Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Merry Isaac on Tony Fomison

The 80th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the March 1994 issue. I haven’t been able to locate the writer, Merry Isaac, to get her permission to reprint: I hope she doesn’t mind. The image above is one used to illustrate the article: Portrait of Tony Fomison (1986) by Mary McIntyre, who knew Tony well. 

The intro read:
With the major retrospective exhibition Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them? now showing at the Wellington City Art Gallery, there is new interest Tony Fomison’s life and work. His close friend Merry Isaac recalls the days leading up to his death on Waitangi Day 1990.
Tony and I first met when we were teenagers at Canterbury University School of Fine Arts. He was an honours student and I was a first year. We were all jumping around on Murray Grimsdale’s bed laughing because Tony was confessing that he had once murdered his grandmother’s budgie. Tony was jumping too and laughing. I caught his eye and he stopped laughing and lowered his eyes and looked startled and sad at the same time. We seemed to recognise something about each other. He was acting a kind of imp and I was the pretty art student that the boys wanted to get into. Maybe he saw I was more than this. I left art school wearing a pair of his jeans which he’d given me. We were the same size, very skinny, and he came with my other friends down to Lyttelton to see me off on the boat.
I heard stories about Tony but didn’t see him again till 1977 when he came to Wellington for an exhibition of his paintings. We found we had been in the same mental hospital in London, Banstead, a few years apart and we had been in London at the same time.
From 1977 we saw each other more often and when I left my husband in 1980 I went to his house in Auckland and he came back to my hotel for dinner and stayed with me most of the night as I had been arrested that morning and just avoided being put in a mental hospital and was still very frightened. I was catching a plane to England. We watched an old cowboy movie and drank ouzo.
Later, when I settled in Russell, we kept in touch. The last two years of his life I was often in Auckland and saw him a lot. He came to stay in Russell in April 1989 and I saw him each time I was down in Auckland. Early in 1990 I asked him to come up and open my exhibition and to go to the Waitangi celebrations. Five days later he was dead.
Tony was an exceptional friend. He saw through the shit. He could be an old wise man, a father figure, and almost give a lecture and ask me to behave myself. Other times he would be drunk and high and we’d talk and gossip and wonder about the future of the human race. I would watch him paint and he would discuss his work and the technique he was using. Then we’d get his stuff together (he carried everything “in case” in a large grey bag which had to be watched all night regardless of where we went).
Sometimes he would snarl and misbehave at art openings. Once we smoked a cigarette together in the Auckland City Art Gallery sitting on a huge leather sofa staring at the McCahons across the balcony.
There was a dark side to Tony. Like all unloved people he got love where and how he could. But he was also a gentleman and found me seats and opened doors and rang me when he was concerned about me.
The day I took my daughter to meet him he was waiting at the door expectantly, his hair brushed and clean clothes on, the best tea cups ready to make tea. My daughter brought the tea into the studio and Tony and I talked and she sat politely and listened. Occasionally Tony spat into a tin especially there for the purpose.
Afterwards, going down the street, my daughter turned to me and said, “What a disgusting man. Why did you take me to meet him?”
I said, “You’ll remember this visit one day, Gwennie.”
“I sure won’t forget it,” she said.
But at one point, while Tony and I talked, she had toured the room gazing at all the paintings and looking at Tony’s easel and tools. Five months after his death she mentioned Tony. “What a nice little man he was, Mummy. You must be missing him.”
The spitting didn’t matter any more.
Since Tony died I have done 30 paintings depicting his last days. I have been to San Francisco and back. I am here in my house in Russell and often I want to phone Tony and hear him answer the phone, “Ah, gidday, it’s you, Merry. How’s things?”

Saturday night 3 February 1990
The barmaid from the pub phoned to say Tony had arrived. I was cooking dinner and half expected him. I had rung him on the Monday to ask him to come up and stay and open my exhibition and come to Waitangi for the celebrations. He had sounded asleep or drugged or drunk and I wasn’t sure if he understood me so I sent him a letter and an invitation.
I ran down to the pub and looked in the public bar and then tried the bistro. Tony was sitting at an outside table and when he saw me he stood up smiling and put his arms out. We kissed and hugged and he looked very frail. He was with Fiona McLeod who had driven his car up. I bought wine and a jug of beer and we sat under the coloured lights. I wondered how I’d get him up my steps. Loulou arrived grinning when he saw Tony and we all decided to go home.
When I saw him in the light I was fearful.
He had dried blood on his mouth and looked grey and exhausted. I finished cooking the meal. One wiener schnitzel which I managed to spread around the four of us by frying all the vegetables I had in the house with it a la Chinese and served with rice. Tony ate his standing up and then went straight to bed.
Loulou and Fiona stayed and talked till 3am and then I put them both into their beds.

Sunday 4 February
I was up at nine and we sat around upstairs and talked. Then I made a pot of tea and served Weetbix and stewed plums. Tony stood looking out the window and ate a huge plateful as fast as he could. Loulou and Fiona went out in the car and Tony went back to bed. He curled up in the foetus position and slept so deeply he hardly breathed.
Aloma came and took me shopping. I left Tony a note. We took all the stuff around to the Adobe Cottage where I was having my exhibition. And then I came back.
Tony still slept. Finally I woke him to see if he was still hungry but he wanted to keep sleeping so I said I would wake him at 4pm.
I got dressed and when he woke I showed him my outfit and asked him if I should wear the bone tiki. He said, “Yeah! Wear what you like!” So I took it off. I was nervous about the opening...
[At the exhibition opening] we had a few jokes and a few wines. Someone gave Tony a joint to puff. He stood up holding one side of his nose and smoked it like a professional. I was embarrassed. He said, “I must open it now, Merry.” S0 I called out to everyone to come inside ~ lots of people were sitting outside in the sun drinking wine, my paintings forgotten.
Tony stood up and said, “This speech is about artists. There are lots of artists. Some have talent and some don’t. Merry has talent but she has more than this. I call it 5050 » not 5O percent, but made up of two things. Ethics and morals. And this sets her work aside.” And then he sat down abruptly and looked at me.
“Thank you Tony,” I said and then went across the room and kissed him and he laughed his short grunt, and I got him a wine. He drank it straight down. “I want to lie down now,” he said. So I took him the back way to Peter’s bed and rolled him in it... ‘

Monday 5 February
Tony and I made a plan for the day. We first drove to the shops and bought fruit juice, plastic glasses and wine, which Tony paid for and I bought cheese, fruit and cracker biscuits. I drove us to Long Beach and parked. We stumbled down the sand hills laughing and paddled in the sea. Tony took his shoes and socks off and let the water rush over his legs. His legs had dark bruises on them. He grinned at me. We sat on the sand and talked.
“Why don’t you stay a couple of months 7” I said. “We’ve got the car, we could even go up to Cape Reinga.” I was very enthusiastic.
He was smiling and pleased by the sea and stared at it as it rushed backwards and forwards towards us. The land on the horizon, green in the white sun. Blue sky, blue sea, green land and white sand, the light as sharp as a knife. The sea water ran over Tony’s feet. He rubbed at huge dents near his ankles where his socks had formed permanent ridges into his skin...
We started walking up the track to the meeting house. It was cooler under the trees and I held Tony’s arm. We arrived at the PR hut and went inside. We looked at a facsimile of the treaty and Tony explained how the chiefs signed using their mokos as a signature.
We walked around and Tony discussed each chief as if they were personal friends.
He didn’t mention the bad painting. He looked at the kauri roots at the door and patted them. “Oh yes,” he said...
We walked down towards the wharf and sat down near it. Tony immediately lay down looking dead. A Maori man sat on a rock opposite us and kept an eye on us.
I saw the ferry arriving. I pulled Tony up onto his feet. Lots of people were crowding up to catch the ferry. We smoked cigarettes and joked. It was 6.30pm. We all pushed and shoved to get on the ferry as this was the last one.
Tony wanted to sit upstairs. I pushed him up the stairs and we stood at the top. People stared at us and at last I found him a seat. I hovered over him, standing. A Maori man came and took photos leaning on my shoulder to steady his camera, his head close to mine. Tony started up a conversation with the men sharing his bench. They made room for me. We all shared a wine from the cask. They were from Tonga. Tony and the one closest to him had a cheerful conversation. Everyone on the boat was talking to everyone else and happy. The sun was slowly receding. We walked down the wharf and I retrieved the cameras from the pub and drove us back to the house. Tony went straight to bed and I cooked dinner and said I would wake him.
I woke him at 9.30 and he got up to eat. He sat at the table and took one mouthful.
“Yuk! I can’t eat this.” I apologised and said I was sorry but I had to make a large meal because I didn’t know what Loulou and Fiona were doing. It was mince made into bolognaise. Even I didn’t like it much.
Suddenly out in the sky above Waitangi fireworks started exploding. I ran out onto the deck calling out to Tony to come and look. He turned in his seat and watched them through the window. It was an amazing sight and his mouth fell open.
“That was just right,” I said. “Just long enough. It was like cells dividing.”
“A pattern,” said Tony, slightly disgusted. He went back to bed. And I cleaned up. 
I went upstairs to bed. I looked out the window at the night. The stars were shining so brilliantly their rays seeming to shoot out at each other, touching each other, communicating.
The whole universe is centred on us tonight, I had told my mother on the phone earlier. And it seemed true. I had never seen this phenomenon before.
I heard Tony talking in his sleep and called out to him, “Are you okay?” 
“Yeah,” he called, “I’m okay.” But he kept chanting and talking in his sleep. I came down the stairs to check on him and he lay in bed curled up like a tiny grey foetus. “Are you okay?” I asked. His eyes opened. “Yeah, I’m okay.” ‘
“You can’t die in my house, Tony. I’m going to ring Hilary, you need a doctor.”
“No I don’t. Don’t ring Hilary.” ‘
“Well Tony, you can’t die here.”
“I won’t, Merry.”
“Oh God!” And I kiss him. And pull the sheets up. And go back upstairs. And smoke a cigarette and hear him talking again. At least he’s not dead if he is talking.
Later I hear him snoring very loudly. I give up on sleep at 5am and get up and make tea. And get my stuff together for Waitangi.
We are leaving on the first ferry at 7am.

Tuesday 6 February, Waitangi Day
I woke Tony at 5.30 and gave him time to wake up. Out he came. “I think I’ll shave today,” he said. He drank some wine and ate some Weetbix and went back into his room to sort out his outfit. “I’m going to wear my lavalava,’-’ he called out.
“Today we must wear whatever we like,” I called back.
“I’ll wear my bone necklace,” he called.
“And a tiki,” I said.
He came out all ready. He had on a short T-shirt which was tie-dyed like a tattoo.
His own tattoos were displayed between the top of the T-shirt and his yellow ochre Samoan-patterned lavalava. The bone necklace was around his neck, painted orange and crudely made. Hanging separately was an ancient tiki....
[On the way to the treaty house] a friend stopped to talk. A lot of these friends who stopped to talk to Tony had modulated educated voices and were delighted to see him. They had trendy clothes and genuine glee at seeing someone they knew so far from home. Tony talked patiently, introducing me as I held him up and they as usual ignored me.
At last we were at the treaty house and walked in front of the audience packed into tiers floating above the grounds. Tony wanted to first sit in the tiers but I told him it was too dangerous if we wanted to leave quickly. Then he wanted to sit on the grass in front of them. I kept him walking. We crossed the grass and found a gap in front of the north tiers. We sat down on the grass.
We kept walking. We arrived at the bridge. Hundreds of people were milling around.
“I’ll sit here,” said Tony. He lay down under the tree close by. “You can’t die here Tony,”
I cried. “I’ll go and find out about the ferries, there must be one going back to Russell soon. Stay here, I’ll only be a moment.”....
We all helped carry Tony into the emergency tent. I could hear the band playing bagpipes. The doctor asked me to watch and squeeze the transfusion bag. I thought about the liquid not getting through and squeezed and watched it.
The transfusion bag was pegged with an ordinary plastic clothes peg to the cord above the bed. Tony lay there and sometimes looked up at me and slightly nodded his head. I suddenly found tears pouring down my face and I couldn’t control myself.
I wiped my face on my rainbow jacket. Then I recovered.
It was decided to take Tony down to Kawakawa hospital and I held the transfusion bag as he was lifted and carried to the ambulance.
The band started playing Cook Island drums as we left. “See,” I wanted to say, “they know you’re here.” But I realised how stupid that was... _
He lay back in the bed and put the blankets back around himself. And we talked.
He wanted to know when his sister was coming. He looked sad when he heard it was Friday. I would ring her again, I told him. “Tell her to bring the children,” he said.
He had the light on beside the bed.” We talked about the doctor and the nurses. I told him I had discussed him with the doctor and asked him how often the nurses came to see him. I said I must go to ring up his sister and the nurses’ hostel was locked up at 12 so I would ring his ward all night and they had promised to ring me. And I stood up and went towards him and kissed him on the lips. ‘
“Good night Tony,” I said, but in my head I said “I love‘ you.” But tonight I couldn’t say it out loud because it was true and I might cry in front of him.
I stood back and the nurse came in and began checking Tony’s transfusions and I said with a grin, “See you later, mate!” And off I went...

Wednesday 7 February
At 10pm the hospital rang the pub. Tony was fading fast. I felt terrible. I am having a nightmare and I’m awake...
I sat on my deck and looked at the stars and thought of, Tony fading away. If you can fade away you can fade up again. I was frightened.
What planet did Tony come from? I’d asked a Maori friend in the pub. “He was the last of a line, Merry, he won’t be back,” he replied.
But I saw him strutting in the night sky, younger, with a cloak swirling around him, a kind of Vagabond. I slept in the bed he had slept in with clean sheets. I kept the French doors open to the night. 
The telephone rang at 6am the next morning. It was the hospital. Tony died at 11pm last night and his family arrived at 11.l5pm.

Saturday 10 February
[at the funeral] I looked down at Tony’s body and face. He was lying encased by white satin, quilted and new. His lavalava on, exposing his tattoos. His tie-dyed T-shirt stretched over his chest. The orange-stained bone necklace hung around his neck. His face was wider and larger than before in life and the skin seemed stretched tightly over his bones, making -his face smirk in an evil grimace. He was lying rigid on his back and his hair had been combed flat. It wasn’t him. He had always slept, his hair in chaos, in the foetus position. This was a new Tony I had never met. I could not kiss him and instead stared, unable to speak. I moved away quickly and walked outside, leaving his mother beside him...
I thought of Tony being buried under the earth. But he wasn’t, he was talking to me, right then, inside my head. Go away, Tony, I said to my head.
I walked into the Downtown centre and bought a bus ticket for the next day back to Russell. And then I suddenly asked them to change it and bought a ticket for right then.
I wanted to go home.
In Russell I ate a bistro meal and walked home. The stars nodded a hello but only stating that they were there. My house was neat and clean from all the cleaning I had done before I left.
I lay down in the bed that Tony had slept in and left the French doors open. And this time I wept. 


Deborah Coddington said...

Fuck I remember all this

Gwen Isaac said...

hi I'm Gwen, Merry's daughter. She so wouldn't mind you posted this. Mum loved Tony very much, and his sister Anna. She suffered terribly after his death.

Stephen Stratford said...

Thanks, Gwen. That is very good to hear.