The Story of Steph on a stamp

Fact: the only living New Zealand author on a stamp is Taranaki writer Steph Matuku. Her uncle, artist Graham Kirk, backgrounds his amazing painting.

When I was around 10, I collected stamps. I was struck by the fact that so many New Zealand stamps, and our currency, bore the image of an English king or queen. I liked the idea of a Maori face instead, and thought of my niece Stephanie Matuku, who could be placed within the surrounds of an actual New Zealand stamp from my collection.

Steph was happy to go along with the idea so I took a trip around to her place in New Plymouth with my camera and asked her to look 'regal'. I remember her tilting her head back a little and affecting an expression that was just what I wanted. The fact she was 20 at the time seemed a good enough reason to make that the denomination of the stamp, although it doesn't specify 20 what, exactly.

"Stephanie" was painted in 1994. It's a big painting, just over a metre square, acrylic on board. I went on to do a series of other stamp paintings that included "Elvis - Secret Rotorua Visit", Sam Hunt, "Jock Kirk 1941" and Fred Dagg.

The painting of Stephanie was sold at an exhibition I had in Wellington the following year, to Lois Daish, well known as a food columnist for The Listener. It hung for several years at her Wellington restaurant, The Brooklyn Cafe and Grill, where I have to say it looked absolutely grand, presiding over a double-space entry area leading to a mezzanine.

The restaurant was always busy, right up until the business went into receivership. Because the painting had been purchased as part of the business it couldn't be deemed to be privately owned. I know that Lois was extremely upset to lose the painting that way because she had become very attached to it.

It was subsequently auctioned at Dunbar Sloane for a pittance to a man who was very pleased to get it, and struggled on a Wellington bus to get it home.

As for Steph herself, she’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. I'm impressed by her talent as a writer. She contributed a very original piece that drew on Maori mythology for the Frack Off exhibition by Taranaki artists and writers that I put together a few years back and I really enjoyed her piece for The Sapling, "What the heck is Maori Literature". She has a sense of humour which belies a seriousness of intent and understanding, and recently had two books published.

Like myself, she doesn't see roses ahead for the human race. That's why so much of her focus has been on dystopian societies in a world that could be grinding to a halt in about 15 years, as she sees it. I give us at least 30.

Whatever, I know that she is committed to her writing, and to her two young children, and she will give everything her best shot.

Steph Matuku’s two books, YA novel Flight of the Fantail and junior fiction novel Whetū Toa and the Magician (both published by Huia), are available in all good bookstores.

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