A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy

ARTS, Books, Visual Arts
Gregory O’Brien’s journey through the art of the late Graham Percy.

In the Wimbledon home that the late Graham Percy and wife Mari Mahr had literally ‘created’ together, O’Brien discovered a life. He unravelled it. He pulled things out from boxes and documented items on walls with almost scientific precision. The experience for a reader is that you are right there with him as if an assistant; you accompany the author on his journey. We learn as O’Brien does and when he tells of the note he found “squirreled away in a book on the Wimbledon shelves” (p. 21) we share this sense of secret discovery. You can almost feel textures; develop a spatial sense of the house and how the late, New Zealand born artist, Percy worked within it. Of course, this trip to Wimbledon did not just eventuate out of the blue. O’Brien’s contact with the Percy family initially began through his appreciation for Mahr’s photography, whereby he wrote a fan letter to her. His fascination with Percy’s work grew from this connection, and following the success of O’Brien’s earlier two books which also featured drawings by Percy—A Nest of Singing Birds: One hundred years of the New Zealand School Journal (2007) and Back and Beyond: New Zealand Art for the Young and Curious (2008)A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (AUP, NZ$59.95) seems a natural step in this progression.

The book does well to demonstrate the breadth of Percy’s work. There is the school journal work and colourful illustrations for various children’s books, such as the delightful Meg and Max collection, but there is also Graham’s later, more thought-provoking, humorous or even melancholic works—his ‘Imagined Histories’ and the very late ‘Alchemical Allotments’ series. Percy’s immeasurable talent is strikingly clear. A drawing of Mt Egmont on page 40 that Percy did at age fourteen is really quite remarkable, and I sincerely doubt many fourteen-year-olds would be able to do the same. The book also does the worthy service on shining a light on the power and merit of drawing itself. While many young artists immediately aim for painting, illustrating should not be forgotten as an expert artistic talent, one that permeates our childhood experiences in particular, and Percy’s vast body of work celebrated by this book does well to remind us of that.

Personal obstacles or sources for material are discussed throughout the book, including Percy’s powerful red-green colour blindness; something that only affects five to eight percent of men and must be particularly troublesome when one is an artist. However, in reading the book it is clear that although Percy at times felt hindered or embarrassed by the problem, he seems to be able to have moved around it with such grace and eloquence that in his work it is unnoticeable, and when a ‘mistake’ does occur, such as on page 147 with a drawing of Peter Rabbit in a red vegetable patch rather than green, it becomes one of those beautiful accidents we all hope for in life, that makes the drawing far more unique and interesting than it would of been had it been ‘perfect’. Although living in London for most of his life, Percy’s New Zealand connection was a constant source of inspiration in his work and clearly something often on his mind. O’Brien does a marvellous job of exposing the reader to this presence.

There is some discussion on how Percy’s work at times reflects personal elements; particularly insightful is the section on his Commedia dell’Arte series. As the book notes, these drawings completed during 2007 show characters from the troupe running from a falling train or involved in some sort of riot. All characters are anguished and there is “a loss of control, a sense of calamity” that was at the time present in Percy’s own life due to his illness. However, those looking for a linear, biographical account of Percy’s life and work will be disappointed by this book. The author cannot know everything from just looking at Percy’s physical home or his work; there are still secrets. The reader does not discover what happened with Percy’s first wife and how that loss may have affected him or his work. At times it is difficult to get a sense of how things may have played out on a timeline. But the essence of this book is the discovery; the things we do find and what they might mean, not that they might answer every question. If a reader can accept this and enjoy this process, they will find the book a very rewarding experience.

The writing style is insightful, analytical, but simultaneously has a lightness that makes it an enjoyable read rather than one that bogs you down in detail. There is just the right amount of a sense of the author: “William Crompton… who managed to convince his fellows that the Patea River bore a striking resemblance to the River Avon ‘back home’. I have stood beside both of these rivers and wondered how anyone could reach such a conclusion. Nonetheless, that is how the story goes.” (p. 15) This personable style helps a reader to feel as though they are on the same footing as O’Brien (although of course, in reality, O’Brien, a former curator of City Gallery Wellington, may well be a step or two ahead), which further enables the idea that we are on the journey along with him. The emotional connection is conveyed, rather than hidden as it might be in other books. There is no controlled distance between author and subject; O’Brien freely demonstrates his vulnerability. The line “There were no hours left…” (p. 173) regarding Percy’s death packed a strong punch as I read.

Much like we imagine the Wimbledon home, the book houses small treasures that will appeal to various readers. For me, small gems included the beautiful extracts from visual diaries that Graham had created both for himself and friends, Percy’s methodical approach to his work and studio space including a photograph on page 138 of his crayons, carefully labelled with their colours in order to work around his own colour blindness, and the charmingly odd photograph capturing Percy and colleagues with Roger Moore at a Hungarian film studio during the creation of the animated film Hugo the Hippo. In this photo Percy looks perfectly at ease, a man just enjoying the present moment, in contrast with Roger Moore’s controlled poise. Then there is my own discovery—remembering to check under the dust jacket—of a great photo of a young Percy at work. My only complaint is that the dust jacket itself might have captured more of the colour and joy found within the pages of the book. The story told truly is one of a life spent in love with the discovery of one’s own art.

Percy worked right up until the end of his life in early 2008. The haunting photograph on page 176 of the unfinished piece Percy had been working on in his home is especially telling. This was not a man for whom art was a job, it was just what he did and he could do little to stop it even if he had wanted to. The previously mentioned quote Percy had written on the scrap of paper O’Brien discovered, “We are our childhoods, over and over, and with endless elaboration” (p. 21, from Lisa Appignanesi) is one that may ring true for many of us, and is certainly clear in Percy’s own work. His art is a means of understanding, of discovery, and of seeing just how far he could go.

‘A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy’ by Gregory O’Brien is published in conjunction with an exhibition of Graham Percy’s work that will tour the country over the next two years. ‘The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy’ exhibition is at City Gallery Wellington until April 25, and opens at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland, on May 7. Further dates TBC.
Main image: ‘Two Kiwis in Paris’, 2004, ink and pencil, 370 x 470 mm.