The Marton-based artist whose work has real cut-through

by Mike White / 08 September, 2018
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Marton painter Julie Oliver doesn't always use typical canvases for her rural idylls.

They come with photo albums. They come with a lifetime of memories. They come with their saws. And when Julie Oliver has combined these elements into an artwork, they leave with something truly unique that captures the people and the places they live in.

For more than a decade, the Marton-based artist has painted rural scenes on old saw blades once used to clear New Zealand’s countryside and cut firewood, before chainsaws replaced cross-saws. “I guarantee that 10 years ago, before anybody took much notice of them, there would have been an antique saw blade in the rafters of every farm shed in New Zealand,” says Oliver, who shifted to the Rangitīkei region from Australia in 2000.

Because Australia has fewer trees, and thus fewer saws, Oliver was immediately struck by them and saw their potential as a background to paint on. Soon, people were bringing her cross-saws with teeth worn and handles smoothed by decades of use, and asking Oliver to paint scenes from their farms on them. 

Often she visits the farm first, gets to know the family, and uses their photos to distil details that became part of the artwork. Then she sets up the saw on an easel in her lounge, chalks out an initial design, and lets a sprawling scene evolve. A two-metre blade usually takes about 200 hours to complete, with family members, farm houses, vehicles, animals and past events recreated.

Oliver’s father was a talented artist, and she began painting when she was 18, then did some formal art training. But she’d always dreamt of marrying a farmer, so her present career lets Oliver continue her art while experiencing rural life. However, there have been challenges for someone who grew up on the other side of the Tasman.

“New Zealand has a completely different colour palette to Australia. It seems like there’s a billion types of greens and a billion types of browns. And you need every one of them to bring these artworks to life. So it’s an absolute joy when you have to paint a red shed, and get off the green train.”

Whenever she’s unsure about the authenticity of some aspect of farming life, she relies on her partner, Tim, who was raised on a farm. “I value his criticism, even if it’s not always right.”

Oliver also paints generic rural scenes on smaller saws: horses, bullock teams, logging trucks, tractors, and mobs of sheep idling across steep hillsides. But the most popular image is always one with farm dogs, she says. An additional benefit of using saw blades is that the artworks appeal to men who might normally have little interest in paintings.

Over the years, Oliver has created murals on a Department of Conservation tramping hut toilet and woodshed in the Ruahines, farm buildings, and the 19m wall of a Cambridge farmer’s tractor shed. However, most of her work remains the scenes she paints on saw blades whose working days are over but now provide panoramas of people’s localities and lives to stretch across lounge walls.

“The pay-off for me is working with these lovely, lovely people,” says Oliver. “And I’m really thrilled to do this for them, and these things become heirlooms. It’s a great privilege when people pick them up – and often there are tears.” 

This was published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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