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News > Collegians > Kiwi artist Owen Dippie

Kiwi artist Owen Dippie

International Kiwi artist Owen Dippie (Clark 1997 - 2001) is perched high on a cherry picker, surrounded by spray cans, transforming the side of a Ponsonby building.
29 Feb 2024
Collegians

He’s scaled the heights of fame with Sir Edmund Hillary, been in Nelson Mandela’s ear and got into Robin Williams’ head, immortalising his superheroes on buildings around the globe.

Earlier this year he was back in his ‘hood, finishing his latest creation, Anima, a tribute to New York-based New Zealand Buddhist artist Max Gimblett, renowned for his signature quatrefoil - a Christian icon shaped like a four-leaf clover.

It was while living in New York in 2015 he walked past Gimblett’s studio and a decorative gold quatrefoil caught his eye.

“It was a gold star of inspiration. Max has turned 88 - I’ve always been impressed by his work,” Dippie says.

The 40-year-old “skater boy” from Kawerau has recently shifted the narrative from honouring the dead to celebrating the living, painting their images before they die.

“I believe in giving people flowers while they can smell them, that’s what this thing with Max is about,” he says.

But Dippie still loves honouring those who have passed.

“What inspires me is their energy, their dedication to their creativity and their impact on the world. When you see the work for the first time, they are alive for that moment. I still get a buzz out of that.”

The Ponsonby artwork was supported by Gimblett’s dealer Gary Langsford of Gow Langsford Gallery who paid for the paint and organised a sponsor to pay for a cherry picker.

Putting Gimblett in a quatrefoil is a “genius idea”, Langsford says.

“You can see murals around the globe, but you basically come back to Owen, the number one boy from Kawerau. Owen has a very unusual talent to be able to produce a photographic image from 50 metres away when you’re painting it from a metre away from the wall. You are using a part of the brain most people don’t have. "

From his studio in New York, Gimblett says he was overwhelmed when he saw Anima for the first time.

“I was thrilled, my eyes came out on stalks. Owen brings me alive in this portrait. I am very grateful to see it in my lifetime.”

Dippie shrugs off the praise, admitting he is hard on himself and saying he has only recently graduated to “pro” status after a 10-year apprenticeship practising how to paint.

“I feel honoured people like what I do, but I am my own worst critic. Nothing I do is good enough. I always think my next piece will be better.”

On the inside of his arms, Dippie has tattoos of both his grandfathers, Ray and Mac, to remind him where he came from. He has an older brother Ryan and his parents Robert and Heather owned the local tyre shop.

Dippie says he inherited his work ethic from his father. As an 8-year-old he was encouraged by him to door-knock local businesses offering to paint their windows for Christmas.

“It was my first taste of public art and figuring out you get could be paid to be an artist.”

The boy with the red mop-top liked climbing trees, swimming in the river and collecting comics but art was what always drew him.

He found inspiration from street fighter characters to Mongrel Mob bulldogs. When his mother framed his first drawing of Raiden, a thunder god, he realised the value of art and was determined to make a living from it.

At Putauaki Primary school Dippie was mesmerised by local artist Edward Hunia who was commissioned to paint a mural. He would sit for hours watching Hunia paint and asking a million questions

His parents contacted Hunia who taught their son how to paint and mix colours and eventually became his art master.

“I would look at a mountain for ages, spend hours mixing colours till I got it right. Edward painted his depictions of Māori myths and legends in Renaissance style. He is insanely ambitious, and I owe him a lot.”

Dippie left home as a teenager in 1997 after boarding at St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton and being asked to leave in his final year. Ten years later the school invited him back to paint a mural of Sir Edmund Hillary.

“My art teacher, Mike Linklater made a huge impression on me He introduced me to Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon. He also let a naughty kid hang out in the art room when I was supposed to be at maths.”

After a year studying for a fine arts degree at Whitecliff School of Fine Arts in Auckland, Dippie decided to drop out, forging his own creative path painting murals in the streets. That led to commissions to paint pieces in New Zealand, the USA, Europe, and Australia.

Winner of the Huffington Post top 15 murals for ‘Master Ninjas’ and ‘The Radiant Madonna’, Dippie says he is comfortable with his level of recognition.

He rejects the label of “street artist”.

“I do a lot of work on the streets, but I am a painter.”

The best thing about painting in public is the interaction with people and their communities, “good and bad”, he says.

“The beauty about art is it forces people to react and provokes pure emotion.”

Dippie’s wife Erin, is the the love of his life and his business manager – she travels with him as he paints around the world. They met while working at a Mt Maunganui picture-framing studio in 2010.

“We became friends and our relationship developed organically. I was attracted to her energy and we’re a great team. I had never fallen in love before, when I did it was indescribable.”

They married three years later in an impromptu ceremony on the Queensbridge roof top in New York.

“It was last minute. Erin wore a long white dress and a veil and had to walk up four flights of steps in this abandoned building. It was perfect, the minute she came up she looked incredible, and there were people painting murals below us. The rattle of spray paint and the rumble of the 7 Train played as our makeshift wedding bells.”

After spending a year overseas in 2018, the couple moved back to Mt Maunganui to be close to Dippie’s family. They felt the pressure to have children, but Erin had health issues and was considered a “high-risk” pregnancy.

“It’s a small town thing. People were like what’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have children?”

The couple considered having children and had fertility tests. Then a tumour was discovered in Dippie’s nasal cavity just below his brain.

Five months later he had a standard biopsy, but when the surgeon cut into the tumour, it began bleeding and the surgeon had to stop. The tumour was removed a year later.

The artist feared he might go blind or die from the cancer.

“It was hard seeing the people who love me being scared, that was horrible. This scare taught me to enjoy the moment more.”

Dippie is an advocate of promoting mental health and suicide awareness through art. His murals honouring the sudden deaths of actor and comedian Robin Williams and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington have gained international attention. And he’s known his own grief.

“I came from a place where suicide stats are high. It knocks you, it hit home when we lost Erin’s mum to it last year. My cousin who was like a little brother to me and my best friend took his life when he was 23.”

He’d like to see Kiwi men talk more openly about their problems and not be afraid to ask for help.

“The whole judging of yourself and others is a terrible thing, everyone is unique and going through stuff you don’t know about.”

In his stark white studio, there are multiple life-size portraits that are a work in progress. He says they will be his legacy.

Sphenoid, Dippie’s latest body of work, documents his emotions about living with his tumour. It will be exhibited next month at his Ponsonby gallery, NINETEEN.

“I didn’t know how to deal with what was happening to my body internally, so I expressed it externally through painting. It’s about letting go of a part of me. "

The artist from Kawerau says he is at peace with himself.

“Some people get upset that some of my murals get painted over or they don’t last but that’s like life. We are here for a fleeting moment, being present and being happy in the moment is everything.”

Reposted from the NZ Herald 24.02.24

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