It's easy to get carried away with the Coromandel's beauty as you drive along State Highway 25 from Thames to Whitianga. Especially when you loop along bush-fringed roads and get tantalising glimpses of steel-blue sea.

Beaches such as Hahei, Buffalo, Hot Water, Cooks, Otama and Cathedral Cove have made Mercury Bay best known for fishing, yachting, kayaking, snorkelling and diving. But the area's arts scene is vibrant, too.

For proof, look no further than the Mercury Bay Art Escape weekends.

Now in its 11th year and held on the first two weekends in March, the event includes 45 local artists: painters, printmakers, sculptors, photographers, potters, glass artists, jewellers, carvers, weavers, mosaic and fibre artists, furniture and knife makers.


Many open their studios so the public can see how they work; others exhibit in local galleries. The region's best-known artist, Michael Smither, is the subject of a special edit of a documentary series, 2009-2019 Michael Smither: The Next Ten Years, by director Tony Hiles. Excerpts from the first eight years of the project run both Saturdays of the art escape; Smither and Hiles will take part in Q and A sessions.

The artists include Wendy Walls, whose studio is in the converted garage of a historic character cottage. A sign reads "Life is art, paint your dreams", which is — more or less — what the former schoolteacher and interior designer does.

She specialises in mixed media art, painting all manner of things to capture abstract and realistic — but usually brightly-coloured — concepts. Walls helps others to do the same, running courses and classes.

"There are so many people who would have been good at art at school but have done nothing with it," she says. "My classes let beginners have a go and conquer any fears they might have, plus there are more experienced artists who come to get new ideas and inspiration."

Walls says the art escape weekends are a good time to show your own work but also to encourage others to think more about their own creativity and ways to express it.

Weaver Raewyn Hildreth with a photo of one of her flax bodices; she now sells the bodices as well as photographs
Weaver Raewyn Hildreth with a photo of one of her flax bodices; she now sells the bodices as well as photographs

About 11 years ago, Raewyn Hildreth attended a one-day flax weaving class in Paekakariki, close to where she lived and worked as a counsellor, and found her creativity well and truly awakened. She now has a Bachelor of Maori Visual Arts from Te Wananga o Aotearoa and, having moved to Whitianga, a garden where she grows 14 different varieties of flax to prepare, dye and weave into kete (baskets) and bodices.

"I love the whole process, how you can transform an undervalued piece of flax into something beautiful that people love to have in their homes," Hildreth says.

She started making bodices after talking to a neighbour who was travelling to Waikato Hospital for breast cancer treatment. A flax bodice was displayed in the hospital and her neighbour would imagine taking it off the wall, putting it on her own body and it taking all the ugliness of the cancer away.

Hildreth finds it almost unbelievable she is now a working artist in the arts escape weekends when an event like this originally inspired her — so much so she and her husband have started a picture framing business through which she sells photographs of her work.

The summer weather has almost been too hot for Lloyd Franklin to work. He's a seasoned craftsman using old car coil springs to hand-forge elegant hunting, fishing and kitchen knives in a shed out the back of his Kuaotunu property.

A former joiner/cabinetmaker, he has been crafting knives for about 30 years and says suspension coils are an excellent material for his specialty knives. Each is an individual item — Franklin doesn't use patterns or templates, preferring to forge them to a complete shape then harden and temper them. He uses native wood, such as swamp kauri, whale bone or deer antler for handles, with fittings of alloy or brass.

Carver, jeweller and sculptor Chris Charteris and weaver Lizzy Leckie live minutes down the road from Franklin's forge. They're not opening their studios for the Art Escape — a significant international project is occupying much of their time — but will run a free and family-friendly public art project on Buffalo Beach.

Participants will be armed with spades, shovels and wheelbarrows and tasked with finding as many shells as they can to form a series of hearts.

"It's about putting your heart into something and thinking about what it means to do something half-heartedly and the difference when you're fully present," Charteris says. "I thought I would see what my own practice looks like on a large scale."

Living in the area suits Charteris and Leckie; they can find many of the materials they use in their art locally. That's true for potters Alan and Julia Rhodes, who live and work in Whenuakite, on the southern side of Whitianga.

They moved here in the late 1970s, when Alan — who is also a musician with the Hamilton County Blue Grass Band — decided to try to make a living out of fulltime potting rather than selling tractor parts.

"Music and pots — that's me," he says, explaining the property was on clay hillside, which meant he had the raw material to craft a range of functional glazed pots, pit-fired pots and some salt-glazed wear.

It has been a good life and the business is now well-established, with customers coming from all over the world. Certainly, things have changed since he first set up shop — the kiln he uses today owes its existence to technology developed by Nasa.

The Rhodes are neighbours to fellow potters Gary Nevin and Julie Burns-Nevin, whose garden overflows with the weird, wonderful and plain amazing figurative and animalistic pieces they specialise in. The Nevins' art is their life, with their biggest and most impressive work being the adobe house they built on the property.

As Burns-Nevin says, it makes sense to have an earth house when you work with clay.

What: Mercury Bay Art Escape weekends
Where & when: Venues all over Mercury Bay, first two weekends in March; tickets for the Michael Smither film evenings available at or at Mercury Twin Cinemas, Whitianga