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Self-Taught & Visionary Art in New Zealand

Jim Dornan
(1915–1981), Wairoa

Jim Dornan lived in a small New Zealand town and possessed a unique ability to create extra-ordinary compositions. The subject matter of these works is equally extra-ordinary and powerful.

Jim was a very good painter, he had a skill that was recognized and that could contribute to the life of his community; he painted backdrops for the local dramatic society. But he had a mental illness that kept him at a distance from neighbours. Jim spent bouts of time in one or another of the now dismantled giant psychiatric institutions that once provided this country’s ‘institutional care.’

Much of Jim’s painting seems to be an attempt to portray the tenuous balance between health and disease. Not just the health and illness of the individual mind and body but that of the larger organs of the state institutions; the health-care system, the education system, our social system, our rituals, our drugs.

What is remarkable is that Jim has been so successful in his attempt. His skill with design and with paint has enabled him to depict the recurring motif of the brain and organs of the body in various humanoid (corrupt?) relationships with the world.

The gravity of these potentially macabre depictions is leavened by the style of the drawing: a goofy, retro-comic style that sits somewhere between the work of undergrounds American artist Robert Crumb and the look of circus banners announcing ‘the amaaaaazing human cannonball!’

It is sad that Jim’s achievement was not recognized in his own time. The stigma attached to mental illness at the time over-shadowed everything…almost. The value of Jim’s paintings was recognized by one person, a young neighbour who had an artistic spirit of his own; Chris Williams saved the paintings from being dumped. In 2002, 21 years after Jim died, the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt (New Zealand) held the very first exhibition of the work of Jim Dornan featuring his hybrid of bodily viscera and daily grind.


Selected Works

  • ‘Tea-Fee’‘Tea-Fee’

Showing all 1 works.