Whangarei: Art with a personal touch

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles visits the Whangarei Town Basin and discovers a thriving focal point for all sorts of crafts.

Nora Shayed's Stargazer sculpture is a change in direction for her.  Photo / Jim Eagles
Nora Shayed's Stargazer sculpture is a change in direction for her. Photo / Jim Eagles

When I arrived at the shops on the edge of the Whangarei Town Basin, jeweller Steve Hayward was delicately shaping the wax mould for a bracelet intended to hold some ashes from a customer's recently deceased son.

Next door, at Mahy Glass, Keith Mahy was checking the temperature of the glowing glass furnace and pronouncing it "a little cool".

In the adjoining workshop Shona Firman was fitting together two pieces of yellow cast glass to make a coconut.

And on a bench beside her, Nora Shayed was working on the wax mould of a tiny figure as part of her new series of stone and bronze sculptures.

It's that sort of activity, with the items on sale in The Bach art and craft co-operative and Burning Issues Gallery and the Saturday morning Artisans' Market, the nearby Whangarei Art Museum and the Northland Society of Arts gallery in historic Reyburn House, that has made the basin a focal point for arts and crafts since it was redeveloped about 20 years ago.

Add to that the string of nice cafes and the picturesque surroundings offered by the adjacent marina and the bush-clad hills beyond and it's a place at which I've enjoyed many a delightful lunch.

But this time I was focusing on the craft side, rather than the food and coffee, and there was plenty to see.

The Bach, for instance, proclaims itself as "very probably New Zealand's largest craft co-operative" with more than 100 artisans producing everything from cartoons to carvings, from handmade sandals to handwoven shawls.

And Jan Twentyman, who runs Burning Issues Gallery, says her aim is to offer "the very best of New Zealand craft, preferably locally made, but if that isn't possible then from other New Zealand artists".

The day I visited, mostly glass work was on display but Jan was installing Nora's latest sculptures and some newly arrived silver jewellery from Gavan Riley at Mangawhai.

Meanwhile, in the workshops out the back there was plenty of action.

Keith, who has run the glassblowing operation there for 17 years, doesn't do the actual blowing these days.

"Old age and arthritis mean my fingers aren't nimble enough any more."

But since his next glassblower wasn't due to arrive for a couple of days he did stick a metal rod into the blazing furnace, which definitely didn't look cold to me, and brought out a bit of molten glass which he deftly twirled into an ornate shape.

Next door Shona Firman was working on some new things to do with cast glass. Better known for her glass canoes, and more recently for the multi-storey glass Jessie-houses based on a design by her granddaughter Jessie, she was making a golden coconut just starting to sprout into a palm.

"My work usually has a Pacific theme - canoes, fish, birds, tattoos, Tangaroa - so the coconut which is the tree of life in the islands is really a continuation of that line."

Nora, who shares the workshop, usually produces busts of strong Pacific women, but is now experimenting with a combination of big granite rocks and tiny bronze figures.

"This one," she said, as she moulded a piece of black wax into the shape of someone looking at the sky, "is called Stargazer".

Steve Haywood, who started his career producing designs for Michael Hill Jeweller, now produces individually handcrafted works for customers, often to meet intensely personal needs.

The bracelet he was working on when I arrived was designed for a father whose son had died recently and who wanted to carry his ashes with him forever. Equally poignant were three interlocking rings he had just finished for a dying man who wanted to give one to each of his children.

"I get personal commissions like those quite often," he said.

"People often want a unique piece of jewellery to mark major events in life like engagement or marriage, birth or death. It can be an emotional experience at times but it's intensely satisfying."

CHECKLIST

Places to visit and things to do:

Northland arts and crafts trail

Burning Issues Gallery

The Bach

Where to stay: The Discovery Settlers Hotel.

Further information: See northlandnz.com.

Jim Eagles visited Whangarei with help from Destination Northland.

- NZ Herald

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