Ice environment fires up Petone artist

"The Hutt News" September 2008

Petone artist Alfred Memelink says a 50-day voyage on NIWA's research ship RV Tangaroa has opened his eyes to the beauty and fragility of Antarctica. He'll be pleased if his paintings and upcoming talks "maybe open the eyes of some others too".

Alfred leads an unusual double-life: he's a marine engineer who has crewed on voyages around the world; he's also a very accomplished watercolour artist whose works are in collections here and in many other countries - especially in those of ex-pat Kiwis who delight in the way he captures Wellington region scenes.

He was sweltering on a vessel off the coast of India last year when he received an email about a trip to a very much colder part of the globe. As part of the International Polar Year Census of Antarctic Marine Life, 26 scientists were to travel from 31 January-20 March to the ice-packed Ross Sea to check on the impacts of global warming under our largest ever Antarctic marine research programme (Ocean Survey 20/20). They needed a chief engineer on board. Alfred saw not just a chance to see a different part of the world but opportunities to paint it.

"I won't say I've always wanted to go down there, I just never expected to," he says.

An area he refers to as ‘the storm factory of the southern oceans' (one satellite weather map Alfred saw showed five large cyclones in a row brewing in the area close to the Ross Sea), where the water is so cold that instead of pumping engine cooling water in and then out it's recycled on-board, is a harsh environment for a vessel. But Alfred and an assistant engineer enjoyed a relatively trouble-free run on their 24-hour rostered on shifts. On evenings especially - "there was good light right through to 1.30 or 2 in the morning" - Alfred was busy with brushes capturing sunsets sparkling off icebergs and the massive Transantarctic mountain range (including Erebus).

There was no way he could paint on deck. His watercolours - never mind his fingers - would freeze straight away. But he had excellent views from his cabin porthole and with his camera could capture more fleeting sights, such as the blowhole spray from two humpback whales close by, and clusters of Adelle penguins.

Ironically with water all around him, his biggest challenge was to do with lack of moisture. The moisture content in the Antarctic air is so low that his watercolours would dry as soon as he brushed them on paper. Even the carpet in the cabins shrunk with the nil humidity. He worked out that he needed to totally immerse his paper in water, wait for it to dry to a certain extent, then get busy painting. Odd, "but it did the trick," he says.

The Antarctic: you'll just need a whole lot of white paint, right? Not so. For a start Alfred was painting in negative (i.e. painting around the spaces he wanted to leave white). Besides that, the landscape is not at all monochrome.

Alfred describes the Ross Sea as "like a huge and fascinating Henry Moore sculpture garden.

"The life and metamorphosis of an iceberg is amazing, each one conceived millions of years ago as snow in a glacier, then ‘calved' off into the sea where it is continually being sculpted into new artistic shapes by the weather, sea and repeated flipping over each time its centre of gravity changes."

And he needed all sort of tints to capture their colours, and light reflecting off them. He recalls one iceberg was "bright blue". One of the scientists on board explained it would have come from the bottom of a glacier and be extremely dense and compressed. This is because dense, bubble-free ice absorbs only a small proportion of red light from the light spectrum entering it, so appears blue.

Others of his paintings show the delicate orange and pink hues of sunrises and sunsets and there's a particularly stunning large work of the RV Tangaroa bathed in the light of the stunning Aurora Australis light effect near Bellini Island.

After many years sailing the world, Alfred says he was telling another shipmate that he was highly skeptical about a rare optical phenomena known as ‘green flash' (a super-brilliant flash of green at the very last moment when the sun goes behind the horizon or a mountain. This is brought about by different density layers in the atmosphere refracting the light, and the fact that higher frequency green/blue light in the spectrum travels faster and curves further than the red/orange rays). Literally half an hour after that conversation, he saw his first green flash.

But that's the Antarctic for you, he says - dramatic and surprising. He was captured by its beauty and "immenseness" - not least a 23km-long iceberg (sister to the one seen off the Otago Coast) that was "just like sailing beneath the white cliffs of Dover".

But his talks with the scientists, and his own research sparked by what he saw, has driven home to him what's at stake from mankind's impact on Antarctica. "If all the ice melted in Antarctica, it would apparently equate to a 60m sea level rise. This highlights the importance of the need to bring this environment back to equilibrium - to where the snow that falls is about equal to the iceberg melt."

Fish experts on the voyage recorded 88 species, of which eight are possibly new to science. Alfred has learned that overfishing and other interference could completely highjack food chains there. It's well known that protein-rich krill is a big part of the diet of whales and other marine species; less well known is that krill feed on algae underneath pack ice - a resource diminished by too much melt.

Truly these are challenges to all nations on a huge scale, but amongst Alfred's tales of his voyage - and he's determined to go back to the Antarctic - there is one story on a much lesser and human dimension that brings a smile. Alfred realised with some horror, "far too late to go down the road and buy some", that crew were to bring their own beer on board. The prospect of that long voyage with no refreshments took a little edge of his excitement so he was delighted when the bo's'n and leading hand asked him for a watercolour of a scene they'd photographed on an earlier trip. Alfred got to work with his brushes, and they filled his fridge.

N A selection of paintings from Alfred Memelink's Antractic trip will be on display at the Academy Galleries (Queens Wharf, Wellington) from Saturday 20 September until Monday the 29th (free admission, 10am-5pm daily). Alfred, who is President of Watercolour NZ, will also have others of his scenes mounted and for sale - Petone wharf, last light on the eastern hills, storms on Wellington's southern coast and even depictions of downtown nightlife in the Capital. Another drawcard is that at the same time, the Wellington Potters' Association's 50th anniversary exhibition, Ceramicus 08, with guest Paul Melser, will occupy the floor space of the galleries.

At 10am on Saturday 20 September, Alfred will give a free talk about the voyage and icebergs. This will be followed at 11am by a talk by guest potter Paul Melser on The Art/Utility Schism.

A more extensive talk by Alfred, illustrated with an audio visual, happens closer to home on 16 October. At a dinner event at the Petone Workingmen's Club, Alfred will describe his experiences at a fundraiser for the planned extension at Petone's rest home, Britannia House. Tickets $40 from PWMC or call Maureen Freeman (564-6365).


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All Images Copyright © Alfred Memelink, All Rights Reserved