Age no barrier for hospice artist

20 December 2023

At age 95, Norman Nelson from Warkworth is one of Harbour Hospice’s oldest patients. He has a chronic heart condition and associated health problems, and benefits from regular visits by hospice community nurses, as well as a day’s respite care once a week at Tui House.

He doesn’t have the puff he used to, but that hasn’t stopped the former businessman, boxing champion and small-town hero – he once sent gang members packing when they tried to rob him – from actively supporting hospice’s fundraising efforts.

Norman will exhibit his art at hospice’s annual fundraiser, the 2024 Martakana Fine Art Exhibition in Matakana next month.

He won’t sell his work because he wants to give it to his children.

“But to be able to showcase the art of one of our patients is very special, and this adds a new and very beautiful dimension to the exhibition,” Harbour Hospice community and events fundraiser Emily Thomas says. “As far as we know, this is the first time a patient has exhibited.”

Norman was late to the game as an artist, taking up painting at age 60. He credits his wife of 40 years, Lorraine, for sparking his passion after she signed him up for a beginners art course when he had surgery and couldn’t play golf for six weeks.

Lorraine explains, “I knew he could draw because I’d seen his doodles on his blotter pad. After his first class he came home and said he was disappointed that the class was full of ladies, but some of those ladies were from his golf club, so he stayed.”

Norman enjoys painting landscapes of the local area as well as places he and Lorraine have visited. Acrylic or oil on canvas is his medium, although he also paints in water colours.

Norman and Lorraine joined the Harbour Hospice whānau a year ago and Norman says the support has had a very positive impact on their lives. He and Lorraine both enjoy the break when Norman goes in for day respite, and Norman loves being able to get out of the house and socialise with the Tui House nurses and volunteers.

Norman & Lorraine

Earlier this year, Norman had his life story written by a hospice volunteer life story writer and was overcome with emotion. Being able to share his story with his children and grandchildren meant more to him than he could have imagined, he says.

The family has some interesting reading ahead. Norman left school at age 14 intending to be a chemist but didn’t have the right qualifications and instead studied business management. Starting out as a ‘grease monkey’, he went on to manage several motoring-related businesses and became renowned for having the ability to turn failing businesses into thriving ones.

He and Lorraine, who met at work, bought a motoring business/petrol station in Kaitaia. It was there that Norman stood his ground with gang members after they filled their car with petrol then refused to pay.

“They said ‘we can’t afford this petrol’ so I said ‘well, you can’t take what’s not yours’ and I got the syphon hose out and syphoned it back. They were all pushing and nudging me and then they said, ‘some of that petrol you took was ours’. I said, ‘if you can tell the difference you’re better than me’ and I told them to clear off.”

Over his lifetime Norman has chaired many community and business organisations, raced yachts, played lots of golf, held the title of Auckland’s 1949 featherweight boxing champion and developed a love of painting.

He’s a father of four, grandfather of 15 and great grandfather of 27; family plays an important role in Norman and Lorraine’s lives.

How does a man fit so much into a lifetime?

“Well, I am 95,” he says with a chuckle.

The Martakana Fine Art Exhibition 2024 will be held at Matakana Primary School, Matakana from January 18 to 21. Entry by donation.

Funds raised will go towards the care of hospice patients and their families and whānau in the Warkworth/Wellsford community.

This story was first published in the Mahurangi Matters.