On the Edges: West Coast Te Tai Poutini
I’ve been south (Southland), north (the Hokianga), and east (Gisborne Tairāwhiti) – in the virtual sense - asking creative locals about what is distinctive about these outer edges of the New Zealand arts map. Places a good few hours’ drive from a major city. Places often left out of the national cultural consciousness. Now, let’s go west.
Like a keen flash of energy through the too green forest? My image of the artist of Te Tai Poutini West Coast of the South Island is more unkempt outsider in a tumbledown house, with a wildness redolent of their environment. It’s not a place known for its urbane, clean cut straight lines. It’s large, remote and sparsely populated. The population is about 33,000 - a third of that of Southland. You come here to be absorbed in your environment. And yet visiting I’ve found it more mixed.
I’m always impressed by both the pluck and idiosyncracy of individual and collective creative endeavours, some polished some defiantly not. Visiting Hokitika, its clear artists have made cultural enterprise part of the town’s contemporary image beyond pounamu. There’s the annual January driftwood sculpture festival Driftwood and Sand. Westland Arts Incorporated, a voluntary group continue to commission playful artist-designed public seats through the Take a Seat public art project.
Plenty however remains on the edge of things. The correspondents below are from further north; the Buller and Grey districts. They are both to type and different to my cliche. Putting a call out for interesting artists and initiatives through social media and email, the response was incredibly dispersed and diverse. An oddball assortment. I don’t pretend to cover them all here. This is not a survey. Those I do feature all equally feel like they’re on their own edge.
Perhaps Te Tai Poutini is so on edge the lines start to taper off the page here. It refuses to be surveyed. And isn’t that something to love.
Paul Maunder - Blackball
Inland from Greymouth is Blackball, population 330, home to the Blackball Museum of Working Class History, birthplace of the Labour party and once the headquarters of the communist party. It’s now home to director and playwright Paul Maunder who has brought new energy and his long experience in community and political based theatre to the coast.
“The West Coast is full of good stories and since they don’t know theatre they accept our experimentation as the norm,” Paul reckons, in a return email.
“There's a shift culturally happening, of incomers wanting a more liberal, diverse culture, who are beginning to move a few things along, but they don't have a lot of clues organisationally.
Maunder started Kiwi Possom Productions, a group now of 12, in Greymouth seven years ago. He remains one of the most politically committed theatremakers in the country with an impressive slew of works responding to the historical and contemporary concerns of the coast’s citizens. There’s been - “often after a period of devising” - plays on 1080 (Poison and Purity), the Pike disaster (Goodnight Irene), race relations (Te Ana I Runga I Te Pa/The Cave Above the Pa); the closure of the Spring Creek Coal Mine and the attempt by the workers to take it over and run it as a co-op (The Judgement of Ben Alder); a piece based on the relationship between an early conservationist and James Joyce's sister who was a nun on the coast (Ted, Poppy and WW11); the Seaview Asylum (A Brief History of Madness); the transition economy (The Measures Taken) and, right now, the controversy surrounding native logging (Helen and the Ferals).
“There wasn't a theatre culture down here,” Maunder says, “but now we have a following in Greymouth, Hokitika and Westport. We usually take the plays to Motueka/Nelson area [as well]; once we took something to Lyttleton and once played the Dunedin Fringe, but as soon as we hit the commodity culture we go home.
“The culture down here is mixed between a born and bredism which is into country music, pub monologues, psychics and physical activity, and incomers who yearn for a bit of city culture. Underground mining had a culture of its own based on solidarity, but it's gone. I miss that culture. We often have a discussion after a performance and have occasionally moved things a little, but the ruling class of local business people and farmers are looking after their own class interest; but that's true of anywhere.”
The big issue for Maunder is what he sees as an ongoing injustice in arts funding being mainly used to “subsidise an urban middle class lifestyle”. He pointed this out to Creative New Zealand recently.
“We wanted $5000 to tour one of our plays which had a big cast. It got turned down and the Dunedin Fringe got $8000 for its opening party. That made me a little shitty and I stated my angst to CNZ, which produced a visit from one of them. They are embarrassed that virtually none of their real money goes to the regions… By my calculation we should have $200,000 annually (purely population wise), which would be huge.”
In the wider arts Maunder singles out two visual artists Alison Hale and Tony Manuel (who both exhibit out of collective space Reefton Gallery in Reefton) and notes there are also good pounamu carvers.
“Networking is always hard because of the distances involved. We've started a co-operative incubator which could well lead to some cultural initiatives, the first is an underground Readers and Writers Festival in Blackball over Labour Weekend, starting in 2018.”
Richard Arlidge - Punakaiki
This is not a region known for its public museums, galleries and theatres. Now resident in Punakaiki, museum consultant and former director of Aratoi and Tauranga Art Galleries Richard Arlidge’s list of his own engagement and observation with a camera sums up the alternative interests nicely: “searching for my milky way shadow, the night sky, driftwood stackings, buildings in a state of dissolve and birds preparing for nesting.” Art for Arlidge here is his local environment.
“I have been collecting images of houses that appear to be no longer fit the assumption that they are suitable for occupation,” writes Richard, sharing a wealth of poignant images with me.
“In an era of increasing homelessness in the cities and the tedious turtle roofing style of modern soulless subdivisions often on low lying ground – where everything is squeaky and new (Tauranga!) – in my Greymouth and Westport house images the exterior looks almost at the point of no longer being weather tight. But the owners are not on a path of annual maintenance or investing for future capital gain. This is shelter. Sheltered from the bullshit of house proud middle class sensibilities?”
With this article I share with you one of Richard’s Punakaiki images. A freshly painted white road line rolls over the top of a Nikau fern frond. The insistences of clean white lines, tourism and a national roading programme against the overriding power of the environment.
Arlidge points to several key collective hubs to his north, south and East (Punakaiki can feel like a natural energy centre in this way): there’s the Art Hotel in Westport (which we’ll return to later), the Left Bank Art gallery in Greymouth and, again, the Reefton Gallery.
Woody - Waimangaroa
While these collective hubs are vital, I’m more drawn to the spaces that feel utterly out there. With no apologies for the rough half-finished edges, but instead the joy of unvarnished character that is missing from most city art spaces. People have space here to carve out their niches, and an absence of others to smooth their edges.
Formerly of Marehau in the Nelson region Woody, as he is known, has a new gallery for his carving in a former dance hall with a “rambling West Coast garden” at Waimangaroa between Westport and Granty. The gallery Waimangaroa Collectibles (introduced in a video that starts with the artist up a tree here) also has a “quaint museum” for Woody’s treasures, a Cabinet of Curiosities (another charming video made with the help of a ‘European curator’). Might more people with remarkable things to share do this.
Woody has been carving since a teenager and has been making a living from his creative work for the last 30 years, the last 20 with his own gallery. After a nasty electric shock he’s moved to the quiet of the West Coast and is slowly re-establishing himself.
“On the coast they call a spade a spade. They give you a smile or a wave without wanting something from you. Also the climate is perfect for me as an artist because the light is so crystal clear down here, with such an expanse of sea reflecting it back to the mountains. l really like the temperate climate which allows such abundant native species to grow, and the beautiful beaches which are strewn with these ancient forest. It just never ceases to bring me back to the moment and give me a good store of creative energy.”
The downside naturally says Woody is that the West Coast - especially north of Westport - is not well visited by people who understand or want to pay for a unique piece of work.
“In the places I have had my business in the past there has been a fairly good amount of tourists coming through my door and most of my big sales were to people from overseas, especially German people.
“On the coast they are a bit behind the eight ball. They seem to want to promote all the destructive businesses and think that tourism is just a passing fad, that could stop at any time. Green tourism is the way to go, for me my future.
“But I prefer the solace that l can have on the coast. Because l haven’t got a big rent I don’t have to rush. I don’t really expect to be able to make much money from my gallery, but that is not what I am here for. I would like to start running a few courses out here, where people could come out and stay for a period and learn how to make anything from a bone /jade carving to a rocking chair or a guitar.”
Woody is no fan of the way the local council treats artists.
“To build something, permits and council costs make it impossible. The council here want to attract more dairy farmers more miners, more fishermen. They like all the extractive industries that destroy the land, because they get lots of money to keep their bureaucracy afloat. The good thing about the coast though is that there are so many places where artists can afford to buy. And if you can get an old building that is still sound you can afford to buy outright without a big mortgage.
“There are many artists tucked away, but they are quite different to the artists you might find in cities. Whereas artists go to cities to make their name, to be amongst other similar artists and to live that lifestyle, it seems that the artists’ l meet down here have a smaller work output but I feel it is more unique. You create from your environment.
Daimon Schwalger aka Nomad - Westport
Then there are those who don’t meet the remote, wild stereotype. Based in Westport, outstanding musician Daimon Schwalger aka Nomad with a 29-year seven-album background in electronica and dub music, and now also a videographer couldn’t on paper be more urbane. His new single ‘Beloved One’ featuring Saritah has a video just out online with great shots of the coast.
Schwalger has worked with everyone from Te Papa to the upcoming rather smart looking Westport Whitebait Festival.
“The relative isolation of the West Coast should not deter people,” writes Daimon. “Although I'm primarily a one-man operation with a full suite of tools, I am able to travel around the country for work and can privately contract additional professionals.
“My partner and I decided to move to the West Coast for the lifestyle but to also try and take our business to the next level. We both love the quiet, relaxed life and thought that Westport would be a good base. One draw card was EPIC Westport being here (a co-working and event space). They were really supportive towards us moving here and offered us both studio spaces to set up. My partner runs her massage business from EPIC and I have moved to the main street as I have up scaled my office space.
“I’m very inspired by the coast. I love the ocean and wild rugged coast feel, I love the walks and the fact that there are not that many people here. The cost of living is really cheap and has really helped.”
Daimon finds a good mix of cultures in Westport, enjoying how his work in audio and video can move from local theatre to corporates, local festivals and bands to small businesses.
“There are a lot of artists on the coast. A lot generally stick to themselves but that in a way is the beauty of living here. It’s really good for focusing on your art or lifestyle choice. Not a lot happens socially but when it does it's usually a great night out and everyone really appreciates it. One thing that has been amazing for me is spending more time developing my knowledge on my work and health, learning more skills that help my business and art grow.
Daimon believes Westport will only get busier.
“I'd love to see some creative hut/house spaces on the beach up the coast to host artists and develop projects in music, art and video. The challenges can be hard in the winter. It rains a lot and it's hard for a lot of businesses and artists to make ends meet. For me I'm lucky to have a fairly good client base over NZ making my scope a lot wider during the winter seasons.”
Muri Paekau-Richards - Westport
Paekau-Richards (Tainui) originally from Auckand is another who even more directly pushes the benefits of the coast. Her husband is a fourth generation coaster from one of the original settling families. She’s a supporter of artists rather than an artist herself who sees the potential for artists in working or marketing themselves online. She’s part of a digitals solutions consultancy working with a virtual team outside of the region building websites for rural business and creating online growth strategies. Yep, she’s good on the PR, but with bighearted good reason.
“The West Coast is a work in progress. Our largest region in Aotearoa, NZ offering up huge possibilities,” she writes. “The challenges exist but can be overcome with perseverance and resilience.
“The Coast is remote and isolated and as a result, it has been under exposed to many things. Its primary industries have been farming, mining, and forestry but that has changed dramatically. There is huge potential for creative outlets, platforms, events and hubs.
“There are many jade carvers and artists working in traditional mediums such as painting and photography. But I am also inspired by wonderful artisans making scrub bars from gorse or natural products such as the Fox River Bath Company, or a talented florist who creates beautiful bouquets with wild flowers.”
Muri also mentions EPIC Westport as an innovation hub, hosting a variety of start-ups.
“It really fosters collaboration and connectivity and drives comprehensible and efficient business models and practices.
“There are a number of us collectively encouraging businesses to consider their impact on local community and to begin to think around what they are doing in a socially conscious way.”
Anna Hollings - Westport
After living half her life in Auckland Anna Hollings moved back to the South Island and the West Coast where she spent time as a kid.
“It's backward inwardness was appealing,” she writes to me. “Like stepping into the dark past of colonialism, I couldn't relate to it, but there was an authenticity I loved after the commercialism and materialism of the city. The landscape and the elements are overwhelming and extreme.
Hollings is a collage artist, her work has bold slippages between landscapes and the nostalgia of our cultural histories. It reflects that backwardness she writes about, but twists it into the present.
“The pounamu is the basis of the traditional arts here. And of course the landscape painters were here like Van der Velden. There are many artists working on the coast now that draw strength from those traditions but I don't identify with them. I feel like an outsider and I am, so perhaps that is why I appropriate bits of it.
Important for Hollings has been the establishment of Interspace Gallery, at the Art Hotel in Westport. Currently closed, it has held over 50 exhibitions and shows what’s possible for artists on the coast in terms of a new less retail based model.
“When the Lebels started the gallery a few years ago it reminded me of the Depot Artspace. Their values were more similar to mine. It wasn't about sales. They had great curatorial expertise but there were none of the dealer-type barriers I had experienced.
“I collaborated on a collage installation project with my partner Richard in 2015 at Interspace which we called ‘Free Art’. We had a huge body of work and we thought it would be an interesting comment on the perceived value of art. We were also mindful that this was the type of show that would work at Interspace but probably nowhere else. We didn't know what would happen or if people would appreciate the pun even, but in the end lots of people came and took work off the wall.
“Otherwise I use social media for showing my work and to feel connected to the art world. I discovered a trove of vintage New Zealand picture books in second hand shops that I use for my collage work. They are a great source of the NZ cultural memes I love to appropriate. I find them paradoxically very poignant but also cheesy.”
Hollings notes that artists working on the coast are mainly pitching to tourism.
“It would be wonderful to see them make a living and thrive outside of a city retail type setting. There is a wealth of natural resources and materials beyond jade. At the moment art and creativity is shamefully invisible. A sculpture symposium held in Westport two years ago had great public support. More funding and a shift in consciousness might help. There seems to be no context for aesthetic values and I can’t help thinking that it’s the result of a deep cultural deficit, somewhere in the past.”