[As published in Nov/Dec BayBuzz magazine.]
Mā te Toi ka whakahokia e ahau tōku Mana. Through my art I take back my power. Māori whakatauki, or proverb
In February, I turned 80 and to celebrate the momentous occasion I became a student again by joining a Level 4 course in Māori Contemporary Arts at Toimairangi in Hastings.
Perhaps more truthfully, I was hoping to avoid sinking into the mire of old age and its related decline in health that I feared must, inevitably, be looming. We know that getting older can be a vulnerable and lonely phase of life. However, I have been fortunate as a practicing ceramic artist for the past twenty years, that art making has been my friend, offering long periods of utter absorption that feeds my soul.
Creativity can open our minds, relax us, lift our wairua (spirit) and give us hope. If we look abroad just briefly, in the United Kingdom 20-30% of doctors’ visits are related to non-medical problems, such as isolation and loneliness. Some of these patients are referred to Arts on Prescription programmes which yield a wide range of benefits.*
The World Health Organisation found that those taking part in some form of arts activity helped to overcome social isolation and chronic pain; they experienced decreases in anxiety and depression, and it improved their joint mobility, cardiovascular fitness, confidence and self-esteem. In these cases, those therapeutic qualities have a meaningful and often long-lasting impact on people’s wellbeing.*
Why is it that as we get older, we can become so isolated?
Those of us who are in our seventh or eighth decade can usually describe feelings of ‘can’t be bothered’, aches and pains that slow us down and a lack of motivation to walk anywhere, meet new people or do anything new. I know I do, and I am constantly reminding myself that it is this apathy and inertia that will ultimately result in isolation if I don’t address it, along with the lack of fitness and stimulation that gets us in the end.
My 79th year was rather like that. I felt flat and unmotivated, only the dog got me moving and the saddest thing was, I was feeling less committed to my artwork. It is hard to put my finger on it, but I guess I was facing my eighties, the decade when statistically, those who are still alive experience health problems and a drop off in independence and self actualisation. By going back to school, I would challenge those assumptions and now that I am into my second semester, I am very glad I did.
The Toimairangi School of Contemporary Visual Arts was founded in 2002 by the legendary Sandy Adsett (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pāhauwera) under the auspices of Te Wananga o Aotearoa, a tertiary level education provider that offers courses in most subjects related to tikanga Māori.
Across six decades Sandy Adsett has explored Māori symbology and given new voice to customary approaches to Māori art. The primary element in much of his work is the koru (unfurling fern frond). He has occupied a formative place in Māori contemporary arts education, sharing his life-long arts passion with his students that also engages them in the challenges of the Māori arts identity. He was recognised in 2020 by the NZ Arts Foundation as an Arts Icon and has recently retired as the Director of Toimairangi.
Over the years, a large number of Toimairangi tauira have emerged with an arts degree. A significant number of them have moved on to become recognised ‘names’ whose work is held in art collections and exhibited in major Aotearoa-New Zealand art exhibitions. Māori artists are doing well. They are all part of a vibrant and growing community of Māori art practitioners, interconnected and supportive of each other while they expand the mana and understanding of tikanga Māori in the wider community. And – their art sells.
Last November, during a chance meeting with Tracy Keith, who is a fellow ceramic artist and the current kaiwhakahaere (director) of Toimairangi, he suggested I should join Toimairangi as a student, inviting me to visit the school to take a look around and chat to some of the teachers and students to get a feel of the place as they were looking to bring some diversity into their student cohorts.
Initially I thought it an unlikely course of action for someone of my age and culture until I had a flash of inspiration – I should start my eighties the way I meant to go on! I should jump on the waka and commit myself to a year of study in a different form of art, doing something I loved, and I would start my eighties ‘running’.
It would be totally out of my comfort zone of course. My life to date has been devoted to family and working and is Pākehā-focused. My journey hadn’t brought me into contact with Māori communities.
I am of British descent and married an Englishman, living in England for the first fifteen years of our married life before returning to New Zealand. My limited knowledge of New Zealand’s indigenous peoples had been formed during my 1950-60s (so called) education that was shamefully superficial and revealed now as colonially-biased.
Although over the years I had read updated versions of New Zealand history written by Anne Salmond and Michael King with great interest (and some discomfort), I was quite unaware of the exceptional art being produced by Māori.
In 2020 I had twice visited an exhibition curated by the Auckland City Art Gallery, Toi Tu Toi Ora and, more recently, visited several times the Ngāti Kahungunu Iwi Artists’ Collective exhibitions that were featured at the Hastings Art Gallery.
Awed by what I was viewing during those lingering visits, I was absorbed with the visionary elements of taonga toi that were telling ancient stories in dramatic contemporary imagery. I closely examined them, reading the information about the artists and the exhibits, admiring the precision in the application of paint, chisel and other media; feeling rather shocked that I had been so unaware of the quality of art forms being produced by the first peoples of Aotearoa.
However, it did not occur to me that such an education might be available to me in some way as a Pākehā, to be able to study alongside other tauira toi (art students) close to home, here in Heretaunga.
After visiting the school, I spent several months considering Tracy’s suggestion. To engage in it properly I needed to let go of the ‘old person’ thinking and face up to a radical change of experience and to take courage from this exciting opportunity. Age should not be an issue; my ethnicity was largely an obstacle in my own mind, and I really welcomed the opportunity to learn how to further my drawing and painting skills.
My engagement with art has always been an uplifting experience, and while it was a bit nerve-wracking to begin with, wondering how I would cope, I resolved to bring curiosity and an open mind to what I was going to learn.
At Toimairangi we were all welcomed warmly and we gradually got to know one another. As a group of mature learners we have been coached through the assignments with gentle, hands-off encouragement (we’re all adults), learning about traditional imagery, drawing and painting techniques.
I am discovering that Māori art (traditional and contemporary) is all about storytelling. In particular, I have found the self-directed rangahau (research) very exciting and stimulating, relishing the flashes of connection and my growing knowledge, discoveries that result in new ideas that lead into my artwork as it progresses.
As a largely self-taught artist who has been working solely with clay for years in an intuitive way, it is a fresh approach and an extraordinary privilege to be able to view the practice of art through the mātauranga Māori lens.
Witi Ihimaera’s writings are wonderful and from his stories and narratives I am absorbing the Māori creation myths, so freshly relevant to my new experience. Through conversations and assignments at the kura I am enhancing my understanding of whakapapa and cultural mores – gradually finding ways to interpret these concepts in paint, on canvas, but also, in clay in my own time. I am referencing Māori holistic beliefs in a way I hadn’t been able to imagine before joining the course, because I hadn’t really been sufficiently exposed to it.
Yes, I have gone beyond the U-turn and now, further down the track, the early nervousness has passed, and I am enjoying the ride. It isn’t difficult, it is fascinating. I feel less anxious, more optimistic and empowered, and grateful that from this course and through most of my life, the practice of art has always supported me through difficult periods.
So readers, I can recommend taking a bit of a new road in life. It actually doesn’t matter what your age – get off the proverbial ‘comfortable sofa’ and do something completely new. Get a dog and start walking, meet people, find moments of unexpected conversation, surprise yourself and get the blood circulating. Leave lethargy and despond behind, feel the joy as the dopamine lifts the mood and improves emotional resilience.
And, maybe take up art?
Age is just a number anyway and I advise myself regularly that it is truly self-defeating to limit my expectations of what and how much I can do with negative thoughts like, ‘What if I can’t cope?’. So, my advice is – breathe out, make the decision and act on it. Then trust the process.
* Information source, Creative New Zealand