeanne’s paintings, often made with buttons and mirrors with which she’d reference the sea, contain a myriad of these small, reflecting heliographs.
While working on the documentary The HeART of the Matter, I had the opportunity of speaking with Jeanne – an artist who worked alongside the likes of Gordon Tovey, Katarina Mataira, Ralph Hotere, Bridget Riley, Bill Culbert, Henry Moore – before she passed in the late Spring of 2014. In January, Jeanne had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and was told she had another month and a half to live – she stayed another ten to boot. She was tough as buttons.
I visited her in winter. She lay on her sofa, in front of a floor to ceiling bookcase and exposed brick wall, under a blanket. Her memories were picturesque and vivid in the recounting; she shone and laughed reliving them. She was gracious through doses of condescension delivered by nurses through the telephone. It intrigued me where Jeanne got her spirit and tenacity.
She had some tough Teutonic roots. Her grandfather came to Nelson from Germany on the Lutheran Māori mission – “to try and “convert the Māori””, she said. “This was supported by the New Zealand Company, who actually gave them some land. They bought the biggest Lutheran church in New Zealand.”
Jeanne’s father, Hans Bensemann, grew up on apple orchards near Motueka, when anti-German sentiment was high. He lost his eye to it, in a playground scrap before he was twelve. He quickly began night school classes in engineering after having to leave primary school.
Jeanne’s grandfather had written New Zealand’s first text on apple cultivation, and Hans carried on his legacy, going on to design and build industrial machinery for the fruit and dairy industries. By the 1950s, Hans had nearly flooded himself out of the market for machinery that assembled crates for farms and orchards, including apple boxes, cheese and small grape crates. His crates were reputed to be indestructible; Hans even received the Queen herself to his factory, in 1953. There’s that sturdiness, which Jeanne’s French mother surely did not lack. In fact, Hans was about to enter the U.S. market with his machinery, before he was bought out after a car accident. He had had a few wines one night and drove into a logging truck; Jeanne’s mother was left to survive the brunt of a log through the car.
Shortly after Hans died at 83, from asbestosis, Jeanne remembers receiving a letter from a German apple grower who’d had one of his machines for 40 years. It was in good working nick, but the nuts had worn – could Hans send a dozen nuts to Germany?
Jeanne remembered her father lovingly. His name endures; one of her sons takes it. Perhaps the most prominent piece of advice he gave her also echoes still: “Make nothing that isn’t going to last as long as possible.”
Yet as a child, Jeanne was no stranger to the leather strap that hung from the kitchen cup-hook, and on which her father sharpened his razors. His toughness was different from Jeanne’s, of a different kind.
Jeanne’s first creative inspiration came from none other than Toss Woollaston, who babysat Jeanne when she was a little one in 1930s Motueka. The land the Woollastons’ clay brick house was on belonged officially to Jeanne’s relations. “I used to go and stay there. He’d be working,” Jeanne recalled. “Toss is famous for building a house out of clay bricks… an adobe house.
“The house was rather strange. It had a dirt floor, and it was made of dirt, and they didn’t have enough money to get wood for doors, so Toss got big hessian sacks and hung them as a door. They were poverty stricken, they really were. Edith his wife used to grind wheat to make flour – they were very hard up.”
Despite this, by four years old, Jeanne had already announced to her mother: “I’m going to be a painter like Toss Woollaston”. That, surely, would take some toughness.
Jeanne began painting in watercolours. Around 1953, she made a work called Cherry Blossom, looking toward the entrance gates to the Botanical Gardens; signing it, J. Bensemann. “It still makes me feel excited in my tummy when I look at it!” she told me. Years after Jeanne made and sold this work, she retrieved it in an auction, outbidding a competitor to the tune of 700 pounds. It had been attributed to her cousin, Leo. “D’you know, they sold it to me with that label on the back!” she said, triumphant still.
Jeanne then trained at Dunedin Teachers’ College, on the art specialist training scheme overseen by Gordon Tovey and Murray Stevenson, with the likes of Ralph Hotere and Katarina Mataira. I was interested in this course, for the documentary I was helping to make, doing research for. The art specialists’ role was to support in-service teachers to teach art in classrooms. I was fascinated that Jeanne had been part of this pioneering work , and wanted to know how she’d helped other adults to find a creativity rich enough to share widely.
“First of all, you don’t start out that way,” she said, “with “Find my own style?!” They’ll run a mile. You introduce them to concepts (form, colour…), media, examples. And you start a dialogue.”
The specialists trained by studying the Surrealists, and American regionalist art – probably through publications like The Studio. But the course was more theoretical, about children and children’s art, so all the students read Viktor Lowenfeld, and Herbert Read.
“We did investigate mandalas. We also had another book, it was about signs and symbols in folk art. It says there are about seven or eight of those that are universal: that are in every form of indigenous art, folk art. We researched that and discussed that. But we didn’t do studies of Picasso or anything like that, it was wider than individual modern artists. Amongst ourselves we swapped books, and I found out that there was much more to someone like the Cézanne than appears. Really, we were educating each other as much as the course was educating us,” she said.
After Dunedin, Jeanne studied painting and sculpture at Chelsea College, in London, where she spent eighteen years. She shared many of these with her first husband and the father of her sons, sculptor Neil Stocker. At first, they caused a scandal, both together and separately.
Jeanne made some Polynesian inspired work. “That was just straight forward to me,” she said, owing to her background. Jeanne’s father became a life member of the Anthropological Society: “My grandmother – his mother – went up to Parihaka, when Parihaka was under attack, she went up to help.”
“On Christmas holidays and things, my father would always take us to pā, and we went up north of Gisborne to a fantastic marae that was way up in the hills, extraordinarily decorated. Pākehā were only beginning to look at Māori culture, or if they were, it was more as historical research.” Jeanne said that when Hans died, “there were at least three letters in Māori, expressing grief about him.”
So Jeanne made Polynesian inspired work at Chelsea. The first time, she said everyone got their marks back except her, and someone sent her up to the headmaster’s office.”He gave me a very stern talking to. He said, “You’ll never pass your exam if you do stuff like this. You have to look at the Renaissance masters,” and all that stuff. Which I found really dreary. But I was quite shocked that a school like that would be so out of date. Mind you, I’m talking 1956.”
On top of that, Neil and Jeanne were an unmarried couple: “The fact we lived together was a disgrace to everyone,” she said. “We couldn’t get a flat, we both had different surnames. It wasn’t done. Henry Moore and his assistant, Bernard Meadows, both liked us, we were both their students. But the Board at Chelsea School decided to throw us out, because you can’t have students living together. So Henry and Bernard rang up and said, you can’t throw out two good students…. the moral fifties!”
At this time, Jeanne’s paintings were textural; heavily influenced by sculpture, and by Moore, for whom Jeanne worked for a time as an assistant. “He did very tactile sculpture; he used unconventional tools to do things… He’d say, “None of these tools do what I want, so I got a cheese grater!””
“He said to us… you think it’s clever to have an exhibition of 24 different works, a portrait, landscape, a vase of flowers. But he said, that’s very superficial. You only get anywhere when you take one subject and develop it 24 different ways. He said, if you search carefully enough, you find probably three or four themes you can keep doing that with, then you get quality work: I call those themes my undying satisfactions.” Jeanne later had a mid-career exhibition at the City Gallery – in 1985 – that she named after Moore’s phrase: Undying Satisfactions. Moore’s phrase perhaps, but very Jeanne.
In the 1960s, things began to loosen a little more. “Everyone questioned, and asked,” Jeanne recalled. “Everything was in change,” she said. Perhaps not always for the better. Either way, Jeanne could persist.
“You know, they all talk about free sex and everything… Neil was teaching at Hornsey College of Art in 1968, when the students revolted… it was pretty violent! There was also protest about the way the French army was treating the Algerians. One of our friends Sylvia was at a demonstration, and the police charged them – and she said, It was absolutely terrifying, she said, I had an extraordinary experience – have you ever tried running over the top of a car in high heels?”
Neil and Jeanne often went on trips to Provence. “Bill Culbert and his wife were very good friends of ours, they went down to Provence, in the valley of Vaucluse, and they bought the side of an abandoned village. They cleared out the houses and rebuilt them, they joined some together. We went down and helped them. Clearing away the stairs, the stairs had written on them 1792. That’s the year of the French Revolution. That’s how old the house was – could have been earlier.”
They had another friend who bought a house nearby. “The French called it en ruine, in ruins. He said to us – go down, and stay as long as you like. We used to stay for two or three months.” Then after fourteen years together, Jeanne and Neil made moves to buy their own place during the tumult of 1968. “Neil would always do work, he’d build a wall or, fix another part of the building – it was lovely. We decided to get our own -very old farmhouse. When cleared it out, we found little Roman bricks underneath – it was a Roman settlement, with at least 500 year old oak trees on it, truffle oaks. It had a paddock on the front, and there was a little round stone building, it was a shepherd’s hut. According to the material we could get, it was a thousand to two thousand years old.”
Jeanne and Neil bought it. “We had all the plans and the builder lined up. We were going to go down – Neil’s niece was coming from Australia and we were going to take her down, with our little boys, who were then, four and a half.
“My husband was very sick he was – very damaged,” said Jeanne. Neil had had an accident, in 1961. “People often mend, but in the case of my husband… they can change personality. He was very gentle, very kind – quite a sweet person, and he became angry and nasty and violent, threw things… Extremely difficult in those times, because you didn’t talk about “mental illness”, not 40 years ago.
“He took his life the night before we went down. Which was awful.
“I kept the place. He didn’t have a will – so the property was divided in three pieces, because it was the boys, and me. I wanted to own it, because the boys were so young. We had to do a lot of work with the lawyers. Every word the French lawyers said must have cost about ten francs.
“Then my friends said to me, you can’t go and live in there. It’s too isolated – you’re half a mile away from the nearest house. As a young woman with two small children, it’s just not safe. The summer of ’69 he died, and I took a group of friends and we all camped, we had 4 or 5 hectares of land and there was a very good well there, and these lovely oak trees. They helped me clear the house out.”
In the country, Jeanne saw that the French farmers hit in the roofs of their abandoned houses, so they didn’t have to pay tax. “You paid a tax on the roof… if you hit in the roof, it meant you didn’t live in it… they’d saw off the rafters.” Jeanne laughed at the expression on my face. “When president de Gaulle became prime minister, everything in France was shabby and run-down. There was a tax on things in good condition… If your place looked very run-down – I was appalled at the state of some buildings – you were charged less tax. So de Gaulle, and Mme de Gaulle, who was very fussy (it was always blamed on her), changed the tax round. After 3 or 4 years of their rein – rein is an interesting word – you would find, that if your house wasn’t painted up and spruced, that they’d reversed it.
I didn’t know about that. “You know, Jane Austen’s time,” Jeanne told me, “they used to tax windows. When you walk round London, you see patterns in the bricks of buildings, where windows have been bricked in, and the bricks never taken out. Especially Georgian houses… that had a lot of light and glass. Rather than pay the tax, the owner would fill in the window.”
After Neil died, Jeanne travelled to Charente, north of Bordeaux. She bought a house in a small, Romanesque village that had only just had its medieval walls taken down. She also bought and did up the old restaurant and hotel, building a mezzanine and planning to make the restaurant her studio. “But then,” she said, “I got cancer. I was very sick, and was thinking I better go back to New Zealand.”
Jeanne moved back in 1972, after selling the Charente house to a friend; the one in Provence, to a couple of architects from Dusseldorf. Despite all that had happened there, Jeanne remembered France fondly: “I got to know lots of French people, spoke bad French all the time, when I did all this legal work, bought houses – I also learned a lot of French culture.” She didn’t leave before having a traditional Christmas in France with friends and flying to London for farewells.
On the way home, Jeanne stopped in New York. “New York was snowing – it was wonderful. We spent a few days, and we flew to Philadelphia to see Marcel Duchamp’s piece, that no-one could go and see for 25 years after it was made. You could go and see, you had to look through a keyhole to see what was there.”
When Jeanne returned home – as was her nature – she got to work. As ever, she made work about who and where she was. “The thing that upset me was Don Driver winning the Benson & Hedges prize with a very boring, abstract work, and the judge saying “This could sit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York”. So I had this exhibition called “13,000 miles from New York”. And I became quite a zealot for, for goodness sake – look at Māori work, and look at the way it describes the landscape.”
Jeanne says this didn’t get much of a reception. “What are you doing that for? Your ‘London interiors’ were so beautiful!” I got very great help and sympathy from Māori artists who liked what I did, and understood what I was trying to get at. I was invited about the mid 1970s to join the Māori writers and artists society, and I said “No, I don’t think I can, because I’m not Māori blood”. “Oh, we understand what you’re doing”, but I never did. I thought there’d be too many resentments.”
Jeanne eventually married Pat Macaskill, who’d been a lecturer of Jeanne’s in Wellington. “I couldn’t talk in public, I was terribly shy. Pat showed me the techniques, he showed me how to do it. I became a list candidate for the Labour Party – I could talk, anywhere. He encouraged me,” said Jeanne.
“I saw him talking to audiences of hundreds, making them laugh… He said, “I’m not confident, I have butterflies… that gives you the edge. He said, you see the politicians who don’t have butterflies, who just stand up and are so used to talking in public… and they’re boring.””
Pat also introduced Jeanne to her good friend Mirek Smisek, with whom she swapped artwork. Smisek’s solid, satisfying pottery lined Jeanne’s rooms and shelves when I was there.
In 1994, Pat fell ill. “They found he only had one kidney. He was a twin, and they suspected his brother might have had the other… they said, the kidney’s failing, and there’s nothing we can do… They gave us counselling,” said Jeanne. “What was good, was he had warning, and we could prepare.
“I’ve been very lucky,” she added.
I just looked at Jeanne.
The clock and a vigorous shake in her hands confirmed it was time for a rest for her, though Jeanne’s eyes were ever shimmering. Then Jeanne took three sprigs of daphne from a vase and got me to loop a length of string around them, before fitting the sprigs into a buttonhole on the breast-pocket of my rainjacket, snugly under the button. She walked me to the door where we hugged with our cheeks together, talking about another visit, and she said, Whatever you write, the last line is, And I’ve had lots of fun.
It is an honest line, but it’s not my last. Sorry, Jeanne – I’m Teutonic too. Through all her stories, I heard the truth of it, through our conversation I could feel it, and in her paintings I can still see it: the delight. “I like living,” was what she’d said last last time I saw her, after I marvelled at the heart with which she was outliving cancer. The feeling itself is clear enough: it is its marvellous sustenance, and the vivid and glistening depth of it that captures me.
Jeanne’s father, as she told me, had instilled in her an esteem for that which lasts. Here she is, eight months on after a 6 week prognosis, and in everything she tells me I can hear that tenacity, that robustness. In her love of the Aotearoa landscape in which the land’s oldest artforms are reflected; in her collection of Mirek Smisek pots and crockery formed in sturdy holding shapes; in the wall of books hungrily gathered over a lifetime in tandem with lively conversation and the influence of kindred spirits.
I asked her what her themes were, her undying satisfactions, since Henry Moore had told her she had to choose. She told me they were the landscape, the sea and its shimmering surface, the art of Māori. But there was something else, something I heard in the story of her painting of a cherry tree. Something which was also present in the way she spoke of her friends, her old tutors, and how lucky she was to have had her twins, to have had three loving marriages.
Make things that last, is what Jeanne’s father had taught her. What talking with Jeanne taught me, is that it is love, it is love that lasts the longest.