Molly Morell Macalister was born at Invercargill on 18 May 1920, the eldest of three daughters of Stanley Morell Macalister, a solicitor, and his wife, Catherine Holmes McQueen. A partner in the prominent Invercargill law firm Macalister Brothers, Morell Macalister was an intelligent and kindly father who encouraged Molly’s talent for art, and as a teenager she won several awards from the Royal Drawing Society in London. After attending Invercargill South School and spending a year at Southland Girls’ High School, Molly and her sister Jean enrolled as boarders at Chilton St James School, Lower Hutt. Her teacher, Geraldine Fitzgerald, encouraged Molly to be an artist and her 1937 school record notes ‘Remarkable natural ability in Drawing’.
Molly Macalister enrolled at the Canterbury University College School of Art in February 1938, intending to study painting and drawing, but soon found herself drawn to the stimulating teaching of Francis Shurrock in the modelling department. She assisted Shurrock in preparing sculptural reliefs for the Education Court at the 1939–40 New Zealand Centennial Exhibition, Wellington, and won the sculpture prize in her final year. In August 1940 Macalister left the college to be a land girl on her uncle’s sheep farm at Waikaka in Southland. During 1942–43 she worked for the Otago University Museum, making models of farm animals for agricultural exhibits and an entire diorama on the kakapo.
Molly Macalister moved to Auckland in 1943 and met George Hajdu (later known as Haydn), a young Hungarian builder who had arrived in New Zealand in 1939. They were married in Dunedin on 14 August 1945. The Haydn and Rollett Builders company was established in 1946. As time went by Molly and George’s home became a social focus for the many academics, writers and artists who lived on Auckland’s North Shore. From 1944 until 1949 (when her son was born) and again in 1953, Molly, under her maiden name, exhibited painting, woodcarving and sculpture at the Auckland Society of Arts’ annual exhibitions. A jarrah head and a carved mask were later to be regarded as two of the strongest works of New Zealand sculpture in the 1940s.
In 1952 she was a finalist in a competition for a sculpture of the ‘Unknown Political Prisoner’, and her maquette was exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London. With fellow sculptors Anne Severs (later Tremain) and Alison Duff she began using cast and moulded concrete, and the three women had an exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1959. Macalister’s sculpture increased in scale and showed her respect for Henry Moore, whose work she had seen at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1956, and Marino Marini, with whom Anne Severs had worked in Italy. In 1962 and 1969 Molly and George travelled extensively in Europe and America and visited Japan.
Molly Macalister was a passionate advocate for sculpture at a time when very little was made or exhibited in New Zealand. A founding member of the New Zealand Society of Sculptors and Associates (1961) and honorary life member from 1979, she was the prime mover behind the 1971 international sculpture symposium in Auckland. Her public commissions include ‘Māori warrior’ (1964) in Auckland’s Queen Street and ‘Little bull’ (1967) in Hamilton Gardens. These two monumental bronzes have a quiet power and strength and convey deep respect for their subjects – a characteristic of all Macalister’s work. Among other works of this period are stone carvings for the ark in the new Auckland synagogue (1968), and a bust of John A. Lee for the Auckland Public Library (1967).
Many people responded to Macalister’s calmness and warmth, sensing in her a steady acceptance of human fears and aspirations. Raised a Presbyterian, as an adult she was confirmed in the Anglican church, and in the late 1960s she joined a Zen Buddhist group in Auckland. She read poetry, philosophy and theology, and Carl Jung’s Man and his symbols was important to her.
Despite recognition by her peers and many favourable reviews, Molly Macalister was always reticent about her achievements. In the late 1960s figurative sculpture had fallen from favour and she felt out of sympathy with developments in conceptual art and installation sculpture. Yet in several late works she experimented with new materials and developed the idea of assembling repeated forms to make composite works. Among these is her outstanding commission for the North Shore crematorium: a cascade of shining bronze fragments, shards from a broken vessel. She completed it in 1973 after suffering a severe illness. Her last works were for private contemplation: consummate small basalt carvings of a fish, a bird, a sheep and a Buddha.
Molly Macalister died in Auckland on 12 October 1979 survived by her husband, George Haydn, and her son. In one of several published tributes, Colin McCahon wrote: ‘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 she created. Few artists if any ever know this’.