[As published in Jan/Feb BayBuzz magazine.]
We’d like you to meet a few uniquely talented people, mostly flying ‘under the radar’, some with quite uncommon skills, all striving to be the best at what they do ‘in their zones’. Offered as sources of inspiration.
Fresh from runway success at New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW), Jimmie MacKay’s singular commitment to aesthetic is always on display – from his ever changing domestic decor, to his dachshund, Kowi.
MacKay graduated from Auckland’s Fashion Tech almost a decade ago, when his response to Resene’s Sassy won him the John Key Scholarship and a six week trip to India to experience production. The tailored hot pink jacket dress was his first foray onto the Fashion Week runway.
Picked up by Miromoda, who showcase ten Māori designers annually, he has shown at NZFW three times since 2017, learning along the way. His first collection was all black (not the rugby, he is clear to distinguish), but, he felt, fell flat. Next, a menswear collection, more colourful, but he was, “still figuring out textures. That showed me how to showcase something properly.” Lush leathers and a non-conformist vibe characterised his collection shown at Vancouver Fashion Week in 2019.
This year’s NZFW collection, On a Day, approached his extremely stringent assessment of perfection – all natural fabrics, heavyweight denims juxtaposed with soft frilled cotton, accessorised with the exquisite leathers which have become synonymous with the JIMI brand.
From his funeral director day job, MacKay went into full-time fashion, laying out, merchandising and buying for Napier’s Fortify, where he also sold his own garments and accessories for four years until Covid hit.
“Fashion was stagnant at the time … it lost a whole year, maybe two. Supplies weren’t coming in. You can’t rewind fashion,” he recalls. Rolling with the punches, he became a painter decorator, with his paint splattered work clothes inspiring his latest collection.
It’s a bold choice, particularly in a conservative regional town, but MacKay says, ‘I don’t have to prove anything. Before I was trying to capture audiences, but I realised you can just do what you like and you capture them anyway.’
Bespoke leatherwork – belts, bags, harnesses – make up much of his commissions. Though his chunky hardwear look can lead to confusion. “The harness takes people’s minds to a place I’m not actually trying to go. I’m not selling sex … I want to appeal to people serious about fashion,” he asserts.
Despite the challenges of Covid and conservatism, MacKay’s creative excellence has won him a niche local following and recognition from those who know fashion elsewhere. He’s committed to his craft, stating, “It’s never been easy, it’s never going to be easy either, but I love it. I’ll never stop making stuff.”
Rising star, Eru Heke, learned stagecraft from the master. Protegée of the late Puti Lancaster, he’s been acting since age eight – first in community theatre. His professional debut, at twelve, was in Freedom is Behind my Breath, at the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival.
Lancaster’s intensive method involved her actors, even the pre-teen Heke, in devising her plays, giving him a unique insight into storytelling. His solo show, The Hunger Strikes Me – one half of 2021’s Whare Kōrero – saw him given the tools to tell his own story in his own words. “It hit home hard. It was very vulnerable – no one heard that side of my life before,” he recalls.
Lancaster’s death, just months later, left him reeling, but he returned to the stage in the next Arts Festival with The Revelator. He continued to perform in community youth theatre, with Shadows of Pain, a piece dealing with bullying he hopes will tour schools next year.
As with many practitioners in Lancaster’s circle, he vowed to dedicate a piece of theatre to her memory. Missy Coulée: The Journey debuted at this year’s Fringe in the ‘Stings, charting Heke’s path from shame to self-acceptance. Featuring Puti’s imagined, encouraging voice – “What she would really say when she was alive” – juxtaposed with riotous drag, showcasing his considerable dancing skills, he describes it as “Serving realness in everything”.
Heke has worn heels and makeup in public since aged twelve, once dressing up as Ru Paul for Halloween. In the last two years he’s taken it up a notch, with professional wigs, makeup and outfits. Together with fellow rangatahi drag queen, Krystal Kara, he performed Drag in the ‘Stings to an ecstatic packed house. Heke feeds from the glee of the audience. “When they’re alive, that gives you life in your performance,” he remarks. “Hastings needs that big energy, personality diva-ness.”
Being a regional teenage drag queen is not always easy. Heke receives “a lot of homophobic comments, mostly on social media. Behind the screen people are very brave. Not so much kanohi ki te kanohi.” Bigotry thrives in privacy.
Heke is a hard worker with his sights set high. He was already offered a three year acting contract in Sydney, but is also considering Toi Whakaari (NZ Drama School), after he finishes school next year. He’s keen to explore movies and television but mostly, like his mentor, wants “to do a lot more storytelling”.
Te Whānau Puoro
The Musical Family
School’s out, but Flaxmere College’s hall resounds with the sound of densely layered roots rock music. Te Whānau Puoro – the musical family – are honing their craft, putting in the hours they credit for their success. This year the six piece band won Tangata Beats, the national schools’ contest recognising original music with a Māori/Pasifika focus.
The band is an amalgam of Tamatea High’s Te Paki’s lead vocalist, Shayne Te Kuru and lead guitarist, Izrael Shields; and Flaxmere’s Te Meenage’s rhythm section – Aroha Sellwood on guitar and backing vocals, Naiara Marshall on keys, Hohua Mitai-Price, or Bert, as he prefers, on bass and Koha Sellwood on drums; brought together as one whānau by Tūkotahi Raki, who teaches music at both schools.
Tū’s role goes beyond teaching. He is their kaiāwhina, looking out for their hauora, guiding them through deep kōrero about who and where they are – tuakiritanga and turangawaewae – that inspire their songs. Their kaupapa was born from a kōrero between Shayne and Tū, regarding a collaborative song from the rangatahi of Aotearoa celebrating the coronation.
Shayne describes Rise Up as, “The demand of the return of our land, the restoration of our language and, most importantly, the recognition of our culture.” Our Generation is, “A message for our ancestors to reassure them that our reo is still as strong today.” An inexorable thread of rangatiratanga runs through their mahi, buoyed up on a wave that sweeps the nation – from the arts if not from the government.
Rāpaki, stencilled moko and kapa haka movements bring their act cultural relevance, and make their culture relevant. Wherever they play, between them and their audience stands an honour guard – pictures of their tūpuna. “In Te Ao Māori having our loved ones with us gives us mana,” says Shayne.
Their road to national champions saw them beat the heats to Rockquest finalists, competing at Toitoi against twelve other groups. A night at Paisley Stage, where friends and whānau supported and performed, gave them the footage they needed to proceed to top ten finalists in Auckland. Challenges – from getting lost to getting trapped in an elevator – only brought them closer.
Since taking the nationals their rise is meteoric, with bookings to play several summer events, including Outfield in February.
Though their message might push against the political tide, they stand firm in their determination, with the watchful eyes of kaiāwhina and tūpuna to guide them.
Cherie Meerlo’s Greenmeadows home is thick with art – her walls a veritable who’s who of the local artists she counts amongst her friends. Her home studio is a crafter’s paradise, stacked floor to ceiling with all manner of supplies to delight children and adults alike when they come to play.
Meerlo studied art at EIT in the 90’s, before spreading her wings. Thirteen years ago she discovered body painting when she had her pregnant belly decorated. A few workshops later she found her niche, winning competitions around the country. Moving home six years ago, she used her twin skills of creativity and connecting with people to establish the small empire that is Meerlo Creations.
Working at a pace that would destroy but very few, Meerlo creates relentlessly across media, both producing her own work and inspiring the artist in others. She has a special relationship with burlesque performer Cherryboomb, who she regularly paints for various occasions, producing fantasy illusions that need to be seen to be believed. Together they run a school holiday programme, combining crafts and movement, each day on a different theme.
Meerlo loves children, their natural enthusiasm, fun and wonder matching her own. “Kids have no fear of creating … they inspire me,” she asserts. She fills her home with artistic kids every day after school, and on the weekends for birthday parties, tailoring to whatever they’re into with seemingly limitless imagination.
She caters to crafty adults too – work do’s and hen parties – supporting them to create something they can take home, sometimes pairing with an aesthetician to provide a pampering element. When she’s not hosting at home she’s painting faces and running craft activities at external events. She also takes commissions, making bespoke, personalised mixed media creations.
A people person, Meerlo’s bowling pin project “brings the artistic community closer together, giving them a chance to get to know one another.” Recognising that artists often can’t afford to own their peers’ pieces, she distributed fifty thrifted bowling pins to be decorated, returned and swapped, lucky dip style, at a festive gathering. For Meerlo, the project has “nothing to do with promotion, marketing or money … it’s about giving and receiving.”
The project ‘took on a life of its own,’ fuelled by her gregarious, generous nature and passion – both for art and for people. Meerlo’s secret, what makes her beloved, is her incredible sense of fun – ‘my only rule’ – permeating everything she does.