Paul Dibble

Listener – April 13, 2002

Behind Every Strong Woman

The hard graft of Manawatu sculptor Paul Dibble.

Bronze sculptor Paul Dibble is a big gentle man with hunched shoulders and a complexion like a stretch of unsealed country road. His large colonial Palmerston North home is chocker with New Zealand contemporary and folk art – “You haven’t got a nation unless you’ve got folk art” – while his huge foundry/workshop is sited in an industrial precinct across town. It’s not a business for loafers: “We’ve got to make about $4000 a week just to keep the doors open,” Dibble says. 

He physically towers above his partner and constant companion, Connecticut-born Fran Dibble, but she makes her presence felt. Fran is the author of Paul Dibble (Bateman), a handsome book covering three decades of his work. “She knows more about me than I know myself,” he says. The book is Fran’s labour of love. She co-ordinated with the publishers and designers, wrote the introduction and one of the essays, and organised those written by Jane Vial, Anna Petersen, Dorothea Pauli, Alexa Johnson and Gordon Brown. 

A chance was lost, though, to present Dibble in his own words. Like his art, he is articulate in the language of classicism and surrealism, as well as having a nice way with the Kiwi vernacular. 

“I can actually smell bullshit a mile away,” he says. “Getting other people to cast your work is very much an international approach. I knew years and years ago that was bloody crap. It didn’t fit this culture. If you were an art-school student and you left and got other people to make your work you might make one or two works and you probably wouldn’t make any more, because the cost of bronze casting would just bury you. It only works in a place like America where you can command enormous prices. It would be bloody suicide here. I knew if I was to survive as an artist I would have to do the hard graft.” 

Born in 1942, he was brought up on a marginal dairy farm on the Hauraki Plains. (He recalls these times in a in a series of lyrical, witty works, which started to appear 10 years ago.) There the early farmers dug pits out of the peat and built their houses in them, and the windows of the dwellings were often level with the ground: “They were incredibly utilitarian,” Dibble says. “There was no style, f–king crude. Underneath the peat were all these petrified stumps. And the idea was to lower the land down and dig out the stumps. As you got nearer to the clay base, several feet down, you come to good soil and you built your house on top of that.” 

His father, he says, was not the norm in this landscape: “My father had several trophies for speechmaking. He could tell a good yarn. Had great wit and insight. He used to write poetry too. He was a well-read man who came from a very good family and he disgraced himself when he was a young lad. And the family basically got rid of him because he was an embarrassment. They sent him off to an impossible bit of land. It was quite common to do this. If you were the black sheep of the family you were just got rid of. 

“So he went off to this place. God it must have been grim. There were a limited number of people he could marry. And he married my mother. My mother left school when she was about 11. They were a strange combination.” Fran elaborates: “She is savage.” “She is very formidable,” Dibble says. 

“I felt there was a great sadness about the man (his father). It was like a life sentence had been imposed on him. He was a great worker, but he couldn’t make the farm work. What they were doing was lowering the land. This was a super-human feat. He had to walk off it a couple of times to work for someone else to make enough money to come back. Took him all his life and finally his health packed up when he was about 70. The farm sold soon after. It’s now worth a great deal of money.” 

* * * 

Dibble went to Auckland’s Elam art school in 1962 to be taught by his second cousin Garth Tapper, Colin McCahon, Lois White and sculpture under Jim Allen. “I fled in terror from my bloody background when I was a teenager,” he says. “I thought, God no, this is not for me. This is like Stalinist bloody labour camp stuff. Christ it was an oppressive place. They just lived to work.” 

At Elam Dibble learnt the art of bronze-casting and in the mid 60s he worked with Colin McCahon on series of churches in the Auckland region. Dibble made the crucifixes, tabernacles and the candlestick holders. His first solo exhibition was at Barry Lett Gallery in 1971, the same year he married Patricia Burke. During this time he was exploring pop and conceptual art but his work, while informed by the European tradition, started to show signs of this part of the world. 

“There were a few of us who started to get off on New Zealand icons and identity,” Dibble says. “We were enthused by Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s anti-nuclear stand and New Zealand having an independent foreign policy. To see ourselves as a place in the South Pacific. Some refused to put their race as European on the census forms. They put Pacific Islanders. That was the feeling.” 

In 1976 Dibble took a job lecturing in painting and sculpture at Palmerston North Training College, primarily, as Jane Vial points out in the book, “because it allowed him to do his own research for two days each week. Besides, the flat Manawatu hinterland reminded him of the Hauraki Plains; and the Manawatu Art Gallery, then directed by Luit Bieringa, was renowned for its lively exhibitions of contemporary art.” 

As it was for his forebears, life has not been plain sailing for Dibble. His first wife developed a serious mental illness during the course of their marriage and took her own life, and for a while, Dibble battled alone to care for their two young children. Also, he and Fran, whom he married in 1985, lost their first child. It has taken a long time for Dibble to make serious money out of his art. “I was a sculptor for 20 years before I made a cent,” he says. “It cost me a bloody fortune actually. Ten years ago we made a $200 profit.” 

“Also the technical problems have gone away,” Fran adds. “It was very hard being a part-time bronze-caster in our backyard.” The last few years have seen the Dibbles secure a spate of public commissions and overseas sales. This is partly due to being picked up by high-profile Auckland art dealers Gow Langsford, though Dibble is still loyal to his long-time Wellington dealer Jenny Nelligan. 

“I would like to see sculpture every bloody where actually,” Dibble says. “We haven’t got many permanent landmarks that celebrate this place and its cultures. We need more than rugby grounds and TAB buildings. I think the stories of the nation are very important. And I find them quite inspirational. I see the irony and the humour and the poetry in situations.” 

To say Fran is the power behind the man is an understatement. As well being one of the main toilers at the foundry (the Dibbles employ two full-time workers), she is a painter and works part-time as a lecturer in biochemistry and molecular biology at Ucol. “I’m probably one of the main sand shovellers in the workshop,” she says. “What I do at the workshop isn’t artistic at all. I do all the admin. I do the wages and the GST. I do the welding. I do the shelling. It’s just like physical work really. But I do do the writing.”

“I’ve always admired strong women,” Dibble says. “The people who I grew up with, my mother, her aunts and sisters, were all very strong people. Strong physically and strong mentally. They weren’t demure housewives. That scar above my eye. That was done by my mother. She was stripped to the bloody waist, cutting thistles with a slasher. She swung the slasher back and I walked into it. They were physically strong and they worked with their men. They were out there servicing the animals, doing operations on the spot. They were tough women. 

“Fran would have fitted well into the colonial scene. Good worker. Fran has also learned to be a bloody good critic. She understands the work probably as much as I do. She knows when it is struggling and she knows when it is succeeding.” 

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