Golden times . . Artist Ken Laraman says art is about play. PHOTO: RUBY HEYWARD

From 1988 to 1996, Oamaru was home to a bubbling fine arts programme, bringing art to the forefront of the seaside town. Former programme co-ordinator and current artist Ken Laraman tells Ruby Heyward about the school’s ‘‘golden’’ days.

Life leads you in all sorts of directions, Ken Laraman says.

And it certainly has for the Totara artist.

For 26 years, Mr Laraman worked for the Dunedin School of Art and eight of those years were spent at its Oamaru campus.

Each year on the first day of class, he would offer his first-year students this sage advice:

‘‘Go to art school not because you know what to do, but because you don’t know what to do.’’

‘‘Let yourself come to a dead end and go somewhere else,’’ he said.

Contrary to what some might assume, art was not always the obvious choice for Mr Laraman.

In fact, his undergraduate degree was in political science.

Despite completing a masters degree in art history, it was not until he went to teachers college in Christchurch that he began ‘‘playing around with the visual arts’’.

And it was not just a love of art he embraced during his training, but the love of his wife Sheryl Laraman (nee Donaldson), to whom he has been married for 50 years.

Once qualified as teachers, the couple moved to Oamaru in 1972. Mr Laraman taught art at St Kevin’s College and Mrs Laraman taught at St Thomas’s High School, before its integration with the college.

As soon as they moved to Waitaki, the couple knew they never wanted to move away. They raised their three children Summer, Chelsea, and Zak Laraman in the district.

In 1987, Mr Laraman was presented with the opportunity to supervise the Dunedin School of Art’s programme in Oamaru, which started the following year.

He brought on Kakanui artist Peter Cleverley to tutor, and at one point the school had 90 students.

It started as a certificate course, then grew into a diploma, before a three-year programme was introduced.

The course covered art history, drawing, painting, photography, art history, life drawing, printmaking and sculpture.

‘‘I look back on it and think [they were] golden times, really,’’ he said.

At the time, the school attracted young artists who flatted in the area and lifted the ‘‘arty side of things’’ in the town.

The students had the Forrester Gallery at their fingertips; it hosted annual exhibitions of their work.

Ever since, there had been ‘‘artistic people moving through’’, he said.

Unfortunately, due to the ‘‘economics of the time’’, Oamaru’s campus was closed in 1996 and the course continued in Dunedin, taking Mr Laraman and Mr Cleverley with it.

But not entirely.

Rather than leave ‘‘paradise’’, the two commuted to Dunedin each day, discussing class on the way.

‘‘I think [the closure] was sad for the town, but it did spark an interest in creativity.

‘‘On the back of the art school, people became interested in exploring the arts and expanding them.’’

Mr Laraman said events such as the Waitaki Arts Festival were ‘‘encouraging’’.

‘‘It is not just sport people are interested in, but other aspects of life.’’

In Dunedin, Mr Laraman was in charge of the bachelor of fine arts programme before becoming the head of drawing, then principal lecturer.

‘‘This is the only degree you’ll ever have where you are encouraged to play, when the outcome is unknown and it’s exciting.’’

After teaching and inspiring generations of artists, Mr Laraman retired nine years ago.
‘‘It gives me time to play.’’

He did just that through his art.

Mr Laraman’s art often sprung from ideas around language.

His earlier work examined the loss of meaning or cultural difference between language.

He enjoyed the challenge of playing with text, and often used language as a jumping point for his art.

In a more recent series, his work was developed around the art of selenology, the study of planet surfaces and features — grounded in the idea that humans are just rocketing through space.

Mr Laraman loved that when he started a painting, there was as much mystery about the outcome to him as there was to the viewer.

His latest series, The Plastic Seas, focused on how people could look after the earth and treasure the natural environment.

His paintings, which were accompanied by poems, depicted the sea and sky to remind people of how precious the environment was.

However, his attitude towards environmental issues was optimistic rather than sad.

‘‘We have to be [optimistic], we can’t just give up.’’

It seems that life has led Mr Laraman inthe right direction.

Thirty-five years ago that direction was to Totara, where he and his wife still live.

And every day, MrLaraman looks out the window and feels gratitude.