American fabric artists Anita Stewart and Lauren Sinner. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Ian Grant

Unique in New Zealand, NZ Pacific Studio, Wairarapa’s artists’ residency, has adopted a new way of working since Normandell, the historic Mt Bruce house that was its home for 17 years, closed its doors in 2018.

Lauren Sinner at work on a fabric project.

Since it was founded by Dr Kay Flavell in 2001 in the restored Kaiparoro House near Pukaha Mt Bruce Wildlife Centre, the studio has provided inspiration, space and time to over 400 resident artists from around New Zealand and the world – painters, writers, photographers, musicians and other creative practitioners – to work on a project of their choice.

The residency also fosters involvement with the Wairarapa and Tararua communities.

Originally from Dunedin, and now retired as the Humanities Professor at Berkeley, University of California, Flavell believed the Pacific region’s shared ecologies, rich indigenous cultures, and diverse multicultural communities provided many areas for comparative study and offered creative solutions to various environmental and cultural issues, both local and global.

After her return to America and the sale of Normandell, the studio’s board reviewed its operating model and it was decided to experiment with hosting artists in Masterton and other parts of Wairarapa.

This has been a signal success with several ‘hosts’ with strong creative connections in town and country locations through the valley.

Julie and Philip Donvin-Irons, of Mount Bruce Lodge, near Pukaha, have hosted several studio artists – Jan Koh, a photographer from Singapore, and fabric artists, Anita Stewart and Lauren Sinner, from America.

Sue Wootton and Jackie Davis at Masterton Library talk chaired by NZPS’s Jan Gerritsen (right).

Other studio residents have been writers Jackie Davis, who stayed with storyteller and novelist Gaye Sutton and Michael Woodcock near Carterton, and Sue Wootton who was hosted by Wai-Art member Sharon Cuff on Te Whiti Road.

All have relished their Wairarapa experiences.

Lauren Sinner, from Portland in Oregon, said being in such a peaceful place made for some very calm art.

“Sometimes when I’m in my home studio, surrounded by all my life responsibilities, I find it hard to make such calm, balanced work.

“I’m also heavily influenced by nature and botanical prints, so I was photographing and sketching a lot of local, native plant life.

“I’m hoping to sketch and embroider some of the plants I photographed.

Julie Donvin-Irons, with her work decorating the room’s walls.

“Julie and Phillip, of Mount Bruce Lodge, took me on a hike the first day to show me some of the beautiful landscapes that New Zealand has to offer.

“Everywhere I went people have been so generous with their time and energy.”

Anita Stewart, from Georgia, said the people associated with the studio care about the artists.

“From the time I was dropped off at Mount Bruce Lodge the whole house glowed with ‘You are welcome. We are glad you are here’.

“If I could rate this place on a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a 10-plus.

“It’s always good to leave a place you visit wishing you had more time.”

Sue Wootton, the latest Katherine Mansfield Fellow, and soon to be off to Menton, France, said a residency provides – literally and figuratively – a fresh outlook.

“It lets you fence off the demands of your daily life so that you can devote time and attention to a creative project.

“It shifts you out of your ordinary habits and refreshes your vision. All of that really feeds the work.

Mount Bruce Lodge, combining a 1950s house, old nurses’ home and former school house.

“Even a short residency is very valuable – the benefits ripple on long after you get home.”

New Zealand novelist, playwright and poet Jackie Davis said for her a residency provides a space to write without the distractions of home.

“Most writers are great procrastinators, and I think if I tried to spend three weeks writing at home, I’d have the cleanest windows and a spotless oven, and yet the manuscript might not have progressed at all.

“It also provides validation to me, that what I’m working on has value.

“This writer suffers from Imposter Syndrome, as do a number of published authors, and to know that someone else, and especially a panel of trustees, thinks this piece of writing is worth pursuing, is enormously valuable.”

Host Julie Donvin-Irons was a fabric dyer and batik artist in Kapiti in the 1980s and early 90s before she went to Britain and became the director of the South West of The Princes’ Trust, working with major corporates on their corporate social responsibility.

Back in New Zealand since 2006 she has been CEO of Arts Access Aotearoa, founded the Arts Access Awards and, in 2009, started Business and Charities, an organisation of major NZ and global corporates and charities dedicated to social responsibility.

“By 2017, Philip and I were ready to spend more time on our latest project, the Mount Bruce Lodge and Bruce Batique Gallery,” she said.

“Being an NZPS host has provided a real opportunity to understand someone else’s work and learn from it, whether it is music, painting, or sculpture.”