Social practice artists Bernie Harfleet and Donna Turtle Sarten are giving new meaning to the term "artist's palette".

The West Auckland duo is well-known for making art that confronts issues like child poverty, mental health, homelessness, war and domestic abuse. This year, they return to the biennial Sculpture OnShore exhibition – the largest fundraiser for New Zealand Women's Refuge – with an artwork that uses 540 wooden pallets.

Standing at the Glendene headquarters of The Pallet Company, Harfleet and Turtle Sarten are surrounded by thousands of pallets destined to transport goods all over the world. Their Sculpture OnShore work, Why Don't You Just Leave?, highlights a journey of a different kind.

"It talks about the work women's refuge does and the journey of those women and children who go to refuge," says Harfleet, a former special education teacher and self-taught artist. "We called it Why Don't You Just Leave? because that's what women get asked all the time and the artwork itself involves a long journey through the pallets. They might be able to see the way out, but how difficult is it to find it?"

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He describes the maze-like construction as one of the most ambitious projects he and Turtle Sarten have undertaken. Peter Alley, sales manager at The Pallet Company, says it's occasionally been asked to supply products for art-orientated events but never so many at one time. He didn't hesitate to lend them the pallets, saying it supports a much-needed national organisation.

Harfleet and Turtle Sarten started with 10, spending winter learning how to connect pallets together and how many they would need to build a 30m x 23m structure. There's been constant checking during the install to ensure the construction is exactly as planned.
One pallet just centimetres out of place could mean the structure doesn't work as it should.

"It's involved a lot of problem-solving but it's a bit like making something out of Lego," says Harfleet.

While this may be their most ambitious work yet, they've made many large scale artworks for outdoor sculpture shows, galleries and at community events which prove the truth of the expression seeing is believing.

At 2016's Sculpture OnShore, they won the People's Choice Award for Max and Bella and friends which used 10,000 white pinwheels to represent the 5 per cent of NZ adults experiencing psychological distress, like anxiety and depression, each month.

"When you talk about those numbers, it's hard to get a sense of what that actually looks like but we like to provide context with our work. We'll research something and then create a visual which gives a sense of the scale. Seeing 10,000 pinwheels gathered together communicates more than just hearing a number."

But they don't just make art; the couple frequently become involved with the causes they're highlighting. In 2014, they strung 6000 plastic lunchboxes from trees as part of the Feed the Kids Too project, which later saw the 7500 low decile students gifted lunchboxes and lunch.

Then there's Give a kid a blanket started in 2015, after the couple were shocked when a coroner's report stated that a cold, damp house contributed to the death of a 2 year old girl. They launched a community art activation, photographing people who donated blankets – 1273 in that first year - which were then given to those in need. This year's Give a kid a blanket handed out 17,469 blankets, duvets, sleeping bags and baby sleep sacks. The figure doesn't include new pillows, socks, beanies, pyjamas, new hot water bottles, warm clothing and additional bedding.

"It's about having a platform to talk to people about how things could be changed," says Turtle Sarten. "Even if it's just for a small moment that someone stops and pays attention, that's still something."

•NZ Sculpture OnShore is at Fort Takapuna from Saturday November 3 – Sunday November 18. It includes a wide-range of contemporary sculpture by some of our leading practitioners with funds donated to NZ Women's Refuge.