RAMBLINGS : The art of Jim Dornan




A map of the heart
The work of "outsider artist" Jim Dornan is now shown at some of New Zealand's top galleries -  but these extraordinary paintings and the story of the man who created them, then died in obscurity more than 20 years ago, were almost lost forever.

Two decades ago, an eccentric, enigmatic man died alone in a silver-painted house in Wairoa, a small town on the North Island's east coast, leaving little more than a series of bizarre drawings and paintings.

Jim Dornan would have been long forgotten, but for a man who befriended him, rescued his paintings and immersed himself in the artist's life.

Instead of disappearing without trace, Jim's work has been shown at The Dowse, one of New Zealand's most prestigious modern art galleries, and around the country.

The man who rescued Jim's paintings was Chris Wilson, who can be found most days in his workshop on Wairoa's Marine Parade, surrounded by sawdust and noise, turning out hand-crafted furniture.

Chris was a child when he first met Jim, who was then labouring and gardening around Wairoa. His mother would invite Jim in for morning tea when he mowed the tennis club lawns next door.
"We children adored him really, he was a lovely old man,'' Chris says.
"He also used to paint the great big pantomime backdrops for the theatre, so he was quite an impressive character to me.''

But then Jim's life fell apart, and in the early 1960s he was admitted to Auckland's Kingseat Mental Hospital as a voluntary patient.

When he returned to his faux log-cabin home on Lahore Street seven years later, he brought with him a collection of drawings that became the basis of an extraordinary series of paintings.

Many of his 40-odd drawings depict the human brain, often with wires, meters and dials attached. Each drawing carries a text, which is in turns cryptic, playful, droll, poetic and dark.

Over the next few years, Jim turned his ideas into a series of large, flipchart-like paintings on pieces of calico cloth, rolled onto wooden rods to make them portable.

The paintings are filled with anatomical metaphors - brains, body parts and intestines abound - and some refer to the district, or to local personalities such as the mayor. The bottom third is devoted to a cryptic text.

"They're quite bizarre, so unusual I think he has national importance. People like that who haven't climbed up the art world ladder are rare,'' Chris says.

Much later, as part of his attempts to piece together Jim's life, Chris tracked down a few nurses who remembered him from Kingseat.

They said Jim felt he should not have been in hospital, but found a niche for himself as a sort of patient advocate, standing up for other patients if he thought they were being treated incorrectly.

He became fascinated with mental illness, and documented what he heard and saw in his art. Some drawings question the treatments used at Kingseat; others record small kindnesses from hospital staff.

Jim coined the name "Get Well Research'' for his project, and travelled the country with his paintings - but instead of visiting art galleries, he took his paintings to psychiatrists and used them to explain his ideas about mental illness and its treatment.

By that time Chris was a teenager with an interest in art, and got to know Jim better. He describes Jim as an affable character, always cheerful and concerned about other people, despite living alone with no family and few ties.
"I think he found a kind of family in his acquaintances, but he disliked being patronised and wouldn't accept hospitality other than a cup of tea.''

Although many townspeople found him odd and some treated him with suspicion, his last years seemed genuinely happy, Chris says.
"He was always laughing, always had a bit of a chuckle in his conversation ... he felt a real purpose in life.''

When Jim died in 1981, about 15 years after returning to Wairoa, the Public Trust took the few possessions that had commercial value. The rest was left in his house, which was painted in stylised logs like one of his pantomime sets, or went onto a bonfire.
"Then I heard kids were getting into his house, so I climbed through a window and rescued his paintings,'' Chris says.

Over the next 20 years Chris showed the paintings to anyone he could with contacts in the art world. Many were enthusiastic, but nothing came of it - until he saw an advertisement last year from a Massey University researcher looking for examples of "outsider art''.

That contact led, via a radio arts programme, to an exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.
"My intention was always to show the paintings to the wider public, but it was a question of how,'' Chris says.

Dowse director Tim Walker says the exhibition, called Get Well Research - The Extraordinary Images of Jim Dornan, comprises 15 of his 35 paintings, plus 18 drawings, photographs and commentary.
"We're very excited by the show - as soon as I saw the paintings I knew people would stand up and take notice, even internationally.''

Outsider art like Jim's, from prisons, hospitals and the margins of the art world, has an energy and honesty rarely found in the formal art world, Tim says.

But works like his rarely survive. Often they are destroyed or censored by the artists or their families, embarrassed by their strangeness or the theme of illness.
"It feels like the work of a foreign correspondent, not from someone in Sarajevo, but from inside a mental hospital,'' he says.

Jim is buried in the Wairoa cemetery, where until recently he did not even have a gravestone.
His simple grave, which Chris had marked with a piece of wood bearing his name, was spotted by a reporter from The Wairoa Star who thought it was a pauper's grave.

A newspaper campaign raised money for a proper headstone, and a bronze plaque was cast with a quote from one of his works: "Listenin' to the tune of promises, goodbye and godbless you.''

Chris spent almost a year trying to track down old acquaintances, nurses and records, but most of Jim's life remains a blank.
Even the date and place of his birth are uncertain. Chris believes he was born in Ireland about 1913, and came out to New Zealand at the age of six.
"How could someone live a whole life and leave so little?'' he asks.

After looking after Jim's paintings for 21 years, Chris finds it gratifying to see his old friend - a man with no connections who would have disappeared but for his art - finally winning recognition.
"I was thoroughly inspired by him. He seemed to have a real reason for doing his art. He wasn't trying to be something he wasn't, or trying to gain a name in the art world. He did it to explain his life.''

Get Well Research - The Extraordinary Images of Jim Dornan ran at The Dowse, Lower Hutt, from November 2002 to January 2003. The paintings have also been shown in Auckland, Jim's home town of Wairoa, and Whanganui.
Chris Wilson is a painter and craftsman, best known for his one-off custom-made furniture. He won the top craft prize at the 1999 Hawke's Bay Review for a settee made from driftwood.
This story - first published in Hawke's Bay Today, November 2002 - was part of a portfolio that won New Zealand's Qantas Junior Newspaper Feature Writer 2002. 

Instead of trying to interest galleries in his paintings, Jim Dornan showed his art to psychiatrists

"It feels like the work of a foreign correspondent, not from someone in Sarajevo, but from inside a mental hospital'' - Tim Walker, Dowse Art Museum director 


Jim Dornan's drawings, most of which date from his years at Kingseat Hospital, express his ideas about mental illness and its treatment


Jim Dornan and one of his paintings outside his Wairoa home, circa 1975


Wairoa artist and furniture maker Chris Wilson was the guardian of Jim Dornan's paintings for 21 years

"Jim's paintings are a map of his heart, filled with a sense of wonder at his own life'' - Artist Chris Wilson


Jim Dornan had no gravestone until a fundraising campaign by The Wairoa Star newspaper


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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2011 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated January 2011