Prolific and multi-talented, Joanna Paul was one of the most gifted artists of her generation. Intensely responsive to the world around her, she depicted her surroundings, constantly reworking the conventions of drawing and watercolour painting. Paul also documented her environment in photographs and experimental short films, and published poetry, criticism and non-fiction. Her impulse was towards complexity in honouring the mystery she perceived in her subject, whether it was a domestic still life, the view from her kitchen window, or one of her children. She brought an innovative interdisciplinary approach to her practice, often blurring the boundaries between media. When struck by an idea, she wrote, ‘It remains only to determine whether this image can be most forcefully caught in a poem, photograph, or … painting’.1
Joanna Margaret Paul was born in Hamilton on 14 December 1945, the first child of pioneering booksellers and publishers Janet Elaine Paul (née Wilkinson) and David Blackwood Paul (always known as Blackwood). Janet Paul was also an artist, and Joanna acknowledged her as a vital influence. She and her three sisters grew up in a liberal and slightly bohemian environment in which art and literature were highly valued, and artists and writers were a constant presence.
At thirteen Paul became a boarder at Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington, leaving after the sixth form to study History, French and English at the University of Waikato. In 1964 she spent a formative year with her family in London, visiting art museums and studying figure drawing and painting at the Sir John Cass College. She developed a keen interest in the European modernists of the early twentieth century, especially Pierre Bonnard, Giorgio Morandi and Henri Matisse, as well as English painters such as Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and the New Zealand-born Frances Hodgkins.
Back in New Zealand, Paul experienced a profound and long-lasting sense of loss after her father’s death from cancer in 1965.2 She studied English and Philosophy at the University of Auckland, graduating BA in 1968, and took instruction in the Catholic faith. She continued to be drawn to Catholicism for the rest of her life, but remained a passionate nonconformist, and in later years was involved with the Quaker community.
In 1967 Paul enrolled at Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, where her teachers included Colin McCahon, Greer Twiss and Tom Hutchins. Among her fellow students were Christine Hellyar, Marté Szirmay and Leon Narbey. She held her first exhibition while she was still at art school, a show of 107 drawings at the Hamilton Art Gallery in 1969. Drawing would remain at the heart of her practice all her life: not as a preliminary exercise, but as an independent art form which allowed her to investigate the nature of perception and explore her spiritual relationship with the world around her.
On graduating from Elam in 1969 Paul moved to Port Chalmers, near Dunedin, where her drawings expressed her fascination with the views of houses, hills and harbour. She taught part-time and painted the Stations of the Cross for the local Catholic church, St Mary Star of the Sea, but the parishioners disliked the pictures and they were eventually covered over.
On 27 September 1971, Paul married fellow artist Jeffrey Alan Harris at Port Chalmers. They moved to Seacliff, a small settlement north of Dunedin, where she painted still-life subjects and the coastal landscape, and made some of her first experimental films. In 1973 she and Harris spent a year in Wellington and Paul gave birth to their daughter, Magdalena (Maggie). She began to write poetry late in her pregnancy, when she felt too tired to paint. In the following year the family moved to Banks Peninsula in Canterbury, living at Okains Bay, close to Harris’s grandparents, and later at Barrys Bay at the head of Akaroa Harbour. There, Paul painted again regularly for the first time since Seacliff and also took photographs and made short films, activities which could be more easily accommodated within the rhythms of domestic life.
During this period she became involved in the feminist art movement, discovering a more holistic vision of art than the one she had encountered at art school. The movement privileged collaboration and work that drew on women’s lived experience, while also expanding the definition of what might be termed art. On a personal level, feminism validated a practice more attuned to Paul’s temperament: one that disdained any sense of ‘career’ and avoided any hint of self-promotion. In 1975 she participated in the landmark exhibition Woman’s Art, curated by Alison Mitchell (Allie Eagle) at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. Later she initiated the exhibition A Season’s Diaries (Victoria University of Wellington, 1977), and the friendships this nurtured led to the establishment of the Women’s Gallery in Wellington in 1980.
In 1976 Paul gave birth to a second daughter, Imogen, but the infant had a heart defect and died later in the year at Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital. In the following months Paul ceased drawing and painting and wrote a series of poems as a lament for her daughter. This was published as Imogen by Hawk Press in 1978 and won the PEN Award for the Best First Book of Poetry that year. A related project, Unpacking the Body, an interrogation of medical terminology, was exhibited in 1977 at the Women’s Exhibition at the CSA Gallery in Christchurch, held in association with the United Women’s Convention. Paul also published a book, Unwrapping the body (circa 1977), which juxtaposed photographs and text, and drew connections between the domestic world and medical terms for the human body.
In 1977 Paul and her family returned to Dunedin so that Jeffrey Harris could take up the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago. Their third child, Felix, was born in 1978, followed by a fourth, Pascal, in 1982. As her marriage entered a difficult phase in the late 1970s, Paul and her children spent extended periods in Paekākāriki and Auckland. She later described this as a time of renewal, and she exhibited annually, mainly at the Bosshard Gallery in Dunedin and the Galerie Legard (which became the Brooker Gallery) in Wellington. In 1983 she received formal recognition for her art when she was awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship.
In 1984, following the end of her marriage, Paul moved to Wellington for several months before settling in Whanganui. She spent the rest of her life there, except for periods working in Ōamaru, Dunedin, Invercargill, Rotorua and the Coromandel, and a year in Wellington when she was awarded the 1993 Rita Angus Residency. Paul took an active role in the small Whanganui art world, curating exhibitions and showing her work, mainly at private viewings. She also campaigned to protect local historical buildings and was a staunch advocate for environmental causes.
In 1989 Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery organised the first major survey exhibition of her work. Entitled Joanna Margaret Paul: Chronicle/Chronology, the exhibition and catalogue highlighted the autobiographical nature of her art by juxtaposing her painting and poetry under sections identified by the places she had lived. It was accompanied by a show of her Whanganui works, Resisting Foreclosure.
In 2000, through her involvement with Whanganui’s Quaker community, Paul met Palmerston North architect Peter Wycherley Harrison. They married in Whanganui on 25 February 2003. Three months later she collapsed while bathing in a thermal pool in Rotorua, and died at Rotorua Hospital on 29 May 2003, aged 57.
Soon after her death, Paul’s art was featured in two exhibitions: Beauty, Even: a Tribute to Joanna Margaret Paul (Wellington City Gallery, 2004), and Joanna Margaret Paul Drawing (Mahara Gallery, 2006). Critics drew attention to her astringent editing of detail and use of empty white space, and her interest in framing devices to disrupt an image. They noted her predilection for serial imagery which acknowledged the passing of time, and the importance of text in her art. Meanwhile her friend Bernadette Hall edited Like love poems: selected poems/Joanna Margaret Paul (Victoria University Press) in 2006. Hall described her as ‘complex, intense, a woman of faith, a romantic, a feminist though she would eschew the term, a fighter’. Paul had brought a ‘singular, unconventional’ focus to her art: ‘Joanna had energy to burn when it came to matters touching her ideals, her integrity and her loyalty, her love.’3
More recently a new generation of artists, curators and dealers has discovered Paul’s work, especially her little-known films and photographs. Her work has been paired with that of other, often younger, artists, and shown in thematic exhibitions. In 2015 she was featured in Fragments of a World: Artists Working in Film and Photography 1973–1987 at Victoria University’s Adam Art Gallery. In the same year CIRCUIT toured Through a Different Lens/Film Work by Joanna Margaret Paul, and in 2016 a programme of six films was shown at Collectif Jeune Cinéma in Paris and the London Film Festival. Such projects have highlighted Paul’s originality, the interdisciplinary nature of her practice, and its essential unity across a range of media.