Nelson: Art for art's sake

By Matt Philp

Matt Philp meets some of the creative talent behind Nelson's upcoming winter festival season.
An installation by Daniel Allen and Klaasz Breukel at the 2013 Light Nelson festival.
An installation by Daniel Allen and Klaasz Breukel at the 2013 Light Nelson festival.

Nic Foster

"It's the intensity of the light," says painter Nic Foster, when asked what inspires him about Nelson.

"I travel a lot down to the West Coast to look at that contrast between dark and light - that's my research. But when I paint I want to do it in Nelson. It has that almost Mediterranean light and it's warm and sunny. It has four national parks and it's a really physical environment, and that is attractive."

A graduate of the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT) art course, Foster has been painting in Nelson for several years. Since 2012, he has also been the driving force behind the Art Expo Nelson, a three-day event in July showcasing works valued at under $5000 by South Island artists.

The impetus was the Christchurch earthquakes.

"In 2011 a lot of Canterbury artists and some Nelson artists lost not only dealers, but complete gallery spaces to show their work. I think Canterbury lost up to 20 art galleries.

So we thought, 'Let's start an expo for South Island artists only.' There was already an expo in Wellington called the New Zealand Art Show, formerly known as the Affordables, and one in Auckland, but the South Island needed its own event... now we're into our third year and it's rocking along."

Attendance at last year's event was up 50 per cent on the inaugural expo, from 3000, to 4500, while sales nearly doubled, from $67,000 to $128,000.

"That's incredibly beneficial to those artists," says Foster, who describes the expo as trying to complement the work of established galleries by showcasing emerging talents.

"Hopefully they'll eventually get to a level where they can move on to those High St art dealers. It's a huge opportunity for them. Often these are people who've never exhibited before in Nelson; we get artists from Christchurch, Blenheim, the West Coast; we've had them from Gore and Queenstown. They find a whole new market here in Nelson. And the quality of the art has increased every year. We are oversubscribed with artists wanting to be part of it."

Artist Nic Foster in his Nelson studio. Photo / Tim Cuff

This July's event promises to be a step up from the previous two, if only because of a new venue. Late last year Nelson's Trafalgar Centre was shut down to address concerns about its earthquake readiness. Foster and his team negotiated a shift to Saxton Stadium, near Richmond.

"We thought it was going to be a big challenge," he says, "but actually as one door shuts another amazing set of doors opens. We have a bigger, brighter and much better venue. As part of that, we've had to move the event back a week, meaning we now coincide with Light Nelson and the Winter Music Festival."

Backed by the Nelson City Council's Nelson Events Strategy Fund, tagged to attracting winter-time visitors, the trio of events has been heavily marketed in the North Island.

Foster says those visiting the expo will find good evidence of Nelson's claims to be a leading art region.

"There are a number of aspects that make us an artistic centre. We have more public sculpture than ever, we have the Suter Art Gallery who do wonderful exhibitions, there's the rise and rise of street art with George Shaw [who is behind the Oi You exhibition and known as a collector of art by Banksy] and several commercial galleries. Art Expo Nelson just complements that and provides another vehicle for artists to create and make a living.

"And there are a huge number of people doing that here - in fact, 400 artists in the region, some of whom are making outstanding work. We just need to keep creating."

Nic Foster's Nelson picks

Three must-do activities: A tramp in a national park. A day tasting craft beer and gorgeous Nelson wine. And some sort of beach activity. "I know there's not much cultural stuff in there, but that's for when it rains."

Best place for brunch: Riverside Cafe.

Best coffee: Pomeroys.

Best vantage point: Up The Grampians.

Best place for fish and chips: Seabreeze at Tahunanui. Best place to eat them? On my lounge floor with my kids.

Best kept secret: The Mussel Inn over in Golden Bay.

Ali Boswijk

Ali Boswijk must feel like she's been entrusted a small Nelson treasure to show the world.

The former Nelson Deputy Mayor is leading the government-backed project to take Wearable Arts overseas - or at least a travelling exhibition of some of the brightest moments of the past 25 years.

And whatever any Wellingtonian might tell you, WOW is still a Nelson triumph, still headquartered in the Top of the South even if the event itself has shifted north.

"The work I'm doing is simply adding another layer to what started here in Nelson."

The evolution of Wearable Arts from a tentative homegrown show first staged in front of 200 people, into an international event that draws 50,000 has to be the most striking success story of a maturing Nelson arts scene. But Boswijk has seen plenty of other changes since she moved to Nelson 18 years ago, arriving on the eve of the second Nelson Arts Festival and Masked Parade.

"I remember being blown away," she says.

"I thought it was incredible and was really excited. But it was far more singular in its focus back then; now there's a realisation that we have a whole year to play with, and that the arts can spread across many other months."

Ali Boswijk at Old St John's church. Photo / Tim Cuff

It has also become a more diverse and grown up arts scene, she believes. The Nelson Arts Festival, for example, draws on some of the best from international festivals such as Edinburgh.

"We've become more sophisticated in our expectations, I think. And it feels pretty cutting edge at times, seeing what local filmmakers are doing, the music coming out of Nelson. All those things help to develop the cultural base."

She's played her own part in that development, spending four years as CEO of Nelson Arts Marketing, and later as a city councillor chairing working parties on the regional arts strategy and Nelson arts policy. Despite its reputation, Nelson isn't immune to debating spending public money on the arts, and Boswijk was in the thick of it at times.

"I believe you have to ensure that everyone feels fulfilled where they live, and the arts help to do that. People from Nelson are genuinely proud of some of these things, like the Masked Parade and the fact we have an Arts Festival - they may not all want to see the council pay for it, possibly, but they're genuinely happy that those things exist here."

Now a private citizen, Boswijk is putting her money where her mouth is. Last year, she and husband Eelco bought a defunct 1890s Methodist church in the centre of Nelson and repurposed it as a live music venue. They felt "compelled" to buy Old St John's after hearing the site might be bulldozed for development.

"It's an amazing building; when it opened, the whole of Nelson had a half-day holiday, that's how significant it was. We couldn't just let it vanish so we mortgaged our souls and bought it. It's being used primarily as a classical music venue and for lectures, although we have Lloyd Cole playing there in June, which is very exciting for me - I can still remember the day I heard Perfect Skin."

With the Nelson School of Music closed for earthquake strengthening, Old St John's is also venue for this year's Nelson Winter Music Festival. It's diverse programme has 19 performances ranging from chamber music to Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan.

As ever, Boswijk is looking forward to an event that reliably livens up winter, this time as host.

"It won't be the same as the School of Music - we can't be. But we can provide a space where things can be enjoyed in a different way."

Ali Boswijk's Nelson picks

Three must-do activities when visiting Nelson:

Abel Tasman National Park: "I can't believe this is where I live -it's so beautiful and so close."

The Nelson Saturday Market: "It's always good to see the whole raft of what's available."

A drive around the Upper Moutere: "You drive around and find these beautiful villages where you can get nice food, have a great beer - just lovely."

Best place for brunch: La Gourmandise crêperie in the middle of town.

Best coffee: La Gourmandise.

Best place for fish and chips: Haven Fish & Chips beside the waterfront. "Such a lovely place to sit and eat."

Best kept secret: Anywhere up the Maitai River, or a trip on the little ferry to Haulashore Island. "You look back at Nelson from a different vantage point."

Haulashore Island, off the coast of Nelson, is reachable by ferry.

Anne Rush

It was like a scene from Blade Runner, brought to life on a crisp winter evening in Nelson's Queens Gardens. Picture an arched bridge over a waterway, lit up as if it were Shibuya in Tokyo, rather than a provincial botanical garden. It's a cloudless night, but a monsoon rain pelts the bridge. As you approach, someone from the crowd exiting the bridge hands you an umbrella, and you make a dry passage across to the Chinese gardens, where the next surprise awaits.

Last year's inaugural Light Nelson event caught everyone by surprise. Nelsonians were dazzled to see their familiar Queen's Gardens so magically transformed. The organisers, meanwhile, hadn't dreamed so many would turn up to a first-time event.

"It was a great act of faith," says artist and co-founder of Light Nelson Anne Rush.

This year's event will expand to take in Albion Square and the NMIT campus, as well as a light project for the Cathedral. They'll need all that extra space, with almost twice as many artists likely to be involved, including students and staff from NMIT's Creative Industry Department, where the event has been embedded into the curriculum.

Rush stresses the diversity of projects involved, from low-tech shadow play through to the use of lasers.

"Light is the absolute brief. The artwork has to play with light in some aspect. It could be performance; all sorts of art genres can come together in a project like this."

Anne Rush in her 2009 solo exhibition, Arum.

As with last year's event, many of the projects will be both highly collaborative and interactive, combining science and artistry, and requiring visitors to do their bit to bring the magic to life.

Nelson Art Club's Ships that Pass in the Night invites people to send in their immigration stories and images, to be worked into an installation.

"We wanted this event to be firmly rooted in the Nelson community, something that locals could contribute to and own," says Rush.

Community is one of the attractions of Nelson for Rush, who has worked as an artist in the region for several years. For a small city, it's a surprisingly cosmopolitan place, with immigrants from Europe, North America and now Asia.

"It has that history of people coming here and bringing their creativity with them. You feel living in Nelson that you're part of an artistic community. There's also a sense of connection to people, place and community."

One of the highlights of last year's event for Rush was seeing locals' reaction to the makeover of Queens Gardens.

"We have this magnificent, much-loved garden, but it's traditionally been a place where Nelson people wouldn't venture after dark. It was such a joy to be able to discover it at night, and it's such a wonderful setting. The topography... has so much potential; there's an oxbow in the middle, and you can play not only with light and darkness but with the water, too."

Why hold a light festival in winter?

Why not, answers Rush.

"There's something about light lifting people's spirits in the winter. Visit London near Christmas Eve, you can't help but be affected by the way they light the streets. It just gives people a lift."

Anne Rush's Nelson picks

Three must-do activities: Walk on Tahunanui Beach. Have coffee on the footpath and meet locals. Go to the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum.

Best place for brunch: "If you're on the waterfront go to the Boat Shed, for that magnificent feeling of sitting over the sea, looking out over the harbour to Tasman Bay and the mountains."

Best coffee: Morrison Street Cafe or Red Gallery.

Best vantage point: Park at the yacht club and walk to the beach. Or up Princes Drive - "A great view of the Boulder Bank, one of a very few in the world."

Best place for fish and chips: Victory Square has the best F&Cs.

Best kept secret: The Freehouse in Collingwood St. "Anyone who is into craft beer, it's the place." And Jester House cafe on the Moutere circuit.

Nelson's upcoming festivals

Art Expo Nelson: July 11-13, Saxton Stadium.

Light Nelson: July 11-13, Queens Gardens, Albion Square and NMIT.

Nelson Winter Music Festival: July 11-27, Old St John's, 320 Hardy St, Nelson.

Nelson Arts Festival: October 16-27, including the Masked Parade on October 17, programme launched August 8.

- Herald on Sunday

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