When Queen Elizabeth II visited New Zealand as part of her royal tour in 1976, the New Zealand government presented her with a large pen-and-ink drawing by the country’s foremost landscape artist, Rei Hamon. The high compliment his country thus paid to Rei Hamon is of particular significance to Latter-day Saints, for Rei Hamon, the oldest of fourteen children and the father of fourteen more, is one of them, a lifelong member of the Church. His drawing of a New Zealand landscape, Jewels of Okarito, now hangs in the queen’s palace in England. Seldom has a Latter-day Saint artist received such recognition from his native land.
The son of a white mother and a part-Maori father, Rei grew up in Gisborne, on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Though his family was poor, they were hard working. As a young boy Rei helped his parents gradually enlarge their small dairy farm by clearing portions of the thick native forest and bush that ringed their home. Each morning and evening his father and mother gathered and knelt with their large family on the carefully swept dirt floor of their home for family prayer. The sounds of the kiwi, the weka, and the rustle of the leaves in the huge native trees lulled him to sleep each night.1
As a young man he went into the Urewera area to split posts in the bush for sheep stations. Working with many full-blooded Maoris he learned the ways of the forest. He grew to love the native flora and fauna and the land itself. After years in the bush he knew the shape and color of each leaf. Even the insects received his careful scrutiny.
But Rei was no nature-loving recluse. He loved his fellowmen as well. Shortly after his marriage a close relative died. Rei and his new bride accepted the responsibility of becoming the parents of the orphans. Some years later his wife caught typhoid and died while nursing a sick child after a disastrous flood.
Eventually Rei remarried; his new wife was a shy, beautiful young Maori widow. She became a warm and loving mother to her instant family of ten children. Together, she and Rei had four more children, in addition to foster children. To date, the Hamons have been parents to thirty-one children, many of them orphans.
For over forty years Rei lived and worked in the bush. Then a serious back injury ended his days of heavy physical labor, bringing him face to face with financial ruin and a depressing life of inactivity. One morning after the children had gone to school, he and his wife knelt in their bedroom and prayed for a solution to their predicament. As they rose from their knees Rei noticed that their six-year-old daughter had left for school without taking her ballpoint pen and drawing pad. He picked it up and began to draw, something he hadn’t done since his early days in primary school. It was an inspired beginning.
With much practice he developed a unique and unorthodox style—which combined the meticulous attention to detail of Van Eyck with the technique of such French pointillists as Seurat—arrived at completely on his own. He used few strokes in his drawings; the vast majority of each piece was made up of tiny dots formed from tapping his pen on the paper or parchment.2
Feeling embarrassed with his first drawings, Rei hid them. But his wife found them and took them to a local photographer to be photographed. The photographer was impressed with their quality and took them to the director of a leading art gallery in Auckland, who immediately wanted to stage a show of Rei’s work. He also introduced the artist to mapping pens with very fine points. This enabled Rei to develop the control to do the superb detail in his works for which he has become famous. His new career was launched. Since that time he has exhibited his work in nearly every major town and city of New Zealand. Recently he returned from a twelve-thousand-mile tour of the country, exhibiting his work and lecturing about the native New Zealand environment for which he has become a major spokesman. Rei is now nearing his hundredth exhibition in nearly thirteen years. Recently he received an invitation to tour Russia, lecturing about conservation and exhibiting his art.
The drawing that was presented to the queen represents a union of Rei’s art with his attitudes toward nature and conservation. The forest and mountains that surround the Lagoon of Okarito, depicted in the drawing, are the last nesting place of the kotuku, or white heron. The kotuku is sacred to the Maoris; and the Maoris showed their high regard for Queen Elizabeth several years ago by giving her the name “Te Kotuku Rerengatahi” (“The Rare White Heron of Single Flight”). The large trees in the drawing—the matai, the totara, the kahikatea, and the kauri—are representative of the magnificent podacarp forests that surround the Lagoon. The limb upon which the birds rest portrays the hand of man—the hand that holds the destiny of these birds, bringing either survival or destruction. The upraised limb symbolizes the raising of the right hand in a sustaining action for those who are working to preserve the New Zealand heritage. Nestled in the “palm” are four small flowers, symbolizing the most precious blessing of all—children—who should be loved and protected by their parents. It is a plea for protection of the environment as one would protect one’s own family.3 Much of Rei’s art contains this kind of message.
Rei Hamon draws only scenes of native flora and fauna of the bush. He does not portray New Zealand farms and towns, which have more in common with such scenes in other lands. Seeking out ancient gnarled trees, vines, and ferns, as well as leaves and insects, he expresses his love for the unique, natural heritage of New Zealand. Rei has also written and published poetry expressing his attitudes.
Rei paints directly from his vivid memory. Often he works late at night, in the solitude of his room, while his family sleeps. On one such occasion, he wrote, “My mind is taken into the mystic depths of the environment I love so deeply. … One’s mind, while in this high pitch of thought, unconsciously removes that thin veil which separates the conscious and the subconscious, enabling one’s creative and composing ability to rise above one’s own normal capabilities. … I am conscious of a greater power, another hand besides my own.”4
The results of such experiences have communicated well. One art critic tells how Rei’s art gives the viewer “a vision of the natural processes of growth and decay, of the majesty of living things, exemplified in the deep bush with all its richness and mystical quality that draws the New Zealanders so often and so irresistibly into its solemn depths. … The scenes he draws … become more vivid than the subject itself.”5
Another cautioned the viewer: “A superficial approach does it no justice at all. It must be studied at leisure, in depth. Only then will its beauty and significance be appreciated.”6
Although Rei is still poor by worldly standards, there is growing appreciation of his work in the art market. Recently one of his drawings sold for $20,000, a new world record for a pen-and-ink drawing by a living artist.
Many of Rei’s early drawings have been reproduced in a book entitled Rei Hamon, Artist of the New Zealand Bush, now in its second printing. This autobiography details the artist’s personal as well as artistic values. He writes of daily family prayer, of communication with teenagers, of the eternal nature of the family, of the importance of a weekly home evening, of hard work, and of the results of prayer. Rei clearly proclaims his values in this passage from the book:
“If I were asked to name the world’s greatest need, other than the necessary things to sustain life, I would unhesitatingly say, Godfearing mother love and exemplary fathers. Our homes are the spring of our future lives. If the spring is pure, we will have far less trouble in keeping the waters that flow out into the world from pollution. …
“As the years come and go, I experience an evergrowing wonderment at the Nature I love and an increase of my appreciation and love for my ever watchful wife and our fourteen children, … memories and principles that, in spiritual value, would make the crown jewels in comparison just a pinch of clay.”7
Written to a non-Latter-day Saint audience, the autobiography manages to communicate many of the most profound values of Rei’s LDS faith.
Such a fusion of talent and testimony does not go unnoticed. A New Zealand newspaper reporter summed up Rei’s character and art: “There are individuals who approach the idealised New Zealander, and Rei Hamon is one of them. … He [has] features I like to regard as distinctively and appealingly New Zealand. He is part-Maori … and has a Maori wife, Maia; he is warm, he has no affectations, he is family oriented; he loves the bush landscape in which he has lived and worked; he is gregarious but he is also resourceful on his own and draws strength from solitary communion with nature. … He is … a self-taught artist whose innocence and spontaneity give his drawings their strength. He has a vision that is his own and which he has worked enormously hard to realise in a technique that is his own.”8
Rei’s life and work stand as a superb example of a faithful Latter-day Saint artist. He has held almost every position in the Thames Branch, including branch president. Currently, he serves as branch missionary leader, and his wife serves as Relief Society president. While the world has paid homage to Rei, he has remained firmly family oriented. He communicates the gospel message through his art, his writing, his lecturing, and his life. He has managed to express his deep faith as well as his profound love for the traditions and environment of his native land.
“The art is the product of a great blessing and a wonderful partnership,” he writes. “The Lord is one [member of that partnership]. My lovely wife, our babies, and all my brethren are the others. I have been given the great blessing of guiding the pen. Take just one of those links in the partnership out then our art and its beauty would surely fail. I feel very humble and grateful to be one of that partnership.”9