Stephen Bambury and John Bailey: Before Now

The Auckland Art scene in the seventies was a bustling time, with many artists grappling to find their own voices. While many new artists questioned what was authentic to them, a shift away from art with a purely national focus, was being seen. Stephen Bambury and John Bailey were at the heart of this shift, and upon meeting at The Kiwi Tavern, a pub frequented by artists and writers, the two saw similarities between their approach to art and became friends. 

“We used to go down to the American Embassy and pour through the library there,” says Titirangi based artist John. “We were influenced by what was happening overseas and this interested us more than the local scene.”

The two had a great relationship, which developed over many social events and what sounds like many drinks in the late 1970’s. Life happened, both artists continued with their art journeys, started families and gradually lost touch.

Stephen continued with art and won many awards along the way. His receiving of the inaugural New Zealand Moët et Chandon Fellowship in 1989 led to two and a half years living and working in France. Stephen now has a studio close to Paris and prior to the global pandemic spent half his time there. Stephen is well known for his use of organic materials and he exhibits frequently around the world.

As he shows me through his Saunders Place studio, a large air-filled warehouse, he tells me he makes everything himself, including some of his paints. Some parts of his studio look much like a metal workshop; albeit a very stylish one.

John’s works can be found in private and public collections throughout New Zealand as he exhibited frequently in the eighties. His last exhibition was in 1995 although he has never stopped making art. He ran a successful IT recruitment company for many years and his recent selling of his company has allowed space to shift his focus back to art. John’s home in Titirangi was designed by an architect on the fringe of ‘the Group’, a mid-century inspired group of architects who formed in the late 1940’s. The home, with a purpose-built art studio is where John spends his time creating his art which is conceptual by nature. More recently he has expanded his colour palette in a series of works on paper.

By chance, some thirty years after having lost touch, Stephen noticed one work permanently installed on the wall at Homestead Framers in Henderson each time he visited. The picture demanded his attention whenever he saw it so when he eventually asked who the work was by; he was excited to discover it was a recent work of John’s. Once again, the two were reconnected.

In 1980, both Stephen and John held individual shows at the Peter Webb Galleries. Both produced posters with a similar feel and when comparing the two today, the joining of both artists for the upcoming show, Before Now, seems a natural fit.

The idea for the exhibition came about during the many hours of catching up. While looking at each of their posters from 1980, both were struck by the correlation between the two.

Stephen said they quickly realised they should exhibit together, looking at the past, yet drawing inspiration from where they are now.

“Chances like this don’t come about coincidentally,” he says. “Our meeting again seems very serendipitous.”

So, what will the show look like? Both past works featured on each poster will be on display – this much they know. How it will look is still in development and will achieve its form during the installation of the works selected to show.

“We have no obligations to anyone else,” says Stephen. “We can stand outside of other restraints which is exciting and provides freedom to the project. It would never occur outside of this situation of independence.”

By not showing at a gallery and having an exhibition directly in Stephen’s studio, the show is entirely in the two artists hands. John will be selecting a group of works and then Stephen will be responsive in what he decides to exhibit. The two also tell me they will be working on a collaborative piece on a wall at the exhibition and this will likely be ethereal, developing as the exhibition progresses.

Having an art exhibition at a studio is not often seen. For Stephen, doing so makes him feel slightly vulnerable as he opens his personal space, but he says it is good to feel out of your comfort zone at times. Both artists feel the exhibition is deeply personal and the gathering up of past histories and putting them on record is important.

When Stephen moved to his Rosebank based studio four years ago, he joined the RBA immediately.

“There is so much going on in this area and it just fascinates me. I draw inspiration from all I see going on outside my window. I have huge respect for the enormous range of skilled people working in Rosebank. Here I feel an art worker and not some oddity.”

Both are looking forward to the local community coming to the exhibition and extend an open invitation to all.

“This is a great chance for people close by to walk in and see some art in their community,” says Stephen who will be on site with John for the duration of the exhibition.

The show runs from 25 February – 13 March with public viewings happening between Thursday and Saturday each week from 11 am – 5pm at Bambury Studio, 24A Saunders Place, Avondale. All are welcome.