Palmerston North painter Vonnie Sterritt’s endless fascination with New Zealand artistic settings, is matched by her love of helping other artists develop their talents.
From Clyde in Central Otago to the lower North Island, Vonnie has spent a lifetime contemplating landscapes, many of which she has translated onto canvas and watercolour paper.
In recent years, Vonnie has been both a painter and an art exhibition organiser. She’s helped administer a series of Manawatū Art Expos – a showcase for artists from around the country – as well as displaying her own works at the cultural centrepiece.
“I’m a member of the Feilding District Arts Society Art Expo committee, bringing this amazingly successful annual exhibition every year to the Manawatū.
“It’s a huge cultural event for our city.”
Vonnie is very happy to live in a Ryman Healthcare village, and her family has strong links to the retirement village operator. Her sister Heather Barnett works in the Christchurch Ryman office, and her father Bill, a World War II veteran, lived in Rangiora-based Charles Upham Retirement Village until he passed away.
Vonnie, aged 70, was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and moved into Julia Wallace Retirement Village in June. She found the village spaces very accommodating, allowing her to continue as an artist.
She says she has encouraged others not to underestimate themselves in terms of talent.
In 2022, as a guest artist, she performed demonstrations and displayed her work at the entrance to the expo. Developing her own style was partly enabled by her upbringing, she says.
Art was in her blood from the beginning it seems.
Vonnie remembers her father Bill, a traffic officer for Central Otago and the West Coast, photographed in black and white landscapes in the regions. Then her mother would hand colour, in oil, the printed exposures. The resulting works would be exhibited in the South Island, including in Christchurch photography salons.
Vonnie’s earliest recollection of possible artistic talent was when she entered and won commendation for her work portraying a stag in a New Zealand health stamp design competition when she was nine.
Living in Clyde enabled an idyllic early childhood, with Vonnie and her sisters, Heather and Kathleen, having memories of skating on the Manorburn dam after school.
“There were no safety barriers in those days, and we also skated on the Clyde Reservoir, which was up above the town,” Vonnie says.
“There were hoar frosts and eating cherries till we were sick and apricots till we were even sicker.”
The family moved to Christchurch, and she attended the Ilam School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury, and was the beneficiary of an amazing set of tutors including Bill Sutton, Rudolph Gopas, and Doris Lusk.
She then taught Secondary School and was Head of Art at Awatapu College and later was seconded to Massey University working as art advisor for the Central Region. She assessed students’ portfolios and assisted other art teachers in understanding the then art curriculum. This was a travelling role taking in a region from Wairoa to Waitara.
For many years she taught from her studio ‘The Art studio’, near central Palmerston North, enabling her to paint and share her technique and ideas with emerging artists.
In terms of style, she is a ‘regionalist’, being parochial about what she paints within the Manawatū and outside.
“I paint this region, locale and all the surrounds, with a certain style and a commitment,” Vonnie says.
She’s spent time living overseas in Canada, and has exhibited internationally. Her children, Ellen, now living in Norway, and Matt, living in Christchurch, are pleased she and her dog Rosie are settled in with Ryman.
Vonnie says she uses the atrium at Julia Wallace village to paint and converse about technique interested others. The village community has been so welcoming and accommodating.
“They had no idea what a messy painter I was,” she jokes.
While Parkinson’s was part of her decision to move, it has not defined her nor inhibited her work, Vonnie says.
“The Parkinson’s is in my right side and I’m left-handed. If there is anything fortuitous in this disease I think I’ve managed to avoid the worst... I do notice when I’m painting the tremor is much less in my right-hand side… an excellent reason never to give up!”
“If you’re going to have to move into a situation like Ryman and Julia Wallace, the ideal would be to do it sooner rather than later. I have no regrets!”