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Interview: artist and teacher Dugald Page – Passionate teacher’s heart still in art

Flagstaff Team

Stacks of talent… After being laid up with injury, Dugald Page is itching to get back to his art

Dugald Page knew from a young age that art was his calling. Having taught and practised a wide range of artistic disciplines since then, the octogenarian tells Helen Vause how all subjects meet in the art room:

Dugald Page is contemplating his work from the relative comfort and safety of his armchair at home in Cheltenham, talking art and his life as artist and educator. We’re looking back over nearly 65 years.

Right now, the 82-year-old is impatiently recovering from a fall just before Christmas that left him with a broken neck.

Well cared for by his partner Cara Perry, he is willing his way back to better health through physiotherapy and dogged stints on the treadmill in his living room.

The treadmill is the ugly duckling in a charming space full of works by Page, Perry (who is a professional weaver) and others. It’s the home of two very creative people.

This winter, Page has a beard, not because he wanted to sport a new look but because his rigid neck brace made shaving too hard.

Still, recovery seems in sight and he’s in good spirits, and modelling a pair of very bright, cheerful socks he found in the online store of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

It’s been a very painful and frustrating time for Page. He has projects well underway in the workshop that adjoins the house, and he’s itching to get back to his art.

Across the years, Page has worked in many forms of art, unwilling to confine himself to any one discipline.

That wide-ranging practice was reflected when he looked back on his long career with an exhibition of his work at the Depot in 2014 – A Retrospective of an Arts Educator – that included painting, sculpture, kinetic work, ceramics, glass and print-making.

Many other exhibitions of his work have been held around the country over the decades.

Page’s art story began in his teens as a schoolboy in Palmerston North. In the 1950s, Palmerston North Boys High School had no art department, but young Page had started to realise art was going to be his thing, maybe even his career, and that hopefully he would be headed to art school.

He grew up in a creative household. His father drew well and had a real flair with gardening. Under his influence, Page explored gardening as well as art, and had a school-holiday job working in the city’s public gardens.

“I tried to give my students the whole range of experiences with different activities and media. Sometimes that could be based on exploring in blind faith and arriving at an exciting outcome.”

Three years at art school in Christchurch was an exciting prospect for young Page, but before he could embark on student life, he knew he would need to work and save a bit.

He left school at the end of sixth form, ready to get started on the next stages of life. But his job in a factory sawing Pinex board ended after just one week of dusty toil, when his lung collapsed.

He was very happy to finally make it into art school alongside kids who’d had the benefit of real art departments and knew all the ‘talk’: “I didn’t really know the right language around the subject, but of course I was terrifically enthusiastic and figured I could pretty quickly pick it all up.”

Page recalls traditional classes in life drawing and painting. Nevertheless, they were exciting years for learning, exploring and the beginning of making lifelong connections in New Zealand’s relatively small art community.

Page had no aspirations of a lonely creative life starving in an attic. Like many of his art-student peers, he did a year of postgraduate study to equip himself to earn a living as a secondary school and tertiary-level art teacher.

He says he happily accepted that, “I would have to supplement my passion”.

At teachers training college, he was delighted to find renowned potter (the late) Barry Brickell was already there before him, running a pottery kiln.

Page began to learn about working with clay – one of his best big bowls is still on the sideboard at home.

In 1961, in his early 20s, he landed his first teaching job at Westlake, then a co-educational high school. He’s well remembered from his Westlake years in the 1960s as a passionate teacher who guided quite a list of young talent onto worthwhile creative journeys.

From Westlake, he moved on to tertiary teaching, joining the staff at teacher’s colleges on the North Shore and subsequently across the harbour at the Auckland College of Education. He also taught at Whitecliffe School of Art.

For a time, he was a critic of craft for the New Zealand Herald, his reviews becoming keenly anticipated in those circles.

In the 90s, under a very full teaching workload, Page had a brush with heart troubles. It was enough to make him quit the job and take time out for recovery. That era included a foray into local real estate – and a chance meeting with Perry, who remembered him as a boy at her intermediate school in Palmerston North.

Westlake Boys beckoned again, and 30 years after he’d first started there, Page happily took up teaching secondary-school art again.

It was the enthusiastic boys who often led Page to extend himself and learn new things.

“Thanks to all the students who asked ‘how, why and can we do that?’ And I’d say, ‘Okay kids, lets have a go’. Besides, I’d always think I could do it if someone else had done it before me. I tried to give my students the whole range of experiences with different activities and media. Sometimes that could be based on exploring in blind faith and arriving at an exciting outcome.”

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, Westlake Boys turned to Page in 2005 to design the eight large stained-glass windows in the school auditorium, which was then under construction. His beautiful, detailed windows have been widely admired ever since, as has his considerable legacy to the school.

Legacy in class and glass… A few of the eight stained-glass windows Dugald Page designed for the Westlake Boys High School auditorium

While he’s temporarily out of action, Page is still very much engaged in conversations around art education. He remains appalled at the axing of the night classes that flourished across the country until a few years back. And he’s ever vigilant for signs of tinkering with or pruning of the art departments in schools today.

Last year he fired off an email to Minister of Education Chris Hipkins, urging him to consider the merits of making art history a compulsory subject in secondary schools, at least for a period of time. The subject, argues Page, would give the students a real taste of the world and all its wonders.

“I’d see it as drawing from all our cultures here. Through art history you can explore what was going on at the time in science, literature and life, and how it all fitted together. From a Bruegel painting, for example, you can see what games the children were playing at that time.”

All subjects meet in the art room, Page says.

“Art is a visual language and a different way of thinking and looking at the world,” he wrote at the time of his last exhibition.

“Art history is an international language like music, dance and theatre.”

This article originally appeared in the June 14 edition of The Devonport Flagstaff. Download PDF.