By Sally Webster
It was sad that as visitors pondered James King's first major solo exhibition when it opened last weekend, the artist couldn't be there.
While the former radio talkback host and producer waited months for the chance to fill Depot Artspace with his emotive paintings, he has waited a lot longer to get better. King has been plagued by mental illness for years and his recent secondment to Dunedin's Ashburn Hall precluded his presence at the show.
So while he was busy working on his health, visitors to Devonport's gallery were sipping wine and reading the emblazoned words: "The Anzacs died for your iPad." Political commentary is strong in King's work and he confronts his inner demons too, as depicted by dogs' gnashed teeth in many colours. A propensity for softness comes through trickling lines that creep over clouded backgrounds of orange and aquamarine. Lashings of red play a pivotal role.
While some pieces were painted in Dunedin, most of the work was accomplished at Toi Ora Live Arts Trust in Grey Lynn. What was a haven that unveiled King's artistic talent is officially "a unique shared creative space ... for adults who have come in contact with mental health services". Toi Ora general manager Erwin van Asbeck says it has been fascinating to watch King work.
"Together with his other areas of treatment, even just the discipline of coming and going at set times to a place to work on art has been a hugely healing and balancing process," he says. "What's been produced during James' journey towards mental health is exceptional and it stands on its own two feet."
On his last day of painting before heading south, King cut out the shapes of the Tapu Kehua for the exhibition. Absorbed with shaping the right curves of the "sacred ghost or spirit", King offered his usual comic scepticism on the next few months in a "therapeutic community".
"I might be back up within a week if I have to pass a hacky sack around the room as part of a group therapy practice. Seriously, I've encountered this once before and it was just too much."
King, who was adopted, did not meet his birth mother until he was in his 20s. He says he always knew something was brewing inside him and certain things made more sense when he discovered his mother was schizophrenic. He was not fiercely beset by dark moods and voices until his radio career had taken off in his late 20s. Then-general manager of Newstalk ZB Bill Francis recalls meeting him as he started out.
"He came to me around the early 2000s and asked if I'd give him a chance on air. He clearly had a strong political leaning and could talk knowledgeably about it as well as a large range of social issues of the day. He showed empathy and could relate to a wide range of people.
"I saw him about once a week for more than three years and what was quite obvious was his considerable talent, rationale, curiosity and ability to think. What I also saw in him was a good person."
But King began to develop difficulties with alcohol, sleeping and generally dealing with working at night. He left the company and moved to Wellington to do a journalism degree and produce more radio shows. But with personal issues including family bereavement to deal with, he was finally overwhelmed and hospitalised. There ensued a pattern common to many with mental illness who, like King, did not have a supportive family nearby at the end of a period of treatment in hospital. Without a place of further healing, the streets became home instead.
"You see the really ill people wandering the streets, picking cigarette butts from the ground. They've got dirt under their fingernails," says King. "Mental illness at its worst can be people rifling through rubbish bins in the dead of night. It's scary. I understand that. I don't like those people ... and I was one of them."
King wanted to come out about his illness to make a concerted recovery and alter perceptions of the condition. Last year he worked on a Planet FM mental health radio show and during October's Mental Health Week he held his first exhibition, MC'd a fundraising gig in Karangahape Rd and contributed these words to a poetry anthology:
This should not be my only option,
I will not live here; you must give me a room in the heart of life,
I will not survive under a bridge, at the dump, in a park,
at the margins in the dark.
I challenge you to come to me, to hold my hand, embrace my heart.
I challenge you to tell the truth, cast aside the angle, cut the hook, search for the marrow.
What: New Works by James King
Where and when: Depot Artspace, Devonport, to May 19
The New Zealand Herald, 14th May 2011
source: data archive