First of all, a big congratulations for your recent Queens Birthday Honour!
Did you know it was coming?
Not until I got a letter asking if I’d l accept it.
And you said ‘yes I will!’
Yes, and then they send all the names off to the Queen and then you are advised when it comes back and you’re not allowed to say anything until 5am on the day.
So the Queen looked at your name and said ‘She’ll do!” But seriously, it was welcome news because you’ve done so much for the arts here in Ōtautahi. Does it feel like your whole life so far has been devoted to artistic endeavour?
I did have a wee bit of a life before I came into the arts! When you look back at my generation, when you left school, as a woman, you were either a nurse or a teacher or some variation of that. Women weren’t encouraged to have careers as such back then. I began as a school dental nurse but that did actually prepare me for all sorts of things. I learnt those skills of management and diplomacy in that job. It’s amazing to look back on and see how it has helped.
So you became a school dental nurse after you left school – but before that, had you always been interested in artistic things when you were little?
Yes. Our paternal grandfather was a philatelist and he actually designed that red kiwi classic stamp that they use now on a lot of Kiwiana. He wrote the catalogues on New Zealand stamps and he had an office in their house with a typewriter. And when we were kids, having a typewriter was just the coolest thing. He had masses of paper and we used to draw all the time and his whole office was just decorated with his grandchildren’s paintings. And my mother’s youngest sister did sculpture at art school. My oldest sister was very good at drawing and she went to art school too (as did my youngest sister). Because she was doing that – and your older sister is always better than you are at everything – I went into the craft line. I used to weave and stitch.
Were you always drawn to textiles and fabric?
Yes and partly that was probably in reaction to my sister doing fine art. She had never done weaving – it was the one thing she’d never done.
You saw your opportunity and went for it!
I was always very drawn to making stuff. We used to make toys and all sorts and all our clothes as we got older.
When did you realise that it was something that could be a vocation?
When my youngest son was five and started school, the Canterbury Embroiderers Guild did the City and Guilds Creative course in Embroidery. That particular year they did it in Christchurch and it was a two and half year course. We had local tutors who taught us the different techniques – and then our final exam was sent back to England to be marked. The 2 and a half years of doing that course was just amazing. We had the best people in each field to teach us.
And you started exhibiting?
I did do quite a bit of exhibiting, yes.
Where did you exhibit?
We actually had an exhibition in London at the Barbican. That was a result of The Globe Theatre hangings.
Wait. Hold on, tell me more about The Globe Theatre hangings?
The New Zealand Embroiderers’ Guild actually made the hangings (there are four) for the Globe Theatre which are now on display at the theatre on the banks of the Thames in London
So is your work in there?
Yes, I did the boar on the Adonis hanging. As a result of that project the then QEII Arts Council had a textile symposium and invited fifteen people from around the country to go to Auckland for two weeks for this incredible symposium. Eighteen months later they invited ten of us back up to Auckland, and then we ten had an exhibition to coincide with the opening of the new Globe Theatre.
Digressing a little – but do you think there was more support for textiles and applied arts in those days?
It’s often to do with the champions. At that stage Edith Ryan who was in Wellington was very active. There was also a Crafts Council in those days. Edith also had a major craft gallery in The Terrace. Edith very much championed craft and had gathered a lot of support for it.
Is that something you would like to see reinstated to an extent? – A craft council – something that is specifically craft related?
It was problematic in a way. In the nineties, we did actually have a website that was designed to help as a vehicle for craftspeople to show and sell their work, but it was ahead of its time. A lot of the craft artists didn’t engage with the internet and so it didn’t really happen. What I find really interesting now is that a lot of younger contemporary artists are using textiles and it’s like ‘Oh wow! Textiles! This amazing thing!” and we’ve been doing it for many years. But this highlights how a lot of craft just hasn’t been documented in New Zealand over the years.
It doesn’t have the same profile that other art forms do. I think part of that is being able to see textiles exhibited. I remember in the 80s and 90s in places like The Arts Centre galleries like The Gingko and Dilana Rugs that had a lot of applied art – you could see textiles as art. You don’t see a lot of it now.
Quilting is still a huge thing. I’ve been a selector for a couple of the quilt symposiums and one year I did it with Michael Reed and John Scott who was the director of the Polytechnic at the time. There were over 1000 slides we had to look at – it was huge. That often goes unnoticed.
It tends to fly under the radar
There is a NZ Embroiderers Guild conference every two years – which alternates venues – and in 1992 it was in Christchurch and one of the people who was involved in the organisation at the time really wanted to have an international exhibition and so we actually had it at the McDougall Art Gallery and got the top British and top American textile artists involved – so it was a world class exhibition. And of course, everyone was bowled over by the numbers of people who came. It didn’t surprise us, but it did astonish the art world. But people go to these things!
When I think about my own trajectory, I remember one of the first exhibitions I saw that really had a huge impact on me was at the McDougall Art Gallery and it was Contemporary French Tapestries. Those are the stand out moments that resonate with people. Whether it’s as a child you go to the theatre and think ‘I want to be part of that’ there’s always a key moment in people’s lives.
Do you think that people can be a bit dismissive of craft? That there’s a feeling that it’s not ‘real art’?
Yes, some. When I was part of an art buying group and I wanted people to look at Stanley Palmer and some of the other printmakers – and I remember some people saying ‘Oh, but they’re only prints’ those particular artists have chosen printmaking as their medium. I think Marian Maguire did a huge amount to champion and change that attitude.
It strikes me as unfair because so many people’s first exposure to art come through being exposed to craft. And also, for a lot of people craft is more accessible, more affordable than fine art.
That’s a way that the artist has chosen to manifest their art and it deserves respect. I organised an exhibition called ‘Remaking the Elements’ for the Christchurch Arts Festival in 2005. When the Christchurch Art Gallery first opened they had a big exhibition of William Sutton so I gave the catalogue that came from that exhibition to all the various applied artists and asked them to respond to it. The Christchurch Art Gallery brought a couple of those pieces, because they were major works, and those artists did an incredible response. There was glass, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery, rugs, installation, it was great. We are overdue for a major applied arts exhibition in Christchurch!
In terms of Christchurch, do we have a very good roster of applied art craftspeople here?
Certainly in terms of weaving we used to. Things go in phases and weaving has probably had its moment for a while. But Cheryl Lucas has a major exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery in August and so that’s really bringing ceramics back to the fore. There are great jewellers. The National does a great job of championing our jewellers and Form Gallery exhibits applied arts.
You’ve done so many things over the years, do you ever look at your own career and think ‘goodness! All the stuff I’ve done!”
Well I started to write my CV recently and I couldn’t remember half of the things I’ve done! But yes, there is a lot, because there’s all my own work and the projects I’ve been involved in –the suffrage piece in the Town Hall. And then there’s jazz and the Arts Festival… it’s been great because you get to meet so many people.
The Big Idea recently talked about how important it is to have arts administrators and that certainly is true in your case, but it’s important to recognise that you’re not just an arts administrator but you’re primarily an arts maker. But tell me how your move into administration came about?
Briony Ellis came to Christchurch to do a feasibility study on a Christchurch Arts Festival in about 1995 and was interviewing people around the city to see what they thought. She talked to me as I was involved in textiles and did some stage setting for Festival of Romance with Jodi Wright at the time. She got the nod to do an arts festival here. The first festival was basically an umbrella event of everything that was going on, but there wasn’t a lot of visual art in it. I had said this to Briony and she said’ well, you do it then.’ So I basically produced the visual arts part of the arts festival.
And what did that look like?
Oh my gosh. We did an exhibition at CoCA on a budget of $5,000 which is all we could raise. We managed to get a free van to go up to the North Island and pick up some major artworks. Because it was July, the weather was terrible, the roads were closing behind the driver with snow and the ferry sailing was cancelled – it was such a dramatic time. That year we brought Michael Parekowhai’s big Gordon Walters piece – Kiss the Baby Goodbye and Michel Tuffery’s tin bull – all these major works that had not been seen here before. It was a fast learning curve. Tranzrail was a sponsor so we asked them to transport the art but they couldn’t insure the works and so that’s why we got this van!
That’s a great example of what has to happen sometimes in the arts – you have to do these crazy things, just to get things done
Yeah! In those days to be fair the compliance wasn’t what it is today. So through that experience, I became the visual arts manager for the festival and that then grew to doing programming.
Eventually you moved to WORD?
That was really because The Christchurch Arts Festival was managing what was then The Christchurch Writers Festival. In 2008 I did a lot of the production on it. Ruth Todd and Morrin Rout were the programmers and I worked with the actual production. After the Arts Festival came to a halt in 2009, I was asked to be involved with the writers festival. So 2010 was my first full year and of course it didn’t happen.
The September earthquake.
It was three days before we opened. Jodi Wright rang me at about 5.30 am that morning and told me that the Repertory Theatre was on the road. The Repertory theatre was going to be hosting the Schools Programme that week.
You carried on and persevered and built that festival to an absolutely world class festival
In 2012 we had the Christchurch Writers Festival in the dome in Hagley Park and that was great. In 2013 Rachael King came on to run the programme.
It’s interesting isn’t it – that you go to a festival like WORD and it’s seamless and you don’t really have any idea of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to make it appear seamless.
People used to say to me in February, ‘What are you doing now? The festival isn’t until August!’
What are you doing with all your spare time!
Exactly. What spare time! I think the other thing people don’t really understand is the time it takes to raise the money, organise the venues, programme, marketing, compliance – there are lots of people working away in the background.
That’s pretty much a full time occupation isn’t it? Finding the money.
People don’t realise that either. They think the Council just gives you money to do it! Of course, that’s a portion of it, but there’s all the rest as well that you have to find. Box office doesn’t go anywhere near covering the expenses, we have to raise the majority of money from government grants, foundations, sponsors and patrons. When you see how many logos appear in a programme, it gives you an idea of how many benefactors you need to work with.
Did you love your time at WORD?
I did. I was ready to move on by the end, but I loved it. You have some really interesting interactions and the thing about the arts is how much you learn through all the arts. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do: to enable things to happen, and to enable other people to feel what I feel. The arts go beyond a headline. For example we just had the screening of Behrouz Bouchani’s film and yes, you’d hear about the detainees on Manus Island and what was going on but they were just words in the paper, but it’s not until you read his story that you begin to understand what it really means. It’s the same with visual arts. The arts can help tell stories that are only headlines in other respects.
How does it feel knowing that you have made such a difference in so many people’s lives – whether it’s enabling them to tell their stories, or enabling them to show their own work? That make give you a sense of pride?
Yes it does. Because people on their own often don’t know where to go or what to do. That’s what’s important – to be able to put all the parts together, to put people in touch with each other, and then it can go from there. It’s having the contacts and knowing the who and the what and how you can make things happen that is really important.
Why have you stayed in Christchurch – is there something about Otautahi that inspires you?
Yeah. Once you get to know people it makes all the difference. I worked in Wellington and I loved that, but it was an international scene that came and went. Whenever I went to Auckland for anything, my Auckland friends would be waiting for me to tell them what to go to because it’s just so spread out there. It was an effort for them to go to something. In Christchurch the fact that I know the people and I know what’s going on and it’s actually all year round. Before Covid, I remember meeting someone who had moved down from Auckland they were amazed by the fact that there was something they could go to every night here.
And also there’s a huge range of very talented people doing interesting things.
Well, just look at the Boosted campaigns that are currently running. Fifteen projects of amazing work as well as the major organisations producing ongoing programmes.
What’s next for you?
I am teaching at the National Embroidery Conference in July. I want to get back to doing some of my own work. I’m still involved with Friends of the Christchurch Art Gallery and we’re doing a history of Friends and raising money for the gallery. But there’s so much creative space and I think the Arts Centre has a huge amount of potential – there’s just a lot of things that will be happening over the next few years. I have one other project I want to make happen soon – watch this space!