Of Art, Love, Shakespeare and the Natural Order

By Philippa Hadlow

A journey to Kaponga one sunny Saturday morning led me to the one hundred-year-old villa of Roger Peters and Maree Horner. Cordial greetings welcomed me and as I replied in kind, those salutations marked the beginning and end of my social equilibrium.

Expecting a simple chat about art – Roger and Maree are both Elam School of Fine Arts-graduated (1974) artists – I was instead led down a garden path to discover real-life erudite, surreal, creative brilliance.

The exposé begins innocently enough with a wander to Roger’s writing shed. Here, for the last twenty-five years, he has delved into the nuances of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, line by line. Not only delved, but analysed, interpreted, translated, and equated to what Roger describes as the meaning of life. Roger believes that Shakespeare’s

By Philippa Hadlow

A journey to Kaponga one sunny Saturday morning led me to the one hundred-year-old villa of Roger Peters and Maree Horner. Cordial greetings welcomed me and as I replied in kind, those salutations marked the beginning and end of my social equilibrium.

Expecting a simple chat about art – Roger and Maree are both Elam School of Fine Arts-graduated (1974) artists – I was instead led down a garden path to discover real-life erudite, surreal, creative brilliance.

The exposé begins innocently enough with a wander to Roger’s writing shed. Here, for the last twenty-five years, he has delved into the nuances of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all 154 of them, line by line. Not only delved, but analysed, interpreted, translated, and equated to what Roger describes as the meaning of life. Roger believes that Shakespeare’s sonnets are indicative of a nature-based philosophy encapsulated by the edict that “articulates the natural logic between the sexual dynamic of the body with its potential to increase, and the erotic dynamic of the mind with its capacity for truth and beauty”.

Some of Maree’s work echoes Shakespeare too. Shylock’s ‘pound of flesh’ comes macabrely alive in her 2011 Furniture of the World digital art display of cut-away bellies, no less. They’re tidily stuffed into tin pails, wooden boxes, suitcases, and sinks; complete with insy or outsy belly buttons evocative of umbilical nurturing and the toil of childrearing.

Eminent art writer and curator Bruce Phillips described Maree’s work in 2012: “These works sit on a tenuous line being both comfortably homely or horrifically debauched – a betwixt and elusive conclusion that reveals more about the animal within us and how little we understand our suppressed psyche.”

Maree’s explorations of sculpture, installation, and digital photography reflect a surreal expression of humanity and relationships, randomly poised upon a contrasting assortment of objects. Her work has occasionally moved in tandem with Roger’s art, albeit in mediums juxtaposed with his.

Songs of the Earth-Space2

Roger’s latest exhibition, Songs of the Earth (1972-2021) at Pihama Lavender brought together a collection of works conceived over the 50-odd years bracketed – some of which were originally exhibited in Auckland Art Gallery’s Project Programme 1975. Songs of the Earth comprised a flow-through walk on the elemental side of life, with salt, fire, and oil; roughly hewed materials like sacking, and the more base: mildly phallic/yonic floating fish. The exhibition smacked of sensory naturist symbolism at its best.

Roger Peters

Over the last 20 years, Roger developed the ‘Quaternary Institute’ – a unique teaching and learning facility designed to disseminate what he has gleaned from his intensive years’ studying Shakespeare’s sonnets. By unravelling the intent of said sonnets, Roger feels he has created a clear-field, logical explanation for the rest of Shakespeare’s writings, and indeed, a guiding philosophy for life per se.

He is sure that the establishment of the Quaternary Institute was imperative to formalise a first-of-its-kind forum to take students beyond tertiary level, to quaternary level. Roger has since written four weighty tomes: William Shakespeare’s Sonnet Philosophy, Volumes 1-4, and another four volumes looking at Shakespeare’s global philosophy and the 21st-century relevance of the Globe Theatre; Shakespeare’s portrayal of mature love; a pictorial volume on his philosophies, and a set of commentaries on his plays have either been published or soon will be.

Roger and Maree’s work is idealistically symbiotic. Both reveal entrenched primordial human traits and habits: Roger’s sonnet analysis recovers the natural priority of the female over the male, subverted by three to 4,000 years of male-based religions; Maree explores the relationship between male and female and creates overt images that contextualise the male within the female.

Roger believes Shakespeare’s nature-based philosophy complements Galileo and Darwin’s and supersedes thinker-philosophers, Duchamp, Mallarmé, and Wittgenstein. Maree’s work investigates the feminine and the masculine; the mind and the body; eroticism and fantasy.

As we discuss these enlightened concepts, we are seated on a revolving deck of Roger’s own making. He gently turns a handle that slowly spins us to face the sun, or to enjoy some shady relief. “See what happens on this deck? You just get out here, and you stay here,” says Roger. “You create a space in which somehow or other you are put at ease.”

Am I at ease? Perhaps I am, but my drop-jawed expressions, upside-down sensations, and mind-altering observations make me wonder. I look above my head and see the letters QI (for Quaternary Institute) carved out in steel, hanging, glinting in the light. Another etching is carved deep into the wooden table before us. We laugh (a trifle cautiously) at the idea of subliminal QI persuasion.

The deck is one of Roger’s many engineering feats. A platform reaching out towards the Kapuni River (which hosts trout ‘That Big’) is suspended only by a cantilever, though the user is falsely reassured by the optical illusion of a supporting timber strut diving downwards. In reality, it goes nowhere.

There’s another deck over by the house, erected by steel pipes and, Alice in Wonderland-like, shaded by a trampoline mat – which, of course, kids wish they could bounce on! Each side of the shade mat can be elevated or lowered according to the heat of the day.

Sculptures are scattered everywhere: figures moulded from wax then bronze cast, fine-featured faces, and way up high on a shelf in a shed are five busts of local men. While modelling, one of them kept fidgeting, then finally relaxed, and fell asleep; his countenance is sublime in repose.

The 70s saw Roger living in a warehouse space in Parnell for $10 a week after leaving Elam art school. During this time, he “sublimated all his influences” and went deep into Self. In time, Roger began an investigative journey towards anthropomorphism; instead of creating inanimate objects like ladders and rocks, he felt a pulling towards body shapes.

So, mid-to-late 80s, Roger began studying Rodin and Michelangelo to figure out how they imbued their work with such depth of meaning. He wanted to fathom why a shape orchestrated in a certain manner affected your mind oppositely to another shape, made differently.

During the 1990s, he sculpted dozens of little figures and exhibited them in Hawera, Manawatu, and Whanganui. He inadvertently invited controversy by extending them to the exterior of the Sarjeant Gallery (Whanganui) in his 1994 Dome show called The Wrestler’s Ball. The embellishments were called a desecration of the historic building by a district court judge, who in turn was mocked by media commentator Bill Ralston on the evening news.

Roger became involved with the Shakespeare Group in Whanganui, run by poet and artist Joanna Margaret Paul (now deceased). The group read Shakespeare’s plays, then his sonnets.

Upon reading the sonnets, “I intuitively and immediately saw that there was this incredible philosophy that no one had seen before. I call it our birth right philosophy; a nature-based philosophy that respects the default status of the female over the male then delves into the mind and reveals how biology affects the mind,” says Roger.

It was an uncanny and strangely déjà vu kind of realisation because Roger had already written a rudimentary outline of his concept of life in 1987 called Human Being that reflected the philosophy contained within Shakespeare’s sonnets. Human Being evolved from his studies of proto-quaternary philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), artist/writer Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), and naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Roger believes that Shakespeare’s sonnets – pre-dating these philosophers – over-arches their beliefs and yet, brings them all together.

When he discovered that once understood, Shakespeare’s sonnets confirmed Roger’s own theories, he was gobsmacked. “In terms of human rights, women’s rights, our ways of understanding each other – all utterly significant. The sonnets presented the philosophy behind Shakespeare’s plays written twenty years prior. I had to pursue this! And thus, the Quaternary Institute (QI) was born,” says Roger.

 

Maree is both Roger’s inspiration and support. She administers the Quaternary Imprint that structures the publishing of his books, and secretly organises the marketing for Luddite Roger. The Quaternary Institute targets 5% of 5% of the world’s population. The intensely specialist subject matter means it’s a narrow market because today, Maree says, the majority of people like to digest small soundbites, the size of which are reducing steadily year by year.

So the couple work in unison; together then apart; pushing forward then pulling back; working and resting. It’s a pattern – like waves breaking in a natural rhythm, each receding wave enabling them to reenergise to regain productivity.

Part of that momentum is living the Philosophy through their creative endeavour. Maree takes me to her converted implement shed studio space. I stop to admire the recycled hundred-year-old timber beams and the original cobbling floor at the back entrance where the work drays were stored in the 1900s.

Maree has exhibited professionally since 1970. Over that time, her art has been collected by such esteemed outfits as the Govett Brewster Art Gallery and the Auckland City Art Gallery. She’s sold a few pieces through various galleries (for a pretty penny) and contributed to many exhibitions, some reclaiming lost art from the early days.

There was a time when Maree was feeling a little lost, too. When the couple left Auckland and ended up in this big ol’ farmhouse in 1987, they paid $30 a week to rent it. “After art school, I was feeling a bit disorientated; I paused and decided I just wanted to do Life,” she says. Having children was the turning point, giving her a base to investigate the continual balancing/rebalancing of the female and male relationship within her artwork.

“When you hear famous people talking about their lives, they say that the most significant thing was family: not career. The funny, ironic thing is that the kids all go off and do their own thing and don’t ‘get you’ anyway! After living Motherhood, most of my work became about the male-female relationship and ‘increase’; the same as what Roger articulates,” says Maree.

In 1990, Maree trained as an art teacher to help sustain their lifestyle. She taught at Patea and Hawera until semi-retiring in 2016. “A brilliant, devoted teacher, who got almost all her students through their art assessments,” says Roger.

In 2004, she proffered her Monumental Obsessions to the Bath Street Gallery in Parnell; in 2011, Furniture of the World exhibited at the Bledisloe Walkway Lightbox Project. In 2012, Monumental Obsessions, and Eternal Realitieswere exhibited at Christchurch’s City Art Depot with Necessary Substratum in 2019 at the Anderson Rhodes Gallery.

In 2018, both she and Roger exhibited in Groundswell: Avant-Garde Auckland 1971-79 (Auckland Art Gallery) with installations representing the 70s as an era of experimental, conceptual art-making. That exhibition brought together works produced, then largely lost in time. Maree’s Diving Board installation is in the permanent collection of the Govett Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth.

Digital photography, print-based media work, and publishing keep Maree busy these days. We look at the walls of her studio, adorned with more of her recent stuff; a gigantic, gorgeous, cryptic, pastel-hued, organic, and mildly erotic/animalistic series of shapes – another perfect foil for her take on the nature-based philosophy that suffuses, and quite literally, sustains her and Roger.

Roger and Maree make a perfect foil for each other, too. Roger: meticulously groomed beard; intense, prolonged eye contact; diction clear and fast-spoken. Maree: quietly reticent, sweetly-spoken but no less ardent; her body curves and moves like willow, supple as its name.

I leave their property slightly bemused by surreal overload but full of excellent coffee and peach muffin; my arms are laden with books, postcards, QI literature. I’ve just spent the afternoon with two people who could take star roles in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and I’m utterly rapt.

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