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The Human Face

Rolph Hediger used coffee and ink to create the compelling portraits for his show For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The series was driven by the artist’s love of meeting vastly different people and telling their stories.

Rolph Hediger used coffee and ink to create the compelling portraits for his show For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The series was driven by the artist’s love of meeting vastly different people and telling their stories.

Securing an exhibition at a city gallery straight out of art school is no mean feat, but that’s exactly what artist Rolph Hediger, 23, has achieved with his current Tauranga Art Gallery show, For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. “It’s been amazing, I have been so lucky,” he says.

The show, part of an onging project for Rolph, involves subjects from all walks of life — doctors, immigrants, artists, priests, the homeless and survivors of abuse; many of whom Rolph randomly approached while out and about. “When you talk to people, they’re often not what they seem. I love listening to people’s stories and I think they can be more honest when talking to a stranger, as you might never meet again,” he says. “And even with people I knew really well, like my dad, they always share something surprising.”

Rolph at his exhibition at Tauranga Art Gallery

However, as the project progressed, what struck Rolph was less the surprising revelations than the similar themes that continually arose:  relationships, hope, hardships to overcome... This realisation inspired a change of direction for his artwork, focusing rather on people’s similarities rather than their differences.  

The start of the project involved colourful painted faces, but now Rolph turned to different materials for a different effect. “I started using ink and coffee, so everyone looks a little bit the same,” he says.” This is the first time I’ve painted with coffee — it’s so unpredictable and I have to react quite fast and work quickly.” The resulting portraits, hanging in For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, depict distorted faces with individual characteristics blurred away. Similarly, the accompanying interviews have been cut up, distorted and overlapped, so you’re confronted with a mass of indistinct sounds.

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Musical inspiration

Rolph was born in Capetown, South Africa, and moved to Vancouver when he was eight years old. He arrived in New Zealand three years ago, with his parents, brother and sister.

Rolph was drawn to art from a young age. “I’ve always liked drawing and painting, but I didn’t know anything about the art scene or galleries,” he says. “I was just doing my own thing — I felt like I might have been the only artist in the world,” he laughs.

“I got a lot more serious about it when I started going to shows — in Vancouver there’s a massive metal and punk scene. Just seeing all the t-shirts people were wearing, all the tattoos, the album art, that got me really interested,” he says. “Thinking back to the stuff I used to paint then, it kind of looked like tattoos.” (Rolph’s interest in tattoos continues to this day, with about 50 on his body, including some he has done himself.)

The culture surrounding the music scene was also his first introduction to folk art, and outsider art — work created by people who are self taught and sit outside the mainstream art world. “Outsider art is sort of primitive, which I thought was so cool, as before that I thought art had to be realistic and professional looking. It was easy to do and was fun, which was the most important thing for me back then!”

Looking forward

Right now, Rolph’s bedroom/studio is brimming with paintings of colourful blooms with solid black backgrounds, they sit alongside other works in progress that are very different, but also feature that dark asethetic. Outside his painting, he’s stoking his creative fires by collaborating with fellow artists at The Good Sheet Collective at Tauranga’s Incubator Creative Hub, as well as studying again — this time, law at Waikato University, with an eye to working within the arts.

Rolph credits the Bachelor of Creative Industries at Toi Ohomai for opening him up to a world of possibilities. ”I was introduced to the arts scene and how things work. I’m a lot more confident now; I’m always thinking about how I can talk about things, how I can tie things into a series, and my art has a lot more depth to it. I’ve also met amazing people and lifelong friends.”

For Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven is at Tauranga Art Gallery until 4 June.
@rrrolphhh

Story by Sarah Nicholson