They call it the lifejacket cemetery.

It's a rubbish dump on the otherwise picturesque Greek Island of Lesbos, where thousands of fake lifejackets, once worn by desperate refugees, have come to rest after their wearers drowned at sea or struggled ashore.

When Greek/New Zealand glass artist and surf lifesaver Sofia Athineou saw the lifejacket mountains, it left her speechless. She was one of six Bethells Beach Surf Life Savers who travelled to Lesbos a year ago to help rescue those arriving on its shores after fleeing their homes - 30,000 from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in just one month alone.

"Each one of those lifejackets held a human being," she says, "I held one of these fake jackets under water and after half an hour, it filled up with water. They were worse than useless because they became heavy with water and started sinking."


With law changes meaning refugees would be automatically transferred to camps, the numbers arriving there slowed while Athineou's group was in Lesbos, directly across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

Instead, the New Zealanders helped Greek lifeguards clean beaches of debris, including many fake lifejackets, taught swimming and helped local volunteer units learn to use a donated inflatable rescue boat.

So Athineou didn't hesitate when asked to contribute an artwork for the Frame Works walkable art trail and auction.

The event will raise funds for the Asylum Seekers Support Trust, which provides safety, support and advocacy for those driven to seek asylum in New Zealand. The trust runs on donations alone and, unlike organisations working with quota refugees, gets no government funding.

This year, 88 artists from all over New Zealand have been given a wooden picture frame to transform into a one-off work of art. After being displayed in shops, restaurants and public buildings from Britomart to AUT, the art will be auctioned.

Event curator Alix Bachmann says art lovers, particularly those looking for something to do during the final week of school holidays, will be able to find and choose their favourite pieces and learn about those who have made the works.

Artists include Jeff Thomson, Evan Woodruffe, Anna Leyland and Peata Larkin and there are as many different types of work as there are creators. Athineou used three different photos of three small parts of three different hills of lifejackets to create one photo - no Photoshop needed, she adds.

"The frame that I originally collected, to me it represented the life of every refugee before war," she writes on her artist's page. "Life full of freedom; I was told I was free to do whatever I wanted with this frame and so I made it into a vessel. I cut and transformed it."

Athineou likens the transformation to how refugees have to transform their frame of life and says frequently, that becomes a matter of basic survival.

"And so, at some stage of their trip, a lot of them have to transform that frame into an inflatable boat so they can cross the water. A boat full of human lives full of dreams and hopes of a better life. A fast, badly made, cheap inflatable boat that can transport as many humans as human traffickers can shove into them, all wearing fake, cheap, badly made lifejackets."

Fellow artist Rozana Lee was born in Aceh, Indonesia. She left during the May 1998 anti-Chinese minority riots, and says she was fortunate to be working for a company with offices in Singapore.

"I wouldn't say I know what it's like to have to flee your home and leave everything behind, but this experience gave me a small insight into what it could be like."

In 2004, Lee's mother died in the Boxing Day Tsunami and, re-evaluating life, Lee eventually moved to New Zealand with her Kiwi husband and decided to pursue her interest in art. She creates art that reflects the diversity of the world.

Fellow artist Ema Frost, recently returned from India where she works with disadvantaged children, says travelling to such communities opens one's eyes to why some people are forced from their homes.

"It makes you aware of how lucky we are."

What: Frame Works walkable art trail
Where and when: Displayed from Britomart to AUT in laneways, High St and Lorne St until Monday, May 1. Download the STQRY Frame Work app or grab a trail map.
Auction: All works will be sold at a gala event on Tuesday, May 2, at Quay Project, Britomart.