Sylvia Marsters
Tiare Taina
New Paintings
28 March – 18 April 2019

Opening Thursday 28th March with CITC Liquor, Brancott Estate and G.H. Mumm Champagne.

Maria Henderson, Turi Mataiapo
Sylvia Marsters, Exhibiting Artist
Ben Bergman, Gallery Director

Closer to Home

The role of flowers within human culture is diverse.

From the origin of a flower’s name to its distinctive characteristics and rich mythology, flowers are infused with symbolism and meaning.  We sense the personalities of different flowers and intuitively choose one over another to fit our mood or the occasion.

Gardenias have long been a subject close to the heart of Sylvia Marsters. The artist has painted them in increasing detail through out her career. Richly scented, with a full white petal bloom, they evoke a sense of warm climates, sea breeze and romance. They convey a tropical allure impossible to resist. In Rarotonga, they are ever-present. Popular in gardens, perfumes and in flower Ei (or Lei), they pervade the senses and comfort the soul, they are given, they are worn and they are highly prized.

Over the past two years, Marsters painting style has evolved dramatically. Her detail and use of colour project a powerful sense of assurance. The Gardenia bushes and flowers of her new exhibition Tiare Taina are represented in hyper detail, full evergreen shrubs with white flowers in various stages of bloom, some are buds and some have reached the end of their brief life spans. The mood of the paintings varies, from almost surreal to high definition. They are painted in various sizes, from a relatively demure, small canvas to commanding, large square images. This is not an anthropological study, nor is it an overt attempt to deliver a purely decorative work. The artist plays on the viewer’s sentiment; these flowers evoke strong emotional connections, leading you down personal paths of remembrance.  To each, a different experience awaits.

For the artist, these flowers link her heritage with her present reality – the Gardenias of Aitutaki, where her father was born, and the Gardenias of Auckland, where she lives. Within these compositions, Marsters debates her sense of place, reconciling past stories of a romanticized Island lifestyle with the realities of urban existence in a modern city. A whole lifetime of experience lies in-between. Ben Bergman.

Sylvia Marsters is represented by Bergman Gallery. Marsters has exhibited in Auckland, Wellington, Rarotonga & New York.

From Something Simple
By Rachel Smith

A small white flower glistens with morning dew. There is an inherent skill in making something appear simpler than it is.

“It’s hard to paint white – it’s taken a long time to perfect,” says artist Sylvia Marsters.

There has been 21 years of painting and exhibiting to hone her techniques, and an acknowledged need to master the application of white since 2003, when Marsters visited the Cook Islands for the first time. Awarded the Creative New Zealand Pacific Artist in Residence programme, she spent three months in Rarotonga, the residency including workshops and involvement in local art activities and groups, as well as painting.

Growing up in South Auckland, Marsters had experienced only glimpses of her father’s Aitutakian heritage. Her time in Rarotonga was a reconnection to people and place – a time to rediscover family including the full name of her father, David Manga Taia Poōna. “I had to find my own way, as we all do in life,” Marsters says. Artist “Eruera (Ted) Nia took me under his wing. He said to me, sis, if you want to capture the heart of the people you need to paint Gardenias.”

Essentially the 2019 Tiare Taina exhibition at Bergman Gallery is what she has been working towards ever since. “I was one of those kids at school who was always scribbling over my books,” Marsters says, studying fashion design and sewing after secondary school.

Then came 1994 and with it the proof that length of time is no determinant for change; a few years can alter the direction of a life, provide energy and focus, and move someone to paint to capture loss and opportunity. “I first picked up a brush in 1994,” Marsters says, studying under art tutor and New Zealand artist, Lois McIvor, who was herself a student of artist Colin McCahon. “She told me I needed to take it seriously.” At the same time Marsters’ sister asked her to step in and take some high school art classes. It went so well that she ended up teaching full time for the next couple of years. And most significantly, 1994 is the year her father became unwell, passing away two years later. “So that (painting) was a way that I could deal with it,” she says. “My father was another catalyst, and the teaching – it all lit the pilot light.”

Marsters’ work was included in the group show, Paringa Ou, in 1998, an exhibition featuring contemporary work by Cook Islands artists from New Zealand, held at the Cook Islands National Museum. It was the first time Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery, viewed her work.

Her obsession with tropical flowers began in the early 2000’s; for Marsters it was a way to connect with the Cook Islands. When she stepped off the plane in 2003, there they were – flowers everywhere. “For me it was a sensory overload. And I felt really at home,” she says. “I can see the colour,” Marsters says, of her work which came out of the residency, exhibited in her solo showTe Ruperupe O Toku Ipukarea at the Cook Islands National Museum.

Ian George, art educator and artist, takes this further, noting in his introduction to the show that, “The work is bright and realistic and monumental. One draws parallels with Georgia O’Keeffe whose works have become synonymous with feminism….The brightness and vibrancy of the colours used, dominate the viewer and it is the replication of some of the flowers like Tiare Māori that forces the viewer to question the artist’s statement….one is left wondering what is physically behind the beautiful plants. Is there a metamorphosis taking place? Is there something else about to emerge from the foliage?” That same year Marsters was part of a group show O’ora Te Moenga, for Beachcomber Contemporary Art  (or BCA as Bergman Gallery was formerly known), marking the beginning of a long partnership between artist and gallery director Ben Bergman. “It’s such a close relationship,” says Marsters, who is now solely represented by Bergman Gallery. “It’s my life’s work so you want to put it in the hands of someone who cares.”

“In 2011 I rang Sylvia and said, let’s do a project,” says Bergman. “Sylvia said to me – I’ve got something to say. I don’t want to paint flowers anymore.” So Bergman offered her the BCA Artist in Residence in 2012 – a chance to re-think her position. Surrounded by flowers again, Marsters was reinvigorated with the form, and produced her first solo show for BCA, Island Fever.

In 2014, BCA took Marsters’ exhibition New Yorker’s Don’t See Flowers to the VOLTA Art Fair in New York.  A 9 panel installation that was 33 feet long, the work was inspired by O’Keeffe, an artist whose name comes up time and again in relation to Marsters. In this case it was a quote by the artist from1946- “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” Marsters’ work did just this– as the elevator door opened into the art fair, there was her explosion of floral colour. All pieces sold bar one which became part of her own collection.

The Gardenia though had not been forgotten. Marsters began to work in earnest on painting the flower in 2016, punctuated by her stunning solo show Hibiscus Hedge at Bergman Gallery in 2017. The Gardenia was the focus of her work produced for the 2018 Auckland Art Fair, the paintings proving so popular that they were being bought as they were hung on the wall. The intention had been to have a few pieces to bring back to show in the Cook Islands but they all sold. So Bergman asked if she could do a similar show for the Cook Islands.

Tiare Taina marks the beginning of Season Four for Bergman Gallery. As you would expect, there is a sea of flowers at the opening, worn around necks and heads and in the exhibited works. “Art is human skill,” says traditional leader Turi Mataiapo Maria Henderson, who had discovered a shared family connection with Marsters at her previous show. “You belong to a distinguished family,  Sylvia – you know you are at home.”

“This show is what I’ve been working on since my first time in Rarotonga,” Marsters says. “It has taken all this time to feel confident to be able to give this back to my people.”


All photographs by Turama Photography.