Raising a glass with Avis Higgs

Saturday 21 September 2013 is a significant date in the history of the museum, marking our renaissance as MTG Hawke’s Bay and the opening of our redeveloped building and exciting new exhibition spaces. This special day is also one that we share with Avis Higgs, one of Australasia’s most renowned textile designers and one that is dear to us here at MTG. Born on 21 September 1918, the Saturday of our opening day was also Avis Higgs’ 95th birthday.

We were thrilled that Avis was able to join us at our preview event on the Friday night and share in the re-opening of the museum where we house a large number of her designs, fabric samples, garments and paintings. These wonderful items have found a home here at the museum since the touring exhibition Avis Higgs: joie de vivre, curated by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins in 2000.

Image 1_DLJ and AvisDouglas Lloyd Jenkins and Avis Higgs at the opening of MTG Hawke’s Bay. Image kindly supplied by Linda Tyler, Director of the Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland.

Avis Higgs was born in Wellington of joint Australian and New Zealand parentage and grew up in a family that shared a passion for art. Her own creativity was developed when Avis enrolled at the Art School of Wellington Technical College in February 1936.

As a young design graduate, Avis secured a full-time position at National Distributors Ltd. in Taranaki Street, Wellington where she undertook lettering and occasional poster design. It was also here that Avis learnt the principles of screen-printing, a technique which would later become important in her design work.

In 1941 Avis was appointed head designer for Silk & Textile Printers Ltd (STP) in Sydney. This company had been looking to hire an Australasian designer that could produce original designs at a time when inspiration from Europe was largely off-limits. During this period Avis Higgs was creating wonderfully innovative textile design inspired by her Sydney environment, including plant and marine life and trips to Bondi beach.

In 1948 Avis headed back home to Wellington and was soon plotting her next adventure in London. To save money Avis took up a position designing cinema advertisements and at night she designed textiles in order to build up her portfolio. Once again, Avis turned to her surroundings for inspiration creating designs based on native plants, flowers, and taonga held at the National Museum.

Avis Higgs arrived in England in July 1951. Despite a downturn in the textile industry at this time, her designs were well received by those who saw them. Unfortunately, Avis Higgs’ career in England was cut short due to a car accident and she returned to New Zealand in 1952.

Throughout the following decades Avis Higgs was an active member of the arts community, widely exhibited and received numerous awards. In 2006 Avis Higgs was awarded the Governor-General’s Art Award for her contribution to New Zealand art and a retrospective of her work was held at the Academy of Fine Arts.

MTG Hawke’s Bay recognises Avis Higgs’ contribution to design history and have represented her work in the exhibition Decorate: Design stories from the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection. This exhibition will feature a printed rayon dress by Avis Higgs and a bag from Laurie Foon’s 2005/6 ‘Black Swan’ summer collection which incorporates Avis Higgs’ ‘Duckpond’ print designed in 1949.

Image 2_dress detail

Dress (detail), c1945, Avis Higgs, (b.1918), gifted by Mrs Avis Higgs, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2004/23/61

Image 3_bag

Handbag, 2005-6, Laurie Foon and Carleen Schollum for Starfish (estab. 1993, closed 2013), textile design by Avis Higgs (b.1918), purchase, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2005/47

Lizzie Wratislav
Curator Design Collections
November 2013