Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women

ARTS, Books

There is a new collection of compassionate and patient interviews by Deborah Shepard entitled Her Life’s Work: Conversations with Five New Zealand Women, published by Auckland University Press (NZ$45). Her Life’s Work explores how five prominent female artists have successfully maintained the centrality of their passion for their art with the duties of motherhood and marriage. Filmmaker Gaylene Preston, teacher and translator Merimeri Penfold, writer Margaret Mahy, painter Jaqueline Fahey, and anthropologist and writer Anne Salmond are the subjects of Shepard’s project, answering her questions with charm and candour. While the interviews create a chronological portrait of each woman’s life, delving painstakingly into memories of childhood and family history, eventually arriving at contemporary concerns and projects, the strength of this collection lies in Shepard’s focused and cogent introduction.

A book intent on listening rather than telling, Shepard’s questions are earnest and sincere: How does a woman succeed in having both a life and her work? Can it be done? At what cost? However, it is her final question that reaches beyond the specifics and logistics of success to the broader, more contemplative question: Was it worth it? Has their work brought these women happiness? Shepard argues that the path for women artists in New Zealand and the world over is an uncertain and difficult one, and to extend oneself beyond the duties of mother and wife to the work and creativity of an artist is an arduous but fulfilling life’s work. Interestingly, Shepard insists that the achievement of these five females is in their prolific portfolios, that their happiness is derived from a lifetime of academic, creative, and social work. Shepard writes: “Through working steadily, building up a significant body of work and achievement, each woman has found a meaningful identity and a rewarding way to live her life” (13). Shepard strenuously resists the confines of woman’s traditional role as mother and homemaker by examining women who have done it all: raised families, supported marriages, and received accolades for their creation of lasting works. However, one wonders if Shepard has been too extreme in her insistence that the “meaningful identity” of the woman artist is achieved solely through her working process. While mother and wife are social constructs burdening woman, artist is an essential part of her identity according to Shepard, who is firm in her conclusion that it is a full body of work, compiled over a lifetime, that is the marker of a life well lived.

The portraits that emerge from Shepard’s questions luxuriate in detail and anecdote. Particularly, the life of Merimeri Penfold comes into vivid, almost filmic colour through her descriptions of growing up in Northland, leaving home for the educational opportunities of Auckland, and her lifelong contributions to teaching and the Maori language. Each woman is generous and sincere in her storytelling and Shepard has done well in her choice of subjects. Her Life’s Work offers a rare and personal perspective into the lives of talented and established women, and while the emerging female artist will face different concerns than those of her foremothers, these interviews remain a testament and talisman to the creative woman.