Dick Frizzell

Artist
Fine Arts, 1963

Dick Frizzell

Making Art, Shaping Culture.

Celebrated Kiwi artist, Dick Frizzell, has made a name for himself by taking an anti-establishment approach to his fine art career. Informed by his experience as an ad-man, he exploited commercial techniques as he set out to reflect the culture around him. “I wanted to make a statement about New Zealand with my art. My greatest satisfaction is that I’ve helped shape our culture and made an impact on how people think about being a New Zealander.”

What initially inspired you to pursue fine arts?

I was in love with the whole romantic idea of being an artist right from high school. And I could draw. Even at primary school that was obvious. The kids used to queue up to get me to decorate their exercise book covers. I just became the guy who drew. So it was never really a decision, it was just something that evolved.

Were your parents supportive?

Not at all! I wasn't allowed to take art at high school. My dad was an engineer and he wanted me to be a surveyer because I could draw and do maths. I said to them, “If I fail School Cert can I take art?” Weirdly they agreed. So I deliberately failed and the next year I went back and took art!

What was the UC School of Fine Arts like back in the 60’s?

It was very bohemian. The teachers were fabulously arty. They used to have great parties and tell great stories. That was the best thing about art school – the peer group and the mad lecturers we had.

Did the experience surprise you in any way?

The most amazing thing about going to art school was that at high school I was the freak hiding out in the art room. When I turned up to art school in a room of 20 other students, I could see that we were all the freaks from our individual high schools! I had no idea there could be so many of us.

What did you do after graduating from UC?

I got married and had a baby so I had to make a living. I got work as an illustrator for children's television because of my drawing ability. Then I got involved in advertising and turned out to be very good at it. I got totally into it and became what I thought was an ad-man, although friends could tell I was only a ‘visitor’.

How did your art career emerge?

In those days, fine art was ‘good’ and commercial art was ‘bad’. Undermining that fine art attitude became my thing. I did everything you weren't supposed to do, like printing t-shirts for my openings. I quite deliberately undermined the professional art practice of the day by exploiting my ad-man approach. And of course all my advertising contacts came to my openings and had lots of money to spend on my art!

What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

I unconsciously set out to make a statement about New Zealand with my art. At one point I was going to move to the US, but a friend in New York said, “Go home. An artist's job is to define the culture they live in.” So I came home determined to do that and started painting all those banal things we take for granted. My greatest satisfaction is that I’ve helped shape our culture and made an impact on how people think about being a New Zealander. People come back from a driving holiday and say, “Oh I saw a really nice Frizzell just out of Taranaki”. You can't ask for better feedback than that.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

You have to work at it. You have to do a lot of research and study history deeply in order to understand the language of being an artist. You've got to go to all the openings and find out where you fit in the scene. You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed, and you have to be prepared for disappointment, because you can't please everyone.

What's the advantage of a getting a university degree in Fine Arts?

For young people, it opens you up to the huge infrastructure which exists in the arts. You don't even have to be an artist. You could go into the gallery business and become a curator. You could become a critic or a writer. There are all sorts of avenues you can pursue. But it's the experience of going through art school that's the amazing thing. I have older friends who talk about getting their BFA. They ask me, “Should I do it”? And I say, “Yes! In five or six years time you won’t know yourself”! A degree is such a valuable thing because it puts you in that hothouse situation.