Shirley Grace McGregor graduated from Canterbury University's Ilam School of Fine Arts in 1969, after studying painting (in later years, she added Honours to her Fine Arts Diploma, and got a teaching diploma). While studying, she acted in student productions directed by Mervyn Thompson (Songs to Uncle Scrim).
Grace was an occasional presenter on magazine show Town and Around and a reporter for On Camera. In 1971 teleplay The City of No, she played a stroppy muse to a man who has left his wife. Grace also spent time in travelling ensemble Blerta with her then husband, Bill Gruar (in the 1980s she began using the surname Grace — her middle name).
While raising a family, she was establishing herself as a photographer. She taught and exhibited her work, took shots for The Listener and photographed Sam Hunt and artist Tony Fomison — plus a series of large format images of the cast of Utu, which echoed the long exposure shots of early photography.
Grace returned to the other side of the camera for a landmark title from the 1970s Kiwi movie explosion: Goodbye Pork Pie. She bookended the film, as the woman that Tony Barry's character heads to Invercargill to win back. In a 1994 interview, Grace recalled being driven around in an open-topped convertible while promoting the film. "When I consider the creative input I've put into parenting, as most women have, I think we should all be carted around in white convertibles and cheered at, but not for five days work in a movie."
Grace went on to act in little seen Ronald Hugh Morrieson adaptation Pallet on the Floor (1986). In comical short film Gordon Bennett (1989), her character's concrete-laying business is hobbled by a gormless troublemaker. The film was directed by Nevan Rowe, another actor savouring the chance to turn the tables.
By now Grace had also begun directing shorts of her own, including A Point of View (1982), in which she played a photographer, and Bruno Lawrence the actor in front of her lens. In the 1990s she headed to Ireland to trace her ancestry for documentary Erin's Exiled Daughters. Grace directed and produced.
She illustrated a number of collections by poet Hone Tuwhare, including the cover for his book Short Back and Sideways.
Shirley Grace passed away on 12 January 2000, six days shy of turning 51.
Published on 12 March 2020
Roger Booth, Bruno - The Bruno Lawrence Story (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 1999)
Barbara Cairns and Helen Martin, Shadows on the Wall - A Study of Seven New Zealand Feature Films (Auckland: Longman Paul, 1994)
Margaret Whitley, 'Gracing Our Days' (Interview), Art News, July 1990 (Vol XI, No 2)
'Grace, Shirley, 1949 - 2000' National Library website. Accessed 12 March 2020
Unknown Writer, 'Profile - Shirley Gruar' - City Girl, March 1981, page 56