WW1 centenary art exhibitions come to a close

WW1 portraits

This week represents the conclusion of the touring of my two WW1 commemorative arts projects – Sand in the Apricot Jam and A Home Away from Home. Sand in the Apricot Jam has been touring nationally and internationally since 2014 and A Home Away from Home, created this year was exhibited to mark the conclusion of the centenary commemorations. Both the artworks and myself have had an incredibly journey since I decided to tackle these commemorative arts project – As it is the conclusion of the WW1 centenary commemorative period with the anniversary of the Armistice having recently been acknowledged, I thought it was a good time to reflect upon what it’s meant to myself and my arts practice to have created and toured these public interest arts projects.

I had decided to tackle these WW1 commemorative arts projects because my grandfather (John Culleton, known as Jack) had served with the NZ Mounted Rifles (NZMR) at Gallipoli and the Middle East during the First World War. My grandfather passed away when I was a teenager and as a child I had spent many a night and school holidays at my grandparents home (my poor grandfather enduring my dreadful piano playing as he was confined to a chair in the same room as the piano). I think because I knew him it had made it more accessible for me to tackle the project. Certainly not easier, as it was painful to imagine this man I loved as a young man in the middle of a dreadful conflict. It was hard to distance myself from this imagining but I do think that painting through the tears I shed for these young lives lost and damaged, my paintings were the stronger for it.

The historical research was important to these projects. I needed to understand what the conditions were like, what uniforms were like, what the state of the men were like, the campaigns they were involved in and their relationship to the horses they rode. There was no way I could completely understand what they had endured having never been in a conflict (thank goodness for that!). I could only ever come from a place of how I personally responded to what I learned and I can’t deny that this response was influenced by the fact I was a mother of sons, and a sister to brothers and I know that this impacted on how I painted what I did.

The men were skinny, malnourished a lot of the time & being in the desert (as the NZMR served in the Sinai & Palestine) they were tanned and often dirty & wore hats to shield themselves from the sun. The light conditions & colours needed to reflect their environs. I read official accounts and stories from the men themselves & it was the men’s stories that resonated the most with me. From this research I found avenues that would then influence what I chose to depict in the composite narratives of each work.

The journey for Sand in the Apricot Jam started in 2014 to mark the beginning of the centenary period of WW1 at Expressions Whirinaki in my home town of Upper Hutt, New Zealand. Since painting and showing Sand in the Apricot Jam there it has been exhibited at The National Army Museum, Waiouru, NZ; the Waikato Museum Hamilton, NZ; The Museum of Rishon LeZion, Israel; St Patricks College, Silverstream, NZ and finally concluding it’s exhibition journey in 2018 back at Expressions Whirinaki with the showing of one of the pieces there.

I never imagined, when I first conceived of the project, that these large scale narrative oil paintings would have such a journey. But what I did recognise quite early on, as I was painting way in such a public space as the gallery of Expressions Whirinaki, was that people connected with the narrative work. It seemed to activate an opportunity for sharing of stories and photos and memories for people whose family members had served, some who survived and others that had lost their lives. Not only those that served in the NZMR, but those that served in other regiments at Gallipoli and the Western Front. There were many who didn’t know that New Zealanders served on horseback in the Middle East Campaign, so I was able to share their story through the paintings. At each place the paintings were exhibited I met and talked with people about the NZMR and they shared their stories – it was the meeting of people and the exchange of stories and memories that has been the most rewarding aspect of this project.

I also never imagined that I would connect with the daughter of one of the soldiers who not only served with my grandfather but was a dear friend of his (his name was Alfred Victor Smith – Smithee to his mates) and that poems were written by Smithee about their time together. I am thankful and immensely grateful that because of the backing of all those that supported my crowd funding campaign that I was able to take Sand in the Apricot Jam to Rishon LeZion in Israel, a place that was special to the NZMRs. And that I was able to travel there too, during the ANZAC Battle of Beersheba commemorations, to see the work. I was also incredibly touched that The Right Honourable Dame Patsy Reddy, the Governor General of New Zealand chose to open the exhibition in Israel on my behalf. I was thrilled that audiences around New Zealand and those in Israel, including visitors from Australia & New Zealand saw and engaged with the work.

WW1 means so many things to many people. For me it was the incredible loss of young lives that was never far from my mind. The millions who died on the battlefields, hospitals, and ships, numbers far too great to get my head around. A generation lost and scarred by their experiences. Some critised me for painting about the war, but if they took time to look at the work they would see there was no glorification of the battle grounds. But their point of view I can respect.

In my second WW1 project on the NZ women who ran the Aotea Convalescent Home for NZ soldiers in Egypt, I wanted to celebrate kindness and compassion (something I fear isn’t extended enough today in a world where there is a lot of uncertainty and mistrust). A Home Away from Home celebrates the women who volunteered to care for our sick & injured soldiers and was exhibited at Aratoi museum and gallery, Masterton, NZ and WHMilbank Gallery, Whanganui, NZ during 2018 (the regions the women were from and these same communities that supported them and Aotea).

This group of 8 women recognised the importance of Kiwi women caring for Kiwi soldiers and set to to make this happen. I have a huge amount of respect for these women which is why I thought their story was worth telling. For this arts project as it was with Sand in the Apricot Jam it was connecting with people through the artwork that was so fulfilling. Just to think that through this I met with the relatives of these nurses who 100 years ago had cared for my grandfather when he was sick. It’s fair to say I considered that without this compassion would I be here today?

So now as I reflect on what the past 4 years with these projects has been like. I can openly admit that there has been tears shed for lives lost. I am of the belief that history should be remembered if only to save us making the same mistakes again and that through art these conversations can be had. I have witnessed the strength and togetherness that comes from shared stories and memories; and that communities, no matter what form they may take, are as important now as they were 100 years ago. I am proud I have been able to contribute to the New Zealand WW1 story and have done so in my own way. People have been asking me what next for me and my arts practice … perhaps it will be more Grimm’s Fairy Tales told in paint or perhaps something a little lighter, I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to finding out.


TV interview

Well yes it’s all been happening! As I posted earlier I’ve been involved in painting a mural on one of the new hotel rooms at QT Museum Hotel in Wellington. While in the creative throws we had a film crew from Seven Sharp visit and this aired on Seven Sharp on Friday 28th September.

Here is that interview on Facebook 

Your Art Our Rooms


Wow It’s been ages since the last post and this is why! I’ve been involved in this wonderful initiative at QT Museum Hotel Wellington. QT put out a call to artists to be involved in transforming their new suite of hotel rooms into works of art. Out of 260 artists who applied I along with 26 other artists were selected. 19 of us made our marks on the walls of the 24 individual suites while others were commissioned for pieces elsewhere in the hotel.

For this I’ve been painting a large scale work directly on the wall of the room based on the Grimm’s fairy tale ‘The Musicians of Bremen’. I’ve painted many of the Grimm’s tales before (see the Grimm’s Project) but this has been the largest by far. Here are some shots of work in progress, the rooms will be available to stay in from the 2nd November 2018 so if you are planning a trip to Wellington, NZ what a wonderful experience to stay amongst fabulous art!


A Home Away from Home @ Aratoi

A solo exhibition of works on paper and cotton veils ‘A Home Away from Home’ will be on show at Aratoi Museum of Art and History in Masterton, New Zealand, from Thursday 13 September – Sunday 7th October 2018.

In this final year of the centenary of WW1, this exhibition is a tribute to a group of New Zealand women who ran the Aotea Convalescent Home for NZ soldiers in Egypt during the First World War. Their service to the well being of the soldiers led the men to fondly refer to Aotea as ‘A home away from home’.

Mina Macdonald (pictured above) recognised the need for such a home and rallied the NZ Government to provide one. Within 6 weeks the staff who were to run the home had set sail for Egypt. The home was almost entirely funded by the goodwill of the people of the Wairarapa, Whanganui and Rangitikei regions. Click here for more information about this project.

Sunday afternoon musings

– Going through that dark, insecure creative stage and like the Lorax picking yourself up by the tail and hightailing yourself out of there

The creative chaos of my studio

I’m in the studio on a Sunday afternoon, the rain is falling steadily and I have my cup of tea in hand ready to take on whatever invites itself to dance with me. And writing a blog put up it’s hand first which I gladly take, because you see I felt I had an experience I wanted to share.

A few months ago I was in that dark place that will be familiar to many creatives, I’d had had a great year last year with my first international show and had so many engaging experiences through my artwork. This year was starting a little more lack luster and I was feeling I was putting my heart & soul into proposals that were being rejected left right and centre. I got to that place of why, what’s the point, perhaps it really isn’t worth still making art. But still I dragged my sorry behind into the studio and I’m there and I make marks and I spread paint around and I become engrossed in what I’m doing and then this little voice whispers in my ear “Rebecca what the hell?! This stuff feeds your soul, why would you deny yourself this experience (and man I wouldn’t want to live with you if your weren’t making creatively – just saying)“. So I decided at that moment that I needed to allow myself to just make, I had this opportunity to experiment in the studio with no expectation what so ever – I was ready to give myself permission to simply make art. I even wrote myself a proper proposal (just like I would to a gallery, museum or for funding) and within moments of sending that to myself I received a very charming acceptance letter back. ‘Go for it’ it said ‘knock yourself out and lets see where the journey takes you’. Boy was that the most awesome thing to do!

Just after giving myself permission, a friend and fellow artist put me on to The Jealous Curator (Danielle if you ever read this you’re awesome! Thanks for sharing, for talking to others, for being vulnerable and strong and human). So now most days when I’m in the studio Daniel (The Jealous Curator) joins me in my studio chatting with other artists and I’m talking back at the podcast saying things like “yep know how that feels”, “yes” “no way!” while I’m painting away. It becomes pretty clear after listening to a few of the podcasts what a shared experience these dark places are (and the joyful places too!). Then recently I discover ‘Big Magic – Creative living without fear’ by Elizabeth Gilbert and I laugh and nod and talk to her book as well (I really must get out more!) and find it so affirming.

So here I am, sitting in the studio on a rainy Sunday afternoon, surrounded by works in various states of finish, I have made since giving myself permission to (some I think are going to get a nice covering of think paint – they just ain’t rocking my boat – how exciting!) . They are all so different – different painterly expressions, different mark making, some narrative, some not. I am in a much better space to be making my art – what ever form it may take, and I am absolutely loving it! Don’t get me wrong I’ve always loved making art with all it’s ups and downs. But what I’m loving is this new found freedom to make without expectation – Which is why I am sharing, because I know we all have moments of self doubt, of questioning why we do it, but it really is up to ourselves to decide what place it holds in our lives and what we are willing to do to feed it – and of course giving ourselves permission to do so.

– So put your game face on and go forth!

Wellington Regional Arts Review

Pirates write what they imagine | Rebecca Holden 2018 | acrylic and oil on canvas

I was pleased to have this work titled ‘Pirates write what they imagine’ selected for the 2018 Wellington Regional Art Review. This exhibition is on show at Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt, NZ until the 5th August.

Anzac Artist Residency

It’s April and I’ve begun my 3 week residency at NZ Pacific Studios in Northern Wairarapa. My arts project is dedicated to the remarkable women who ran the Aotea Convalescent Home for New Zealand soldiers in Heliopolis, Egypt during WW1. It’s aim is also to honour the communities of Whanganui, Wairarapa and Rangitikei who supported the home. The project is called ‘A Home Away From Home‘ because that’s the term the soldiers affectionately gave it. You can read more extensive writing about the project here.

I stopped at the Clareville cemetery in Wairarapa on my way to the residency to pay my respects to Kate Booth a sister from Aotea. She is buried in the RSA area of the cemetery



Here I’ll post a few photos of work in progress as I begin to develop the individual paintings that will make up the body of work called ‘A Home Away From Home’

My studio at NZ Pacific Studios Residency – the Autumn sun flooding in



Friday 20th April update:

This week on my residency has been a great journey of discovery. Not only with experimenting with different media but also getting to know my nurses a little more and a remarkable connection between my grandfather and one of the soldiers connected to my Anzac bridge fellowship.

Studio shot of my works so far

Gareth Winter at the Wairarapa Archives has been a great help, a wealth of knowledge! Together we shared what information we had and with his help I’d discovered one of my nurses (Who I now feel I’m getting to know slowly) Lina McLaren had come from the Wairarapa not Whanganui which I’d mistakenly connected her with somewhere along the way. She married a Major she’d met at Aotea called Allan Standish Wilder. Gareth had found a photo of her in the archives, he’s such a good detective!

Lina featured here outside Aotea at Christmas – photo: Wairarapa Archives

Another rather surprising discovery this week has to do with the Kaiparoro Anzac Bridge (the Friends of the Bridge support my Anzac Artists Fellowship) I was looking into the service history of the men from WW1 who are memorialised on the bridge and to my surprise I discovered that Victor Falkner, who’s father built the bridge in honour of his son and the other local men who lost their lives, was in the Auckland Mounted Rifles just as my grandfather John (Jack) Culleton was. But not only that, they were both in the 4th Squadron! My grandfather having been wounded at Gallipoli the same month Victor was killed.

2018 Anzac Fellowship artist residency recipient

Fabulous news! I have been selected as the 2018 Anzac fellowship recipient which means I get to spend time at the fabulous NZ Pacific Studio artists residency. It’s a wonderful opportunity to work on a project that explores some of the roles NZ women took on during WW1. This is an extension of my Sand in the Apricot Jam project and is focused around the Aotea Convalescent Home in Egypt. This home was set up as it was recognised that the NZ soldiers needed somewhere to recuperate, a sort of home away from home to recover in. This was made possible by a group of women from Whanganui, NZ and was run my nurses and volunteers from the Whanganui & Wiarapapa regions. Also almost entirely funded by the fund raising efforts of the women from these regions.

I’m looking forward to making the most of this opportunity and to connect with the local community while doing so.

Saviours of Zion


I’ve been reading this recently published book on the ANZAC story from Sinai to Palestine during WW1 by Christopher J Wilson Archer. It’s an insightful read and great to have the story of the NZ Mounted Rifles told so well. It’s available for NZ$35 + postage. Contact savioursofzion@gmail.com to order a copy

Sand in the Apricot Jam Opens in Rishon LeZion

The mayor of Rishon LeZIon Meir Nitzan, the Governor General of New Zealand Dame Patsy Reddy and Rebecca Holden the artist at the official opening of her exhibition

On the 30th of October Sand in the Apricot Jam was officially opened by the Governor General of New Zealand Dame Patsy Redding and Mayor of Rishon LeZion Meir Nitzan. attended by New Zealand and Israeli dignitaries and invited guests.

At the event the NZ Defence Force Maori cultural group  did a performance to honour the occasion and the men of the NZ Mounted Rifles. A friendship plaque was also unveiled  to honour the connection between the Mounted Rifles and Rishon LeZion.

It was a wonderful event hosted by the Municipality of Rishon LeZion and the NZ Embassy to Israel as part of the WW1 100 year commemorations. I am so thrilled to have played a part in honouring the men of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles through this exhibition during this time of commemoration and remembrance.