A woman steeped in colour, right down to the roots of her hair, is one of 84 entrants in this year’s Taranaki Arts Trail. Virginia Winder meets a woman painter who is wild to the core.
Art is Brenda Cash’s lifeline – one that keeps her focused and fit.
The New Plymouth painter of vibrant works, often depicting flowers, nostalgia and feelings, loses herself in creativity.
“It’s a place for solace and joy,” says Brenda, who is taking part in the sixth Taranaki Arts Trail on June 8, 9 and 10.
Visitors can see her work in a teal-and-cream retro caravan parked behind a camellia hedge in the front garden of a Gilbert St villa.
Her idea is to use the wee portable space as her gallery and drawing room; not the posh kind to welcome visitors, but a place to sketch. That would keep all her paints and resins in the studio below the house, a place that’s a tad difficult to reach right now.
“I have to go down a gravel path – it’s like cliff face – holding on to the garden hose. It’s tragic,” she laughs. “There will be steps when we have finished the reno.”
Brenda, partner Nigel Bredin and one of her two sons, moved into the 1904 home at Christmas time. Before then they had been living in an 1860s cottage on a lifestyle block at Tataraimaka.
In her down-below space, she loses herself in paint and music.
“I listen to bad ’80s’ punk and Nigel’s heavy metal with my headphones on. I don’t want to disturb this neighbourhood and I’m in the moment. It’s really cathartic.”
When she paints, Brenda sings and dances while wearing a Fitbit on the hand that doesn’t wield a brush. “I can do 10,000 steps when I’m painting and I haven’t left the room. It could be a new fitness trend – active painting.
“For those who don’t want to put their Lycra on, you can put on bib overalls or a pinny and you’re good to go.”
Being completely immersed in art has been a gift to Brenda, especially in the face of adversity.
Her family’s world came crashing down in 2015, when Nigel suffered a serious brain injury from a motorcycle accident while doing track training at Taupo.
“The motorbike failed on a tight corner at 160km/h and he went headfirst into the racetrack. He shouldn’t be alive, but he is. He’s a miracle. He works every day to improve his lot in life. He wants to go back to work.”
When Nigel had his accident, he and Brenda were having an adult gap year, so he was unwaged, which didn’t help with ACC. The artist and mother became his caregiver and had to manage everything for the family.
Before that her partner had been a workaholic. “We went from that to our lifestyle block and a change in direction, but not in the way we planned,” she says.
“So, the painting has been quite a lifeline because I can pick it up and put it down.”
Sitting in the nearly finished renovated home, fresh with white paint and bold décor, she strokes five-year-old Staffordshire terrier Vincent Van Dog, nicknamed Vinnie.
“Believe or not I actually do a lot of dark artwork as well, but I don’t think that would ever be fit for public consumption,” she says.
“Living with family members with mental health issues and a brain injury there’s a lot of grief and a lot of loss. Someone who has a frontal lobe injury can become a different person. To me he’s the same but completely different.”
Joining a support group for people living with ambiguous loss has helped her greatly.
“I’m a happy cheerful person most of the time, but when I’m not, I’m at the other end of the spectrum.”
She has always struggled with anxiety, which has been challenging. “But you knock on, don’t you?”
For Brenda, the dark contributes to the light. “I have learnt to appreciate the little things. I see great joy in colour and nostalgia.”
On a teal couch, bright paintings are thickly layered with floral explosions, fruit and treasured objects, including vases, a Clarice Cliff wall decoration with clouds and a swallow and her favourite coffee cup.
The non-conventional artist uses acrylic paints, which she builds up to make impasto pictures. She uses plastic picnic cutlery to apply paint or uses her fingers, mixing in plaster and adding resin. She makes glazes and washes and loves to experiment with different mediums.
“For me it’s all about the process. The joy comes from the creating, not the creation. The results can be pretty mixed.”
There have even been fires. “Got my resin too hot and put it on with something I had just spray-painted. I was in the moment… this could work, but it didn’t.”
Appropriately, Brenda enjoys working with a hybrid acrylic paint called Molotow, made for graffiti artists.
She’s also a magpie, with a love of shiny things.
Fresh from the hairdressers, Brenda has returned with some silver foil for an artwork and a new colour. Her long hair, dyed deep purple on top and teal underneath, matches her artwork and couches. “Who would have thought?”
And she sparkles, just like her central city house.
The entrance hall is wallpapered in a white-cream glitter design made using tiny beads and on her feet are gold-glitter Doc Martens. “I’d like to glitter the caravan in time – why wouldn’t you?”
Brenda has always painted and drawn, and even did a year studying art at the Taranaki Polytechnic (now Witt) in the 1980s. But she left and went on to complete her library studies, always doing art in the background.
“People say that hobby art is a bad thing, but I think it’s a great thing. You are a hero artist – you still work to pay your mortgage and look after the kids and grab some time to be creative. That’s a true artist.”
Brought up in the rural community of Waitoriki at the back of Inglewood, Brenda comes from a can-do family.
Her dad was a sawmiller and her mum, Eunice Cash, was a woman ahead of her time. “My mother was a full-on lifestyler. We grew all our own food and she still does. She grows flowers, vegetables and is a seed saver. She’s quite amazing really.”
Although Brenda and Nigel have left their own lifestyle block behind, she has plans to have a picking garden in the backyard because she adores having flowers inside.
She also wants to develop a more disciplined art practise by heading to the art studio first thing when her partner is quite well and can do his own thing.
In the past, she has gone down to the wire with her work. “I have hung wet paint before.”
Her big push is to support community art, so she helps at the Koru on Devon (Mark 2) gallery and is on the Taranaki Arts Society, which runs out of The Gables in Brooklands Park.
“I love Len Lye and going into high-brow galleries, but I equally love flea market art, folk art; all those things that are often open to ridicule by some I – I love it all.”
At the end of this year, she wants to hold an “artists against bullying” exhibition “because I have been bullied by other artists, mercilessly, but not local”, she adds quickly.
But that’s another story.
In the meantime, she continues her fight for the underdogs – and cats – by adopting elderly felines nobody else wants. The family has three, and cats also appear in her paintings and on the wallpaper of a new toilet.
People can visit Brenda in her Green Morris Studio – even though it’s a caravan.
“I have a 1953 Morris Minor convertible and it’s lime green,” she explains the name. “I have had Morries all my adult life.”
Her love of nostalgia, evident throughout the graceful home, flows out on to the street through her passion for the classic rounded cars. “Everybody has a Morrie story. I could write a book on them.”
And she’s off, sharing a story about a woman who took the family Morrie without permission when she was young and got the wheels stuck in a cattle stop while trying to sneak the car home.
Brenda’s green Morris also makes an appearance in her paintings. “I think my art is me. They (the works) are just snapshots of my life or my moods – heaven help us,” she laughs.