Artist Bob Kerr and the secret origin of Terry Teo | Two Sketches with Toby Morris

Artist Bob Kerr and the secret origin of Terry Teo | Two Sketches with Toby Morris

– I think the best stories are sometimes sitting right in front of us. You know, you’re looking elsewhere. The stories, the real stories
are often just out the window. – Yeah.
(upbeat music) Wow, thanks for having
us in your studio today. I have to admit, I’ve
got a bit of studio envy. I think this is a beautiful space. – I think it’s the best studio
in Wellington, and it’s mine. – (laughs) How are you
feeling, have you worked out what you’re gonna draw yet? – I’ve got a few thoughts,
Toby, I’ve been looking at you. And I thought, you know,
because I’m big on life drawing. – Okay.
– And I think, maybe I could draw Toby, and
that would be terribly meta. – Okay, that sounds cool. – You might not agree with
it when you see the drawing, but, you know.
(Toby laughs) – No, that sounds, it’s a great idea. I was thinking that I might, this feels slightly
cheeky in your company, but I was thinking that I
might try and draw my version of Terry Teo.
– I’d be honoured. – It’s a character that’s very
near and dear to my heart. – I’m glad I’m not drawing
Terry, because I had a go recently, you know, when it was reprinted. And I’d forgotten how to draw the boy. – [Toby] Right, okay. – I just couldn’t, wouldn’t work. – You’ve moved on past that time. That’s interesting. – Frightening actually.
(Toby laughs) (gentle music) – So, Bob, lots of people
my age probably know you as a children’s book
writer and illustrator. Terry Teo series, “After the War,” but these days you’re also sort of living in a more fine art kind of
world as a landscape painter. – Yes. – How do you introduce yourself when you introduce yourself to someone? – Yeah, yes, what do you write on the, you know, occupation? I usually just put artist. Or artist, writer, illustrator sometimes. – [Toby] Right, yeah. If it was just one thing,
though, artist would be there? – Artist would do.
– Yeah. – Covers a multitude of sins, doesn’t it? (Toby laughs) – Have you always been an artist? Were you a drawer as a kid? – I always drew, and I mean, my earliest memories are of drawing. I was hopeless at anything else, you know. Maths, hopeless. Maths, science, even writing. I used to get the letters tangled up, so I thought I wasn’t good at writing. And my parents used to say,
“Oh, he’s good at drawing.” And they’d show my
drawings to people who came or visitors who came on Sunday afternoon and sat in the front room and they’d say, “Look at young Bobby’s drawings.” And so I felt rewarded for it. My son asked me the other
day, “Why do you draw, Dad?” And I said, “I’m just still
trying to get approval “from my parents.” It’s a tragic mess in here. – (laughs) It’s a common thing. I feel a bit of that. Something that, yeah, that praise that you get as a kid
is pretty influential, and, I think, it makes a big difference. Were there certain things
you liked to draw as a kid? – It was fairly banal, probably. My parents were Scottish and English, came here after the war,
to quote a book title, and they had calendars
of Scotland on the wall. Those were what I thought pictures were. So I copied them.
– Right. – I could do a good sailing ship. – Yeah.
– You know, pirates. And I wasn’t drawing
what was out the window. It’s like the Christmas cards
at Christmas time, you know. It was snow and holly and
not pohutukawas blooming. It was a sort of schizophrenic
view of where I lived. It took me a while to look
out the window, you know. – Right, and was there a point that you did shift to sort
of looking out the window and drawing New Zealand?
– It was pretty late for me. I remember when our family
shifted from Wellington here to Tokoroa, ’cause my dad
got a job in the paper mill, we’d never been north of Raumati South. This was an adventure, and I saw a whole lot of new things, and I can still play
that movie of the drive in the Austin 10 in my mind, you know. The driving out of Taihape and seeing Mount Ruapehu
with the snow, astonishing. Driving through the pine trees
as you came into Tokoroa. So I drew lots of drawings of
my memories of that journey and sent them back to
my nana in Wellington. That was a way of processing
the big change in our family. That’s my first memory of
looking at the land I lived in. – So were you always viewing that you would have art as a career? When was it, when did it become sort of a career option for you? – (laughs) Again, pretty late in the day. Tokoroa was a wealthy town in the ’60s. – Yeah, like a logging town, right? – Yeah, people earned
huge money at the mill. And you left school as soon as you could, and you went to work in the mill, and you had a brown manila
envelope of money every week, and you spent it in the pub. Fortunately in my seventh form year, whatever year that is now,
a young art teacher arrived, Mike Ward, he was later a Green MP. And he said, “We gotta
get you into art school.” And I said, “What’s that?” (laughs) And he told me about fine arts
prelim, which was the exam. You had to do a portfolio,
and I passed by 153. You had to get over 150.
– Okay. Scraped in.
– I scraped in by three points.
– Okay, yeah. And was that for Elam?
– Elam, yeah. – That’s the Auckland art school? – Yes.
– Yeah. – And it was my ticket out of town. – And what was Elam like
when you arrived there? What’s the scene? – It was lively. There were these people who couldn’t get jobs in art schools now, because they’re completely unqualified, like Colin McCahon, Gretchen Albrecht. – Oh, they’ll never amount
to anything, those guys? – Because they’re not,
they haven’t got a bit of, they haven’t got a degree bigger than the degree they’re teaching. – And were you doing landscape
paintings at that stage? I was doing whatever Colin said. He famously put three
boiled eggs in a saucer. – Okay.
– And I mean, and got you to look at
where the light fell on. This is really an egg, folks, and where the shadow was cast. And I was really, I thought,
“Oh, I’ve come to art school “to draw eggs.”
– Draw boiled eggs. – “For Christ sake,” I said. And I was young and
stupid and I told him so. And he looked genuinely hurt.
– Okay. – But then he said, “I want
35 paintings of these eggs,” to everyone in the class, “by
the end of the week, please.” I think I got through 15. I discovered everything I needed to know. Some of my eggs floated
out of the saucers. Some of them sat in there
like collapsing sponges. The saucer didn’t sit on the table. The shadow, you know. – The lesson was–
– It was an astonishing lesson.
(gentle music) – So Terry Teo, for people my age is a really iconic character as obviously you made three books, and since then there’s been
two different TV series, the ’80s one and the recent one. Tell me the story of how
Terry Teo came about. – I was really lucky in that I was working with Stephen Ballantyne on Craccum. He was the editor, and I
was the technical editor. And at the end of the year, you sort of think, “Oh, what next?” And I can remember standing
in the Craccum office, and I sort of said
almost randomly to Steve, “We should do a comic book, Steve,” without thinking about it. We were both Tintin fans. And Steve said, “Yeah, sorta like Tintin, “but in the South Pacific.” And I said, “Yeah.” And that was the end of
the planning meeting. I said, “Oh, look, I’ll
draw the first page.” And so I did, but then Steve said, “Oh yeah, well, why don’t we
have Terry getting kidnapped? “That’ll be good.” We didn’t know how Terry was going to, we didn’t have no plan. Accidentally, we turned out to
be a really good combination. And I look back now, and I
think, “Crikey, I was lucky.” And so I started drawing. The drawing was wooden to start with. I look back with
embarrassment at some of it. And we just ploughed on. I did show it to the
editor at Collins and said, David Allworthy, and he said how about, we got up to the bit
where Terry was kidnapped. I said, “Do you wanna
find out what happens? “You’ll have to publish it.” And he said, “Oh, oh okay.” And a year later I rang
him up again and said, “Look, we’re finished. “Do you remember that conversation about” (laughs) “publishing?” – No contracts or–
– No, no, no. – It was just a sort
of a handshake, kinda? – Yeah, not even a handshake. It was sorta like, well yeah. And we delivered it. It was published. Logan Brewer knocked on the door, something like a bit later and said, “Can we make a television series of it?” We were so naive. I just assumed this is what happened. “Oh yeah, okay.” But anyways, it was great. It was a great ride. It was a good way to start a career. – And the idea from the
early stage was for it to be very deliberately Kiwi?
– Yes. – For me as a kid, I loved that it was. I felt like, there weren’t too many things that I came across that were
really sorta Kiwi like that. We had, I think of The Front Lawn, – Yes.
– albums and things like that. But, I remember reading
this, and the humour, and the landscape, and the characters. Everything’s very very Kiwi, isn’t it? – And that’s what we just wanted to do. We wanted to do that. We’d look at Tintin as our guide, but it had to be set in
the Raglan Motor Camp. – Raglan Motor Camp was the inspiration? I was wondering what the real place was. – I can literally remember being at the Raglan Motor Camp
sometime when I was a long-haired git with hair down to here. Seeing someone get out a mower and mow the lawn in front of the caravan, and I thought, “Oh, what
a culturally rich country “we lived in.” (both laugh) – That’s amazing. Well, that’s very, very Kiwi. – And we just wanted to do that. – In all of the Terry
books, there’s a page where there’s a landscape. There’s sorta of an
aerial view of a landscape that almost acts as a map for the events that are about to proceed. Sort of a full page, or a
three-quarter page drawing that sort of, where all the events of the story are going to take place. – Yes. I call ’em illustrations
you can journey through. And I love if you’re looking in a library and you see a kid following
it with their finger, that’s quite thrilling to me. You know that they– – It’s a world that you’re really being sucked into.
– Kids need a map, I reckon. So you can provide that illustrative map. And I love maps. A place doesn’t exist if you haven’t got a Lands
and Survey map of it. – Yeah, you have a map fan?
– Oh, I’m a map nut. – Yeah, where did that come from? Is that sort of a childhood
thing do you think, or? – Well, it’s interesting, I think. I grew up until I was ten,
quite high up on Mount Victoria. Just over there. And we could look down on
the suburb of Haitaitai, Kilbirnie, and we could
see the airport over there. You could the tanker
wharf there in Evans Bay. You could see tankers coming,
sailing down and unloading. You’d see Bristol Freighters
taking off from the airport into island sutherlies. You could see the
Tararuas with snow on them up the other end of the harbour. – Yeah, you’re really in a sort of position.
– I had a high view point. – Yeah.
– Maybe it’s ’cause I’m six foot six tall, as well. I don’t mean to say I look down on people. I think that may be where it came from. – Yeah and then after the war, it has that same sort of
a similar angle again, where you’re seeing the landscape. And that book, I thought, seems to sum up lots of your interests. In that it’s about the place,
but it’s also about history. The land and history really come together. – Yeah, land and history and story. (calm music) – So I’m looking at those brushes there. You’ve got a range. You’ve got that huge one there. – Yeah.
It seems enormous to me. But is that for getting the sort of broader background textures? And then your smaller
ones for the details? Is that right? – Yes, I mean this is, I mean, you can look
at that tip, you know? It’s pretty, it’s actually
a better tip than that. So invariably, if I end up, and it’s the same with oil painting, if I’m ending up with a
tiny brush going like this, it often means the painting’s a failure. If I’ve got a big brush that’s this wide, and I’m going swoosh swoosh
swoosh on the oil painting, and you pull back in time, you don’t make that
final mark to improve it and wreck the whole thing. It’s knowing when to stop. – I’m admiring all this stuff
on the wall behind you there. These reference photos. Is that the kind of the research process for the current thing you’re working on? – And it’s that dilemma
of working off reference. Google Images is really helpful, and it directs drawing. Because, look, here I’ve
got a little light table, and I, sometimes with
a historical drawing, I mean, here it was Malta. You want things to look
accurate, historically accurate. So you’re using reference, but you don’t wanna be a
slave to that reference. – And there’s something too
about the spirit of it too. Sometimes it’s not the literal
way that a street looks. And the way that a street feels can be two completely different things.
– That’s right. – And this book, this is obviously another
historical project, is it? Do you wanna tell me a
bit about what it’s about? Are you allowed to say? Is it top secret?
– No no no no no. My approach is to shoot
my mouth off to everyone. And then I feel I’m obliged to do it. Actually, it’s right here, my dad’s photograph album of his war. In the 30s and 40s, he went to sea. – [Toby] That’s amazing you
still have those photos. – And he wouldn’t talk about
anything that happened to him during the war. But he was really good
at keeping his album. There he is, look. That’s my dad. – Amazing. That’s incredible. – And anyway, I realised
I had all this material. And we’re all trying
to process our parents, who have stuffed us up. It was a bit of story–
– So, is it a biography of him, this book?
– Sorry, say again. – Is it a biography of your dad, the book? Or is it based on his–
– No, it’s a ripping adventure. – Okay. ‘Cause his convoy duty
was a terrifying adventure that he never talked about. There’s also a modern strand to it of two grandchildren going on
a similar journey in a kayak. – [Toby] Okay. – And they’re going to
meet their grandfather. – My grandfather, my dad’s dad was in the war as well and also was one of that
same generation, I guess, of guys that came back and never really talked about it too much. He was a Lancaster pilot. – Ooo err. – And yeah, had some horrible experiences. – Geez.
– Got shot down twice and managed to scrape through both times. But yeah, for me, that’s a story that’s always been sitting there. I was thinking that I’d love
to tell that story somehow. So I’m interested to know if that’s, do you feel like that’s
something that’s sort of a duty to pass that story on? Or is that it’s just a
story that’s personal to you that you wanna share? Or where does that impulse, or trying to understand? – I’d like to give a whole lot of highfalutin motives to it, but actually, I’m just, (laughs) it’s a very deep-seated thing I have to, I have to get it out of the way and move on.
– Yeah, yeah. Like it’s a processing thing.
– It’s a processing thing. – Yeah, yeah. – He never talked about it. I’m making him talk about it. He’s a bit dead at the moment
and has been for many years. So, I’m almost inventing
a narrative for him. I’m asking the questions with this that I didn’t ask him in real life. I might be making bits of it up. Although, I’ve been able
to find some really good, there was actually a good
description of the convoy, the one serious convoy he was on. And I have actually found
some film footage of it, of the ship he was on being bombed. – Wow. – It was in the Imperial War Museum. I think the best stories are sometimes sitting right in front of us. This was sitting in a suitcase on top of the wardrobe for years. You were looking elsewhere. The stories, the real stories
are often just out the window. (calm music) – Moving into talking about your painting. It’s predominately landscapes, and are they real places
that you remember? Are they places that you’re imagining? Are they? – Well, I mean, one example. Hazel and I were biking through Kurow. We saw the sign on a
little museum that said “the birthplace of New Zealand’s
Social Security System.” And I went, “What? In Kurow?” And there’s a whole story about that. There were three chaps, the locals called ’em the three wise men. They designed a free health
service for the workers. It’s a really interesting story. So I’ve done a bunch of
paintings about this. Because it was anchored in a place. – Living in that sort of fine art world and in the kid’s books and the more so commercial art stuff, is there a sort of a contrast between those two environments? I mean, people, it’s almost like two different languages to speak or something. I was just a–
– Yes, yes. You know, you’re gonna get me into trouble with the fine arts people here. They can be a bit snooty,
you know. (laughs) All right, what I really like about the children’s book
world is that it’s collegial. You know? We’re all very supportive of one another. And I think that goes back to people like Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley and that– – I remember going, I went to the kid’s book awards
a couple of years ago, and I remember coming away thinking, “I’ve been to advertising industry awards “or media industry awards, “and the kid’s book awards,
I just had the nicest night.” I felt like everybody, I
wanted to give them a hug. Everyone was really sweet and just really, it was a lot of warmth in the room. – Yes, that’s right. – Does it come from a
similar place for you? Sort of the fine art
versus the commercial art? Are they different thought processes to work on those things? – No, I think it’s all drawing. It’s all just drawing for me. It’s looking at things, you know? And trying to get them down on paper. I used to carry a
sketchbook whenever I flew, ’cause I loved looking down
on the landscape, you know? But occasionally to sharpen a pencil. So I’d whip out, and this is not the thing to carry. – You can’t do that anymore, no. – No, bad. (Toby laughs) I got into trouble. (laughs) You know, don’t do it. (calm music) – You ready to see these pictures? – No, I don’t know if
I could do that to you. (both laugh) – Here’s Terry.
– Oh, look at that. – Oh, that’s great.
– This is you. – That’s beautiful. (laughs) Here I go.
– Oh he’s great, using a board. – There he is.
– Excellent. – Do you feel like that
when you see Terry Teo, you feel like he’s a– – Oh, I love how I cycle home past the Waitangi skate park. And I’ll just watch those young women on the men on their skateboards, and I think, “That’s
ballet, they’re balletic. “They’re astonishing.” – Hey, one question I
had that occurred to me just as I was drawing this. The question is sort of
ambiguous in the books. Terry’s ethnicity, right? Is he Maori in the
books, or in the TV show, as they had sort of Maori
actors play him, right? – I mean, his dad’s clearly English. His name’s Terry Teo. Polynesian kids would
rush up to me at school, and say, “Thanks for
making him Polynesian.” Māori kids would say, “Thanks
for making him Māori.” Japanese kids would say, “Hey,
Teo, good Japanese name.” Steve and I are still trying to work out his exact ethnicity. We’ll keep you posted on that one. – He’s a general, he’s a Kiwi. – He’s somewhere south of the Equator. – Yeah.
– And we wanted him, he’s South Auckland. He’s South Auckland. – Yeah, yeah, that’s right. Well, thank you so much
for chatting today. That was an absolute pleasure. That was really, really cool to talk– – It’s been fun. And cool to draw together.
– Yeah, great. – [Toby] Thank you very much. (calm music) (upbeat music) (logo whooshes)

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2 Replies to “Artist Bob Kerr and the secret origin of Terry Teo | Two Sketches with Toby Morris”

  1. Extremely good, I enjoyed it a lot!, See this New Album 'Monish Jasbird – Death Blow', channel link , if you like to 🙂

  2. What a wonderful interview and hats off to Toby for your appropriate questions and your sensitivity. Bob Kerr is so gifted, also humble I thought. Lots of fun, this interview, really enjoyed it

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