He designed a bike for Prince George and uniforms for Olympians, but Kim Knight discovers this artist's greatest (re)invention is himself.
It's any rural driveway. Steep. Ruts in the gravel. A kid's bike cast in the long grass at the end.
That's not any kid's bike. Its distinct design led to a bespoke commission for Prince George. Did his royal toddlerness like it?
"I wouldn't have a clue," says artist and designer Shane Hansen. "I said to them, 'has it gone into the royal garage sale?'"
Hansen lives on the intersection of creativity and commerce. An artist who can pay his bills, but is unlikely to be selected for the Venice Biennale et al, any time soon.
"I think it's quite nice sometimes just for art to be something that looks pretty and people like it because it's that. Why does there have to be elitism? I'll never be in that realm. I think I sit in that space of being a bit more commercial and a bit more, I don't know - mainstream?"
Just inside the door of his Tutukaka studio is a self-portrait. A man with his head in his hands and hurt writ very large on a bare torso.
Hansen, 46, hosts reality television show Design Junkies. Season two starts on Thursday, but last year, as filming on the first series wrapped, Hansen took a phone call. His uncle had killed himself. And then a prominent member of Hansen's small Northland community drowned. And then another friend killed himself and his older sister received another cancer diagnosis and, in Hansen's own head, a deep family horror was taking root.
"It's called ataxia and it's a neurological disease. The cerebellum at the back of your brain breaks down. Your speech gets slurry, you lose your vision, you can't walk, you're nauseous all the time, you walk like you're drunk, you talk like you're drunk and inevitably it means you're in a wheelchair . . . "
Ataxia can be caused by strokes, head traumas and autoimmune diseases. But some forms are hereditary. Hansen's uncle had it. At his tangi, Hansen saw other afflicted family members.
"It kind of made us all think, 'shoot - we better go get checked'."
That kind of thing plays with your head. Hansen would trip while running, or blur a word while speaking, and assume he had the condition.
"I've got two boys and I just wanted to know for my future. I love my exercise and I love the outdoors and it would affect how I could do my work, because my work relies on my hand being steady. It would just change the whole way we lived our lives, my wife would become my caregiver, it was just a big thing to be dealing with and thinking about."
His test results were delayed. He became more convinced of a positive diagnosis. And, as he had done one other time in his life, he painted his feelings.
"Nōku te he." The fault is mine. "Love you sis". Himself as a small boy with a pudding bowl haircut, copied from a photograph where he leans on a bridge railing next to his older sister. In real life, Hansen has no tattoos. In real life, he says, he would be extremely uncomfortable posing with his shirt off. But for this portrait of the artist in pain?
"It's just about me letting some of those things out. But it really screwed me up! I felt terrible. I wasn't expecting that, but I was carrying that stuff for a while and I hadn't really properly processed it or done the right things to sort it out. I wasn't expecting to feel so crappy afterwards. The emotional impact."
On the day the phonecall finally came, he asked his wife Kirsty to take it. And the results were negative.
decade ago, Hansen sought help for depression. He and Kirsty had started a marketing and design business and they were expecting their first child. It was "years of just not really addressing issues, of not being confident enough, I wasn't really a masculine kind of guy, I didn't really fit in and also being of mixed heritage - Māori and Chinese . . . that feeling of not being allowed to be the kind of person I really wanted to be".
Of course, he says, most of that was self-imposed.
"There were points in there that I could have decided to take my own life. I could have decided to bail out. But I always thought I'd be leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces. If that was my only option . . . that's what really broke me. It made me realise what needed to change."
As part of his recovery Hansen started painting, and this might sound like a cliche but he literally dragged colour back into his life. Aotearoa's flora and fauna in graphic form and primary tones. Pania of the Reef in neon pink shorts. A small boy with a woman's moko kauae playing with a wharenui against a brilliant blue background. Shape, pattern, colour and form on every surface.
"All those experiences and all those anxieties and all that stuff from my childhood . . . They were all working towards where I am now. I'm a lot more confident and proud of myself now than I've ever been, and I want to make sure that my children are too, you know?"
Nikau is 11 and Mikaia is 8. A while back, they were on a family holiday in Australia. Beaches, sunshine, surfing. Nikau said "wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time" and Hansen says he and Kirsty realised they didn't need to be in Auckland. They decided on Tauranga as a baby step to, one day, really truly leaving city life. They had sold their house and their possessions had been trucked south when the promised Tauranga property deal went the same way.
"It cost us a bit of money and made us really upset, but it forced our hand to go 'well, actually, what are we dicking around for?'"
They moved north. The "city" is still only 25 minutes away and their cafe culture is parked in the driveway. Tutukaka Roast is, apparently, a hobby - but Hansen's distinctively painted mobile coffee van and eight-bean blend is a regular at community events.
"I like Whangārei, because it's rough around the edges, but it's still got a bit of character. But yeah, it's slowed us down, it's made us appreciate just being together as a family and doing things with the community . . . starting afresh. No-one knew who we were or had a preconceived idea of us."
Once, Hansen was a fashion designer. He worked for Canterbury International and Town & Country Surf Designs. He was commissioned to design the team uniforms for the 2016 New Zealand Rio Olympic team but the result, he says, was design by committee - and huge personal compromise.
"It just reminded me that I hate fashion!"
He wears a 20-year-old Lee shirt for his photo shoot and then changes into a T-shirt courtesy of a Design Junkies sponsor ("most of my actual T-shirts are pretty ratty …"). The made-for-TV one has a tūī on front.
"Not dissing the kiwi, but I wish the tūī was our bird. He's got so much personality, he's staunch. He's proud of who he is. He's dynamic and acrobatic. I love them. We've got one guy who hangs around here and follows me - there's something about them I feel connected to. They're the one endemic species that's managed to do really well in the urban environment. They've managed to sustain themselves and look after themselves with all the changing environment, the things we've done."
It is not a giant leap to say that Hansen looks like a tūī. Glossy hair; dark and sharp eyes. Plus he can sing. His guitar was handmade by Dunedin luthier Peter Madill; Hansen did the wood staining himself. That self portrait has also spawned a couple of self-penned songs.
"I did like music, but I was surrounded by art . . . "
His Chinese grandfather would paint calligraphy; his dad was a commercial artist "way back when" but went to work in the Bonds Apparel factory when he had a family to support.
"Every birthday I'd be given paints or pencils and my dad always used to draw us birthday cards every birthday. That was what I looked forward to every year, seeing what he'd done."
Hansen is Tainui, Ngaati Mahanga and Ngaati Hine but, growing up, learned more about his Asian heritage.
"Mum's father had come out from China in the 1920s, and we used to celebrate Chinese New Year and all that side of things. My Māori grandmother had converted to Christianity and stayed away from the Māori part of things. My parents were brought up in the era where you didn't speak Māori, you wanted to be as Pākehā as possible. Our world was basically Pākehā and Westernised."
A decade ago, when Hansen made the decision to become a full-time artist, he told the Otago Daily Times, "I feel like a tourist in my own culture". And today?
"It took a while to even accept or call myself an artist. When you put a title above your name, sometimes it means that you feel like you need to fit into certain sorts of spaces. Becoming an artist was a bit of a leap and then becoming a Māori artist was - well, I don't speak te reo and I haven't been brought up with my culture. But what was really nice and comforting was that most of the Māori who have been immersed in the culture love my work."
Also, culture sells. Hansen is acutely aware of this. In 2018 he won a confidential settlement and a public apology from Escape Rentals when the company reproduced his work on three of their campervans without permission. Back then, he told Herald 12 Questions columnist Jennifer Dann that it felt like identity theft. Now, he says, "it taught me that how the justice system works is if you're the guilty person and you've got money, you can keep fighting something". Hansen didn't have the money, but he did have the commitment.
"I wanted my children to know that. I hate bullies, I've always stood up for what I believe in, and I thought, 'I want them to know that I'm an artist'."
There is a work on his website that feels pertinent to this philosophy - a painting that collides head-on with artist Dick Frizzell's infamous "Micky to Tiki Tu Meke" painting. In the original, the Disney character morphs into the iconic Māori motif. In Hansen's version, the faces are remade. They start out as tiki and morph into Frizzell, complete with dollar signs in his spectacles. It's called "Tiki to Diki ... Kaching!" Read it as a serious swipe at Frizzell's appropriation of Māori design, but Hansen says he admires the maker of the biggest-selling print of all time in Aotearoa.
"No matter what you think, you must admit, Dick was a genius for thinking of it. Dick has paved the way for peeps like myself and I am grateful for that. I only wish I had thought of it!"
Actually, says Hansen, he's heard of at least one customer who has complained about his version. "She went into a gallery and said 'How dare he rip off Dick Frizzell' . . . "
Hansen laughs. Frizzell, he says, thinks the work is funny.
On Design Junkies, Hansen hosts, mentors and tries to gently convince enthusiastic young designers that sometimes they might consider using four materials instead of 100.
"It reminds me of when I was that age. Trying out all these things and having massive ideas and you'd take on way too much . . . "
Contestants are set a series of challenges that involve taking the old and making it artistically (and functionally) new. Herald reviewer Calum Henderson called it a "rubbish show worth watching" but Hansen says he hadn't planned to. He hadn't even set up free-to-air television access at home when it began screening, but his kids insisted.
"I don't really like seeing myself on TV. It's like looking at my artwork too much. You start picking up on all the little things - 'oh man, why do I look so strange, my eyes are weird' . . . one of my main concerns was that it would be cheesy, and that they would try and pit people against each other and stir things up."
Ultimately, "I was pleasantly surprised". Even more pleasantly: Down the road from his house in the bush, the local school set up its own version "and all the families got involved and made these cool-as things".
A decade ago, as he climbed out of depression, Hansen decided to say yes to opportunity and figure out the details later. That's how he ended up on television; that's how he made the shift from designer to artist.
"It is a lot more liberating, just changing the title! You get the feeling that all people want to be designers and if they commission you, they're quite willing to tell you where to change things. As an artist, they don't question you.
"It's a dilemma, eh? Because a lot of creative people are very fragile. But in order to be able to share what you love, or make a living, or feel fulfilled, it has to be shared with people - you almost have to have people appreciate what you do in order to feel good about yourself. Which is kind of unhealthy!"
So, yes, he did the bespoke artwork for the Avanti Lil Ripper that was presented to Prince George. And yes, he was one of five Māori artists selected to create Māori designs for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But two weeks ago he was "really nervous" about unveiling a painting for private clients that he wasn't certain he'd got right.
"So to have them almost in tears when they saw it - that's one of those moments that's more impactful."
The studio-garage-workshop where Hansen creates is ridiculously tidy. It contains a full-sized (and fully embellished) espresso machine. The hexagonal designs on the cupboard fronts reflect, it turns out, the molecular structure of coffee. An interior support beam has been wrapped with exterior cladding and, if you look closely at the underside of the verandah panels, they gleam with subtle kowhaiwhai designs. The garage windows are etched; the swirling marks on the internal doors were printed on a giant flatbed scanner because if you could, why wouldn't you? Hansen claims he has a "tendency to clutter" but there is zero evidence of that in a space that feels meticulously, painstakingly planned.
On the television show, contestants repurpose existing designs, but, says Hansen, "sometimes what goes into re-doing this old thing can outweigh the reasons why you're trying to do that. You almost consume more energy pulling things apart and sticking things on".
The last new "designer" thing he bought? A $580 elegant and silent lever-press Newton espresso machine, created in Hawke's Bay. It sits, on the corner of his studio kitchen bench, next to two tiny ceramic bowls that hold two large dead moths. Apparently, there are rabbit skulls in the garage. The walls are hung with his painted birds that some people read as Māori, and others as Chinese. The rug on the floor is his design and so is the lemon curd yellow kewpie doll face above the door and the giant red metal paper dart that has landed in his front yard. Shape, form, pattern, colour - his life depends on it.
Design Junkies screens on TVNZ1, Thursdays at 7.30pm.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
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