At home: Island of inspiration

By Claire McCall

Three talented Waiheke artists open the doors of their studios and reveal how their home, workplace and surrounding environment is imperative to their inspiration.

Inside the Church Bay studio and home of goldsmith Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler. Photo / Babiche Martens
Inside the Church Bay studio and home of goldsmith Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler. Photo / Babiche Martens

Jewellery making sounds like an ethereal, delicate art, but goldsmith Christine Hafermalz-Wheeler is no shrinking violet. The tools of her trade are industrial strength and at times require brute force and nerves of steel to operate.

To melt the 18-carat gold she uses in her one-off creations, she heats it to 1180C using a blow torch, then pours the molten liquid into a "nail" which she shapes with a rolling mill or stretches out on a "drawing" bench. A soldering iron fashions the finer detail. "Each piece is forged by hand. I don't use wax moulds."

Born in East Germany, Hafermalz-Wheeler was hoping to be a plumber like her dad but, when he steered her away from this career, she came up with the idea of goldsmithing and started her apprenticeship at the tender age of 12. "I had two tutors - I call them my saviours. One was a thinker, who took time to work things out in his head. The other worked from his heart making jewellery in the emotion of the moment."

This combination has served her well. Her CV is impressive with exhibitions in London, Melbourne, Beijing and New York.

Hafermalz-Wheeler's husband, David, acts as her agent and does all the jobs that "give her time to make jewellery". The pair met in Stuttgart where she had a jewellery shop in the high street and David was running the administration side of a language school. "She came to learn English as quite a few precious stone dealers can't speak German," he says.

They moved to Waiheke two years ago after two decades in Titirangi. "We liked the openness of the community here and also the island's high visibility internationally." In their substantial Church Bay home, built around eco-principles of aerated concrete block, her studio faces south with windows that draw in awe-inspiring sea views and soft, diffused light.

"When you are graduating diamonds, you need a neutral light, otherwise it would reflect more blues in the morning and yellow in the evening," Hafermalz-Wheeler says.

On biennial trips to Idar-Oberstein near Frankfurt, a centre of gemstone cutting, they seek out stones that are just a bit different. "I look for unusual minerals," says Hafermalz-Wheeler. "The stones have to speak to me."

Apart from rubies, diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, she looks for quartz with "inclusions". These are stones plucked from the earth that have extra features such as a rock crystal with a dispersion of red mineral that Hafermalz-Wheeler says, is sometimes called angel's hair. Chrysoberyl is another one of her favourites. Part of the emerald family, these stones have an inclusion called the cat's eye, a faint glowing line that can be seen from any angle. Avaiki pearls from the Cook Islands are also part of her palette in chocolate, pale green, blue, purple and pink. "I only use pearls with natural colours - not ones that have been enhanced with dyes. I like to drill my own holes into the pearls so I have the freedom to put them together in an uneven fashion."

It's this ability to capture a quirkiness that, according to Hafermalz-Wheeler, "makes life worth living". It is what has sustained her for the past 35 years as an artist goldsmith.

"Asymmetry is the playground of the imagination," explains David, quoting a friend.

Getting the balance right in her necklaces, rings, brooches and bracelets is a core philosophy. "I make jewellery people identify with. Many clients say they hardly take a special piece off because it is part of their identity."

Hafermalz-Wheeler is known for her double rings which are curvaceously shaped bands of gold that comfortably embrace two fingers at once. "In Germany, they are called a finger tiara. They're a lovely big ring that, unlike a single ring, never falls sideways."

However, these double rings have been known to be rather dangerous. One client who was on a skiing trip sent a postcard to say that instead of keeping a close eye on the piste, she was mesmerised by the dazzle of her opal in the snow and sun. Others have said they gaze lovingly at their rings while driving - not a habit she wishes to encourage.

It's comments like these that keep Christine at her workbench, 9am-5pm, every week day. "So many activities stimulate my imagination. After I'd been to see Cirque du Soleil, I made necklaces that reflected that colour and movement."

Even so, she is pragmatic enough to realise not every piece is a hero.

"I make what I like and there's honesty in that." And she's pleased to have ended up on an island that gives her ample opportunity to connect with others - and herself.

"I love the positivity here, the sense of looking forward."

Gabriella Lewenz operates on trust and gut instinct. That's how she ended up in a hilltop home and studio on a picturesque Church Bay promontory. Even though she'd never visited Waiheke Island before, she agreed to move here from New York on the word of her husband, Claude. "He emailed me and described the relationship of the land to the water and the hill. I had a sense that it would be wonderful."

Lewenz's father was a cultural attache in the diplomatic corps, posted from the US to Greece. Born in Thessaloniki, her childhood was rich in literary and artistic experience. "My father was passionate about the arts."

As a young girl, she revelled in many fly-on-the-wall conversations between artists who came to dine with her parents. Her fondest memories are of visiting sculptors in their studios. "I loved the idea of walking into someone's working space."

Even so, her journey to becoming a professional artist was not straightforward. When the family returned to Washington DC, Lewenz, mortified at not being able to speak English properly, turned her back on that world. "I blocked out speaking Greek completely."

A degree in psychology and time in community service work did not fulfil her. "So I decided to do that on a voluntary basis and took a visual arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design." It was her first step into finding her passion.

With her own studio in New York, exhibiting and entering national competitions, you'd think she was living her dream, but no: "I wanted a place to create a life of art," she says.

In 1997, five acres in Church Bay became that place and the couple built their home, designing it themselves, again, intuitively.

"The land spoke to us. We asked: 'what's the next turn?"' And it seems they were in tune with the reply for when they later consulted local kaumatua, they were told the name of their land was Hangaura. "It means to fashion, form or build in glowing red and brown."

Painted terracotta orange - "at the time the council wouldn't let us have white" - the buildings are reminiscent of those in Tuscany or Mexico. Yet the paved central courtyard is characteristic of the homes Lewenz recalls from Greece.

In her studio, this transplanted artist now receives visitors from around the globe. "It's taken three to five years to build up the business but 90 per cent of my work is sold overseas."

Abstract in form, her paintings have a highly textural quality and are, she says, "of the moment". They explore landscape, seascape, air, light and earth.

Lewenz uses hand-made oils from Williamsburg that she imports from New York. "They're pure pigments mixed with linseed oil with no fillers or ash."

Beneath a stained-glass window that hails from England but was rescued from a demolition site in Stanford in the US then shipped halfway across the world, she gently pursues her craft.

Even after two decades, the job doesn't get any easier. "Every day I face my canvas and it's like starting all over again - but with a little more confidence."

Mainly her canvases are divided into two parts. She completes one half first, then, perhaps several months later, begins work on the other half.

"It's about finding its equal, its complement. I don't take an intellectual approach otherwise the work would be too constructed and obvious. I have to feel it."

Her oils are subtly infused with Pacific motifs - fish shapes, the koru, a waka or swirls. "It's unintended but I do see it," she says.

An ancient amphora, its flaked paint skin washed by history, stands sentinel in one corner of the studio. It was given to Lewenz's father by a Greek fisherman who retrieved it from the ocean's depths in his net.

"It's so powerful, it's my muse."

The amphora's potency has meant that after 15 years here, Lewenz continues to love this life, even though she doubted the ability of a small island to sustain her. "I thought after a while it would start to feel concave, but it just keeps expanding."

Jars of preserved tomatillos line up on the dining room table of Kelley Diener's Orapiu home. In her garden, three brown shaver chickens, called Yolko, Princess Layer and Diena, cluck contentedly as they pick their way through her patch of jalapeno and habanero peppers, which has taken a hit in a recent storm. Intricate strands of seaweed, gathered where they washed up on nearby beach, drape like a living curtain on a clothesline in her basement studio.

When Diener and her husband Scott, pulled ashore here on their yacht Sounding Free, they thought there was no better place on earth to settle.

The couple, originally from the US, had spent 13 years out on the big blue, living frugally in cramped quarters. Now they could spread their wings. "Being isolated at the bottom end of the island is hard but the peacefulness is amazing and I am constantly inspired," says Diener.

The former science teacher has turned her focus to art and gardening in equal measure. "My painting is a lot about biology and ecology."

Diener, who grew up in San Diego, has developed a way of working where each year she picks a subject and zones in on it. "It's so self-indulgent," she says of this artistic immersion. Already there has been the year of "ripe", the year of "fish" and, in 2010, she explored the theme "eat, drink and be merry".

With a teacher's heart, she likes to research her chosen topic assiduously, gleaning information and insight, before she picks up a brush. For 2011, it's seaweed that has captured her imagination, hence the rows of different types hanging in her basement.

Diener studied at Ponsonby's Artstation with tutor Matthew Browne and for two years under Elam graduate Belinda Wilson whose work she admires. She feels most at ease with mixed-media paintings that are based on reality but occasionally venture into the abstract.

"I call myself a layerist," she says. "What I learn about a subject I build into layers, allowing some of the previous information to still peek through."

Diener spends happy hours walking the shores of her beloved island to photograph the seaweed she discovers. On inclement days, she studies it on the internet. "Seaweed is fascinating in that it belongs to the kingdom Protista; it's neither animal nor plant, it's an algae in a league of its own." As part of her process, Diener prints out the information and sketches these water dwellers, with their lace-like shapes and suction-cup bladders, into journals. "I love their beautiful colours."

Humour and experimentation are part of her mantra. "The more rules you can break the better," she says. "Mixed media lends itself to pushing boundaries."

Diener will even paint over a previous work, incorporating parts of it into her current pursuit. "It's scary to admit but one year I transformed a ponga into a kowhai by turning it upside down and painting over it."

At the moment, she's trialling a method of painting seaweed shapes on perspex sheeting. "Having fun is all part of process," she says.

But being here in Orapiu is not just about work. It's a real lifestyle choice.

Diener is saddened by the rampant consumerism she sees in her home country. "Americans are such good people but they have the reputation of not thinking about anybody else."

She is determined to live differently and was inspired to do so when she read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. In it the author says: "The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners".

Says Diener: "Now that I have chickens who give me three eggs each day, I love to walk down that aisle in the supermarket and think, 'I won't be paying $7 for those organic eggs'."

Even though her collection of seaweed is for artful purposes, she uses it practically too - to fertilise her garden. She has rescued an old set of bedsprings from an inorganic collection and fashioned them into a trellis for her homegrown green beans. "I hosted a learn-to-paint day here once and those springs showed up in some of the works," she laughs.

Throughout her waterside home, Diener's art is a map of her life - the tuis, fantails and woodpigeons from her year of "avian architecture", rock oysters, scallops and green-lipped mussels from her year of "fish", the bursting lusciousness of a swan plant from "ripe" and a work entitled Sauvignon Bloke from "eat, drink and be merry". Said bloke is garbed in gumboots and a Tui T-shirt, holds a bottle of savvy in one hand and a fresh-caught snapper in the other.

It's clear from her art that she's keyed decisively into the Kiwi culture - and it suits her.

"In the 10 years I've lived in Orapiu, I've done just about everything I wanted to do," she says whimsically. Now you can't get better than that.

* Diener will be exhibiting at The Art Barn on Korora Rd in Oneroa, during the Waiheke Winter Arts Festival.

* Visit these artists and others as part of the Waiheke Winter Arts Festival on Queen's Birthday weekend (June 4-5). Tickets cost $25 and are available from Waiheke Community Art Gallery or ph (09) 372 9907. Pick up your festival map then plan your own self-drive itinerary or catch the special Arts Festival Hopper bus (painted in creative designs by three acclaimed Waiheke artists). And don't forget to visit the Sunday Craft Market at the Morra Hall, Oneroa.

- NZ Herald

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