They’re Not Cows

“I’ve never painted a cow in my life,” says Mike Petre, a little tartly. “They’re cattle!” But then he laughs. “Everyone calls them cows of course, but I paint cattle beasts because beef is what I know – not dairy cows. To me they’re very different.” 

Mike’s been painting them for over 20 years now, and his upcoming solo exhibition at Milford Galleries in Queenstown is eagerly anticipated. “I truly never get sick of painting them,” he says thoughtfully. “Yes, there’s an ease in it, almost like a muscle memory – I know the forms so well because I’ve spent so much time assessing weight and condition. But there are always new techniques which are fun for me. This time I’ve started working with hairdryers and moving the ink uphill…”

Unusually, Mike uses only black ink, thinning it with water to grade the jet black into all shades of grey in a similar process to watercolour. “It’s pretty exciting because you only get a few seconds to complete any part before it dries. If you screw up, it’s all over. But it just kind of emerges from the canvas; it’s almost like working in a darkroom and seeing the image appear almost magically, like a photograph.”

The beasts are close up because that’s how Mike has always worked with cattle. That bolshie, good-humoured curiosity of a mob of beasts is what he likes – the way they muscle in and check you out. Are you the viewer or the viewed? 

“In the middle of a herd, the landscape disappears and they become amorphic shapes… it’s only the light and shadow that creates the form,” he says. Another common question: why do the legs dribble away into nothing? “Because their hooves are usually hidden in grass – often wet. Anyway, I’m only interested in the beef!”

Mike’s from Piopio in the Waikato, where his family still has 1300 acres of sheep and cattle farm. He loves the animals, the environment and particularly the architecture of farms. The natural direction for young Mike was a degree in agriculture. 

However, it doesn’t take long to realise that everything this deceptively laid-back bloke looks at is being assessed with the beady eye of the compulsive creative. From the age of seven, Mike was called on for his effortless skills as an illustrator. This is why, after a few years of travel, he came back to New Zealand and did another degree – this time in design. 

Anyone who has worked with Mike will tell you that he goes to sometimes incredible lengths to ensure that everything he makes is simple and authentic – and then give it some extra hand-crafted twist that makes it extraordinary. The buildings he’s designed – the Vivian Gallery, the Sawmill Brewery, various local homes – are full of these touches. 

Mike’s fledgling architectural business, Small Space, created with the equally brilliant craftsman Mark Lever, promises more of the same.
But for now, it’s all about the shoulders, rumps and briskets of his cattle. Look out Otago, here they come. 

Exhibition 22 June – 30 July

Small Space Ltd: 021 747 102   

ArtJunction Mag