I met Helen Scales first through her paintings which I came upon almost by chance while wandering through the Auckland City Art Gallery one afternoon at the end of 1975.
One of the galleries upstairs was filled with small oil paintings, mostly landscapes and still lives, and three self-portraits [Portrait 2 [BC065], Portrait 3 [BC066], Portrait 1 [BC120]]. One of those self-portraits [Portrait 3 [BC066]] stopped me in my tracks in its extraordinary emotional power. The head tilted on an angle, black smudges for eyes, a large triangular nose, mouth wiped away to a broken line - the skull beneath the flesh palpably felt – it seemed to me at once vulnerable and very strong: the brushstrokes in all their variety of smudges, the rubbed bare canvas patches, the licks, wisps and firm thick strokes of paint constructed an image redolent of a life lived – an image full of the presence of old age. It belonged, in my mind, with the great self-portrait of 1945 by Bonnard, and those direct, exposed self-revelations of late Rembrandt.
Also displayed along with the self-portraits was a group of Orchard with Plum Tree [BC071-BC075, BC077] paintings, exquisitely beautiful in their blushes and strokes of paint; edges dissolving and reassembling in planes of colour, and revealing an intelligent understanding of post-cubist ideas derived from Cézanne’s principles of organising pictorial space. My response to the poetic vision of these paintings was immediate and intense, and I left the Gallery driven by an urgent desire to meet and speak to the woman who had painted them.
A week or two later, with the help of Kim Wright, I found myself, heart pounding, knocking on the back door of a small flat in an old house in Mt Eden. The door eventually opened a crack and, unable to explain exactly why I was there, except that I had been deeply moved by her paintings, I was invited in by a tall, thin, elderly woman. She was 88 years old .
Miss Scales was painting a still life of flowers and fruit [Still Life, Brentwood Avenue, Auckland [BC090]] which were arranged on a sideboard in the sparsely furnished sitting room, amongst propped-up postcards, small finished and unfinished paintings, and a treasured small square-shaped book written in French on Cézanne.