Artistic Licence - Prue MacDougall

Posted by Fiona Cable on

Prue MacDougall in the latest NZ House & Garden

MacDougall’s close connectivity to nature comes from a life-long love of gardening. She acknowledges the beauty and visually arresting character of plants and trees, but also considers trees as both symbols and living organisms. Prue's exhibition Arbornauts opens 30 April at Railway Street Gallery.
Artistry, colour and sustainability help shape an Auckland garden

LEFT The palms in Prue MacDougall and Jim Costello’s Remuera garden were once a pot plant given to Prue when she was a bridesmaid; leafy Alpinia nutans, which has a strong cardamom scent, grows underneath; Prue thinks the tree at right grew from a seed dropped by a bird and has no idea what it is. 
RIGHT The hanging chair catches the breeze; the orange flowers above are actually artificial marigolds bought on a trip to India.

TOP ROW Prue’s staghorn fern collection started when the horticultural department at the school she was working at was throwing them away. She mounts epiphytes and air plants on driftwood and often gives them away as gifts. It’s taken a long time to collect these pots, which have just the right heights and dimensions to work well together. MIDDLE ROW A Mark Dimock sculpture of a female huia. The purple pot beside the poppies came from Morris & James in Matakana. The hoya that grows up the pole once belonged to Prue’s mother. BOTTOM ROW Citrus in pots with an Andrew de Boer piece behind. Sollas the Abyssinian cat. A bromeliad flower and staghorn fern.
Printmaker Prue MacDougall’s artistic eye is evident in every corner of the garden that wraps around her Remuera townhouse. “It’s like a collage of plants,” she says.
Even though space is tight, there’s something interesting slipped into every square centimetre, all linked by paths that encourage visitors to linger and take a closer look. “I wanted the front garden to feel like a bush walk,” says Prue, who filled it with lush green plants including bromeliads and nīkau, and slotted in sculptures that have an earthy, ethnic feel. Further on, a “path to nowhere” is inspired by similar secret corners often found in Japanese gardens.

The sunny deck at the back of the house is a favourite spot for Prue and partner Jim Costello to sit and catch a glimpse of the Hauraki Gulf and Rangitoto Island or gather for long Italianstyle lunches with friends and family. Plus it’s only a step or two from the kitchen, so it’s here Prue grows lemons, limes, lots of mint and other herbs, as well as lettuce and rocket – all popped in between non-edibles. “I try to make it look decorative as well as useful,” she says.

Prue bought the townhouse 25 years ago, drawn to its sunny northern aspect and sea view, as well as its proximity to Selwyn College, where she taught and became head of the art department. She’s never felt the urge to move, but a chance discussion at school led to a major renovation 15 years ago.

“At a parent-teachers meeting, one of the parents was a builder. I said I wanted to build a studio and he said, ‘I’ll only do it if Marshall Cook is the architect.’” Prue still laughs when she recalls her first contact with the highly regarded Auckland architect. “I rang him up and I think I only got put through because his wife was called Prue… he just said the right things. I thought, ‘I can see he knows what I’m talking about.’” As well as designing a studio for Prue, they’re happy he convinced them to do a more far-reaching renovation that updated the home’s 1970s feel.

Now Prue works happily in her glass-walled, topfloor studio and, appropriately for someone who’s a gardener, her art has taken a botanical turn. She’s working on a series of anthropomorphic trees. “I look at trees and see people in them,” she says. When she’s had enough of work she heads downstairs to snip and tidy, usually spending about half an hour every day in the garden.

How does being an artist help when it comes to garden design? “I’m very aware of colours,” Prue says. Orange and purple pop up everywhere in the outdoor entertaining area, inspired by the chair fabric on their Fermob outdoor dining set.
ABOVE Prue in her studio with her “baby”, a Conrad press, which she uses all the time for printmaking: “She’s really important to me. I’d rather have her than a diamond ring.”
ABOVE Many of the bromeliads were given to Prue by an aunt who was involved in a bromeliad society.
RIGHT A stepping stone path leads from the front gate to the side of the house; the white pot on the left is actually a glass-blower’s crucible and has remnants of glass in the bottom; Prue found it on holiday in Whanganui, and when it was delivered it was so heavy she couldn’t move it so she called a team of piano movers to position it: “They picked it up as if it was as light as a piece of Tupperware.”

Q&A with Prue

HELP IN THE GARDEN: Paula Drummond of Mint Gardens in Devonport comes a couple of times a year. The three of us work really hard for about three hours and it’s all done.
A SPECIAL PLANT: The hoya that was my mother’s and grows up the pergola. Jim didn’t think it would be any good there. Whenever we can’t agree we ask Paula – she’s our garden counsellor – and she said it would do well there.
MOST-USED GARDEN TOOLS: A butter knife for weeding. Secateurs and a pair of florist’s scissors for deadheading the flowers.
WATERING: We have an irrigation system in part of the garden and I hand-water all the pots every day or two. With Auckland’s history of droughts we’re thinking of getting a bladder under the deck to collect roof water.
I ENJOY PRINTMAKING BECAUSE: It has a mystery to it.
You’re not sure how the image is going to be when you push it through the press. [See Prue’s exhibition The Arbornauts at Railway St Studios and Gallery in Auckland’s Newmarket from 28 April to 17 May.

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