Doris More Lusk was born on 5 May 1916 in Dunedin, the daughter of Thomas Younger Lusk, an architect, and his wife, Alice Mary Coats. Her childhood was spent mostly in Hamilton, where the family had a house on the banks of the Waikato River. In 1928 they returned to Dunedin, and Doris had one year at the Arthur Street primary school before entering Otago Girls’ High School in 1930. She left school in 1933 before matriculating to enrol at the King Edward Technical College to study art.
Lusk attended the art school in Dunedin from 1934 to 1939. Her teachers included J. D. Charlton Edgar and R. N. Field. Edgar provided Lusk with the technical knowledge of landscape painting, and it was through his teaching that she came to paint the landscapes of Central Otago. Field’s influence was more indirect, as he introduced students to contemporary British art theory and practice. Through him Lusk became familiar with the writings of Roger Fry and Clive Bell. Field also taught her pottery. Another figure important to her early development was Russell Clark, whose life-drawing classes Lusk attended for several years during the 1930s.
Lusk began painting at a time when artists were developing a new landscape iconography, incorporating structures such as gasworks, bridges and railway stations into their work. Her early paintings reflect this fascination with industrial themes, and were the products of trips made to Central Otago, often in the company of friends such as Anne Hamblett, Colin McCahon and Rodney Kennedy. Her work from the early 1940s is characterised by strong internal design, stylisation of forms and exaggerations of scale.
Soon after leaving art school Lusk found work as a commercial ticket writer and also taught art part-time at two private schools: St Hilda’s Collegiate School and Archerfield College. In 1940 she held her first solo exhibition in the studio she rented with friends in Moray Place. The following year she travelled to Nelson with McCahon, Hamblett and Kennedy. Her painting ‘Tobacco fields, Nelson’ dates from this time.
Doris Lusk married Dermot John Tasker Holland, an engineer, on 24 December 1942 in Dunedin, and moved to Christchurch. The couple had three children and during this time Lusk’s artistic output slowed. The city at this time was home to The Group, a loosely knit collection of artists who came together to exhibit their work each year, and to the literary community centred on the Caxton Press. There was a great deal of contact between the two groups and Lusk’s circle of acquaintances included Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Allen and Betty Curnow, Charles Brasch and James K. Baxter. Brasch not only bought a number of her paintings, but also reproduced examples of her work in Landfall.
Lusk exhibited with The Group for the first time in 1943, and during the 1940s and 1950s she relied almost exclusively on its exhibitions as an outlet for selling her work. Her paintings of the 1940s, in particular the ‘Waikaremoana’ series, reveal affinities with the poetry of Curnow and Baxter, conveying a sense of isolation and disquiet, and are also similar in mood to work of the English neo-Romantic painters, in particular Paul Nash. However, her concerns were also deeply personal, her images of structures in the landscape appearing as private emblems that are as much concerned with an interior as with an exterior world.
One of New Zealand’s pioneer potters, Lusk began teaching pottery at Risingholme Community Centre with Margaret Frankel in 1947. She worked there until 1967, and was president of the Canterbury Potters’ Association from 1970 to 1972. At this time the family rented a farmhouse on Banks Peninsula for holidays, and images of this area begin appearing in her work. By the end of the 1940s Lusk had received critical acclaim. Her paintings had been reproduced in the Year Book of the Arts in New Zealand throughout most of the 1940s, and critics responded well to her paintings.
Lusk’s work from the 1950s is increasingly abstract and generalised, exemplified by her best-known painting, ‘The pumping station’ (1958). The abstract, almost cubist hill-shaped forms echo the geometric lines of the building, reinforcing the relationship between building and land. She began experimenting with watercolours in the 1960s. With her images of Onekakā beach, near Collingwood, she achieved spontaneous and luminous colour effects by flicking and washing colour onto the paper and working on wet paper.
In 1966 the first retrospective exhibition of Lusk’s work took place at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and was well received. Half of the paintings on display were owned by public institutions, the most prominent of which were the Auckland City Art Gallery and the Hocken Library. The same year Lusk was appointed tutor in drawing at the University of Canterbury. As a teacher she encouraged and supported a subsequent generation of New Zealand artists that included Philip Trusttum and Tony Fomison. She won first prize in the watercolour section of the Hay’s Art Competition for one of her portraits in 1966, and the following year first prize in the watercolour section of the National Bank Art Award.
In the 1970s Lusk developed a process which involved using a wash to apply acrylic paint to canvas, which grew out of her watercolour technique. This involved flicking and brushing paint onto wet canvas, creating blurred and stained effects similar to watercolour painting. She used this splatter technique effectively in her paintings of the Kurow region of North Otago. She also returned to the industrial theme at this time, exploring Benmore dam in close-up views of the structure.
A second retrospective of her work took place at the Dowse Art Gallery in 1973 to a mixed critical reception. While noted as a leading New Zealand artist in her early years, Lusk did not experience the same degree of recognition during the 1970s and 1980s and her work in public collections to an extent reflects this.
Her series of watercolour drawings of awnings highlighted her very personal response to her environment, in this case to the Italian urban scenery of Bologna and Venice. They were the product of her study leave from university, from late 1974 to September 1975. On her return to New Zealand she painted a series of 10 watercolour drawings of awnings, which toured New Zealand for several years. Afterwards, they were bought as a group by the Auckland City Art Gallery.
During the late 1970s Lusk began experimenting with new methods and media, including photomontage and collage, as seen in the ‘Demolition’ series. She retired from the art school in 1981 as senior lecturer and painted a series based around the theme ‘Imagined projects imagined views’. These were imagined industrial sites in fantastical landscapes, echoing the earlier themes of containment and extraction of resources. In 1982 she was elected president of the Canterbury Society of Arts. Doris Lusk continued to paint throughout the 1980s and died in Christchurch on 14 April 1990, survived by two daughters and a son. Her husband, Dermot, had died in 1978. She was posthumously granted the Governor General’s Art Award in September.