Molly Macalister
1920 - 1979

Molly Macalister first became widely known as a sculptor in Auckland in the latter 'fifties, when her work was exhibited, among other places, in the Auckland City Art Gallery's First Floor Gallery. She had trained at the Canterbury School of Art with Francis Shurrock. For more than two decades she was a presence in New Zealand sculpture: a founder member of the New Zealand Society of Sculptors and Painters, and the recipient of a number of public and private commissions. A notable recent commission was from the Auckland City Council, for Auckland's Downtown Square - the bronze figure of a Maori Warrior, for which she made many beautiful head studies.
Molly Macalister died on October 12, 1979. Her memorial service was a gathering of many leading figures from the world of the arts in New Zealand.
Here we print tributes by two friends: Una Platts and Colin McCahon.


Let us sing for Molly with the sculptured head - a head bearer for the many heads she made for the Queen Street Warrior: beautiful heads and perhaps she never really knew what it was that she had created. Few artists if any ever know this.

Molly was a humble person endowed with calmness and charity and her own particular grace that could fill questions with love and quiet. Molly passed us by and we didn't quite know what was passing us. Some ancient instinct made real?

Molly gave us our Bird Watcher who sits in the garden and watches birds on our grapefruit tree and a privet. She never looks down. She is a calm and detached figure who watches beyond the birds and the trees to something even more rewarding. It could be the sunset or rainbows lacing a passing storm or the world of clouds that hang heavily in the Auckland sky most times - a feeling of peace.

cement casting
(collection of Colin McCahon)


Molly Macalister's death will leave a large gap in the lives of her friends. There had grown up a habit among friends on the North Shore in Auckland of calling in on her in the late afternoon - of having a drink, maybe, and a bit of a talk. During the last few years you could be fairly sure that you would find her there.

As you opened the front door you would nearly always hear music - it was mostly Mozart - and if you went straight to the living room you would find Molly getting up from the sofa where she had been lying reading, and pausing to turn down the volume of sound while she came forward to greet you warmly.

The large room she was in always had a peaceful casual look, and I think of it as a frame for her. There are - from my point of view - treasures there: but they lie together in an easy, unselfconscious way, which many people arranging a room are fated never to achieve. And in those afternoons when her friends visited her in this room I think to all of us it was as if it were a welcoming extension of Molly herself.

To speak of it as Molly's room is not, of course, strictly true. Molly and George Haydn, her husband, chose most of these things together. Still, somehow, for whoever was visiting Molly at this period in the day, the whole room did seem to be her's.

What you looked at, of course, depended on where you sat. It might be a Mrkusich oil, a print by Hanly, or one by Rodney Fumpston, a drawing by Michael Nicholson, a friend now in Sydney. There were snapshots of the-grandchildren she was so fond of. One drawing by the sculptor Anne Severs, wife of New Zealand composer Ronald Tremain, is a reminder of the time years ago when a group of Takapuna friends and acquaintances used to meet at the Haydns' and work from a model.

A glowing flower painting by Hildegarde Wieck, now living in Germany again, is one that Molly had grown more and more fond of; and although now and then a new picture might appear and one of the others be switched over to another room, I think the Wieck would always have stayed.

Then there was the large McCahon oil: one that he had exchanged with Molly for her Birdwatcher. It would always be over the mantlepiece, the light coming through the young kauris echoing the patches of light spilling into the room through the screen of trees outside.

Except for Molly's lovely Maori head, which she had carved years ago, the pieces of sculpture in the room were less obvious from where her visitors sat. A couple by Graham Brett, something by Ann Severs, and a small Mother and Child by Molly herself, were on shelves further down the room, to be seen more clearly if you were sitting at the dining-table.

I list these things, some only of those which were on the walls and shelves, but I would be giving a wrong impression of Molly if I conveyed the idea that she liked being surrounded by possessions. She was probably one of the least bound by things she owned of anyone I know.

There was a kind of extension to the room which anyone coming in could hardly manage not to catch at least a glimpse of. Especially if the weather was good. The french-doors at the far end of the room would be opened out on to a small courtyard which was very much part of ,Molly. There was a grapefruit tree there, a lemon tree, ginger plants, a monsteria, and some kind of burgeoning thing like a red-hot-poker plant with curling fleshy leaves. There was a fuchsia too - a mass of flowers in the right season: but it was the plants with sculptural leaf-shapes which attracted Molly most.

Right in the centre of the view through the open doors was a birdbath Molly made from a rough block of Oamaru stone that had once been given to her. She had stood it on end, scooped the top surface, and brought water to it in an almost invisible, thin plastic tube. The birds really liked it. As her friends sat inside talking they could usually see at least a sparrow or a blackbird using it. Sometimes they were competing for the service of the basin.

If you were lucky you could watch one of the fantails at work - having a pretty busy time washing, and sending up showers of spray to catch alight in the shafts of the afternoon sun. It was a joy. But in the last months Molly dismantled the tube carrying the water, and placed there instead a piece of her sculpture - a small version of that work outside the State Insurance Building on the corner of Wakefield and Rutland Streets. The same slanting sun came down at just the right angle to show it off and you could not really mourn the dispossessed birds. Molly had been thinking of perhaps using a much bigger but similar shape as a centrepeice in a large fountain she had designed.

If you walked out into the courtyard there were one or two other pieces of sculpture, one of them the lolling head of a Victim. To see some sculpture was to be expected: but there was also a bit of a surprise - a small, oblong patch of vegetable garden. A year or two back Molly had levered out some paving stones, succoured the earth with some of her home-made compost and planted it with herbs, and, in the right season, a few tomatoes and lettuces. Rather miraculously, the stray sunlight, which caught the sculpture and the bird-bath, did its work. The garden, if not richly thriving, was productive enough.

For as long as I can remember it would have been unusual to find Molly at work in the late afternoon. All those years ago when her son John was small she left off anything to do with sculpture - anything overt that is. When he began to go to school she began to work again. By a kind of sleight-of-hand she managed to do any necessary house chores straightaway after he had left the house and then went to the studio - at that time the empty garage with a sheet of perspex letting in an overhead light. When John came home she could do pieces of housework that she hadn't finished in the morning, things she could manage with one hand as it were, and give her attention to her son.

An interesting point, perhaps, is that the years she took away from sculpture were not lost - did not retard her development at all. In fact, when she began to work again, she seemed to have taken a big step forward.

Sometimes, when Molly was finishing the Maori Warrior, that column-like figure at the bottom of Queen Street, she would still be busy when people called in. The garage studio was too small for it, and the large studio, now down below the house, was not yet built. George arranged some sort of framework on the slope at the back of the house and the weather was kept out by polythene and corrugated iron. Anyone who came was apt to find her struggling in the wind with the recalcitrant plastic, trying to ensure that the contraption stayed more or less waterproof.

When I first met Molly she had just come up from Dunedin, where she had been working in the Museum. She was from Invercargill. She had spent a year at Southland Girls' High School: but then became a boarder at Chiltern Saint James, Wellington, where she was lucky to have had a very unorthodox head teacher, Geraldine Fitzgerald, a woman who encouraged independence.

Then, at Canterbury School of Art, the fact that she found Francis Shurrock as a teacher so full of vitality was a large contributing factor in her decision to turn to sculpture.

But she always loved drawings and paintings as well, and sometimes, when I went with her for a visit to the Auckland galleries, we could find some unexpected delight and Molly would say, 'That will do. It's made my day.' It was a feeling I could share with her.

During Molly's childhood her Christmas holidays had been spent at Te Anau where her father, Morell Macalister, liked to fish. Other holidays she delighted in being up on an uncle's sheep farm at Waikaka, Southland. When war broke out it seemed natural to choose to work on the farm as a land girl. All this a great contrast to the restrictive atmosphere of an Invercargill suburb.

I would guess that the great pleasure she had in the farm was related to her later love for the fine West Coast beaches out of Auckland. She always liked walking on our local Takapuna beach: but she loved the harsh greyness of the surf beaches - Bethell's for instance - and liked scrambling about, climbing up to Maori midden sites and seeil1g if she could find anything - perhaps a piece of a fishook. An adze she once found was always on her mantelpiece.

One day, when I had been with her at Bethell's, we called in, on the way back, to see Colin and Ann McCahon at Murawai and we went for a walk down to the beach. The day had clouded over. There was just a yellow bar of light cIose to the horizon. We were watching hang-gliders up above the cliffs when suddenly one seemed to swoop down from the sky just above us, swerve sharply, and land practically at our feet: a god from the sky. Molly said: 'It's made my day.'

When a friend, Maurice Duggan, the writer died, Molly wrote in a piece for Islands: 'He looked unblinkingly at his circumstances and at their meaning in universal terms - he knew how to live without hope and without fear'. This could have been written about her.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 14 Summer 1979-80