Ask anyone in my family what they remember about my maternal grandma, and they’ll mention her in the kitchen baking treats, her glasses on her nose and an apron round her hips.
Within our little family of New Zealand migrants, those aprons were known as pinnies, and they were as much a part of my grandma’s appearance as her grey hair and mischievous twinkling eyes. Made from old cotton frocks and floral dress material, they were threadbare from a lifetime of use, and featured pockets in the front for hankies and wooden spoons. As a little girl I was always pulling spare ones from their drawer and sorting them by colour or pattern, trying to decide which was my favourite. In hindsight they were nothing very special, but through the eyes of a little girl who adored her grandma, they may as well have been made from gold thread.
I don’t know what happened to grandma’s pinnies when she died, I suppose they were thrown out, but it’s those memories that first drew me to the work of New Zealand artist Reuben Paterson.
Using a combination of paint, glitter and diamond dust, Paterson recreates kōwhaiwhai patterns, vintage floral textile designs, and geometric compositions to explore stories of his personal history and wider social narratives. With glitter as his trademark, he elevates the naive, suburban patterns of our past to something glamorous and slightly risqué. As light moves across the canvases, you can’t help but be transfixed by the dazzling colour and movement. What was once wholly domestic and mundane, now has a touch of disco about it.
I am eternally inspired by the way contemporary artists adapt the cultural traditions of their forbearers to create new art forms and reinvigorate age-old techniques and customs. But in the case of Reuben Paterson, there is something more, something I’ve never been able to adequately convey with words. It’s to do with family and the places we feel safe, and how the people and things we idealise in childhood become the apron strings that influence our judgment the rest of our lives.
Perhaps Reuben Paterson had a pinny-wearing grandmother too.