Four artists from the Far North to the South Island reveal to Leanne Moore their secrets on how to bypass the traditional art world in the search for creative freedom
Emma Hercus, Plimmerton
"I've had a non-traditional path to becoming an artist," says Emma Hercus, "so I'm always doubting myself, comparing myself to other artists. I just need to ignore all that and enjoy the process."
Raised on a farm in the King Country, Hercus studied graphic design at university but never pursued it as a career. "Design didn't inspire me. I just wanted to paint, not sit in front of a computer."
Hercus spent several years travelling, experiencing a range of occupations that are reflected in her colourful resumé. She lived in Sydney for a while, waitressed in the Cayman Islands, moved to Europe, worked during summer as a deckhand, cook and cleaner on superyachts in the south of France and Italy, then wintered in ski chalets in Switzerland and France, cooking and cleaning, while squeezing in loads of skiing. She also did a stint as a gardener and was involved in event management.
By 2006 she was ready to move on from her fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous. "I got a bit tired of working for the mega-rich and felt like it was time to move back to New Zealand." She married Stu in 2013 and they settled in Plimmerton. Hercus wanted to find something creative that would fit around raising Ivy, 10, Pete, 9, and Fred, 7.
Initially, she took up the ancient craft of basket weaving. "I approached Eddie Douglas, who has been making baskets for over 40 years. He lives nearby in Ōtaki and he agreed to teach me. Basketry is such an old and beautiful craft. I love that it's sustainable. Eddie and I now share a willow crop by a stream in Te Horo. We harvest the crop each winter and every year there is more and more willow."
While weaving in a shared studio space in Paekākāriki, Hercus was inspired to pick up a paintbrush for the first time since she left secondary school. "I needed something to hang on my walls at home so I painted a picture on an old wooden cable end. To my surprise, someone wanted to buy it straight away. That motivated me to keep going and I've been painting like a crazy woman ever since. Now I'm making more money from my paintings than from weaving."
Instagram has been pivotal as a platform for Hercus to showcase and sell her art. "It's a great way to build a community if you are living somewhere that's isolated from other like-minded people. I have met loads of other artists through Instagram and also have been approached by a lot of art buyers."
Buoyed by her success, Hercus now describes herself as an artist. "I recently started saying that. These days it's a legitimate career path but it wasn't like that when I left school. If you studied art there was a very low expectation that you could make money from it. The internet has made it a lot easier to do that."
Hercus set herself a goal, to make her art and weaving financially viable by the time her children were at school. "I was going to re-evaluate what I was doing at that point, but it has worked out. It's a bit like a dream come true. I love having my own art business, making my own hours, with no employees and no boss. It doesn't feel like a job really as I love every minute, except maybe the tax returns."
Mark Daniells, Mangōnui, Northland
You could say that art is in Mark Daniells' DNA. "My mother painted watercolours and my dad was a woodcarver and made woodcut prints, so creativity has and always will be an important part of my life. I view the world around me with artistic sensitivity. I find being creative magical and medicinal."
The California native, who is a fine arts graduate from the University of California at Berkeley, calls Northland home.
Daniells and his wife Diane moved to the Far North from Hawaii two years ago. He works from his studio/gallery at Mangōnui village, overlooking the harbour. Surrounded by paintings in various stages of completion, Daniells looks very much at home in the studio setting.
But it took 20 years after graduating from art college before he was able to make it his full-time occupation.
He was a carpenter for 30 years, having learned as a young man the skill of building homes, which ended up providing regular income. Other jobs included working as an airbrush artist painting graphics on motorcycles in California, stints as a secondary school teacher in both California and Hawaii, and teaching at his wife's early childcare centre in Hawaii.
Throughout these years his artistic life continued to hum in the background. He kept up his painting and started creating etched glass and stained glass pieces that attracted commissions from hotels and restaurants.
"I owned a home in Hawaii, which I had built on the stunningly beautiful island of Kauai. We lived upstairs and my wife's childcare centre was downstairs. In 1990, the same year our son Evan was born, I built a small gallery on our property. That was a dream come true and pivotal in becoming a full-time artist. It gave me the financial confidence I'd been waiting for," he says. "Having my own gallery was instrumental in overcoming that fear I had of wondering if I could make it work financially. Up until then, whenever I showed my work in a gallery I had to relinquish a large percentage of the money from sales to the gallery owner."
Daniells remembers the first time he called himself an artist. "It was when I was filling out my taxes and I put 'artist' down as my occupation. It felt good." Evan, who still lives in Hawaii, has become a key player in his dad's art business, running Daniells' website and managing sales in the United States.
Daniells grew up on the Pacific islands of Palau and Guam (where his dad worked as a land commissioner and civil engineer, respectively), so tropical scenes are second nature to him. "I often paint the ocean and freshwater surfaces. I started painting coconut palms in Hawaii and continue to paint the varieties of beautiful palms here in New Zealand."
He and Diane bought a property in Cable Bay, Northland, in 2003 but didn't realise their dream to live permanently in New Zealand until 2019. "We sold our home and businesses in Hawaii and finally made the move. There is a familiarity here that reminds us of California, where we were both born, but it also reminds us of Hawaii," he says. "Many things appeal to us. The friendly people, small population and the food and wine are fantastic. Both Diane and I have been waka paddlers for many years and I'm a surfer so having the ocean on our doorstep is important, too. And the stunning beauty of the Far North is perfect for my artistic sensibility."
Rebecca Hawthorn, Auckland
Rebecca Hawthorn opted out of her high-octane fashion career in 2018 to script her own destiny. After more than a decade at the top of her corporate game, she chucked it all in to take a leap into the unknown and pursue her creative dream. "The timing just seemed right, and crazy and terrifying," she says of her decision to leave behind the corporate world to become an artist.
"As a fashion buyer, I travelled regularly to London, Los Angeles and New York. It was fast-paced and high-pressured. Buying is equal parts creativity and analysis, and you need to be able to switch between your left and right brain constantly. The role involves a lot of problem solving and collaboration with various internal and external teams. There's an expectation that you will be the person in the room with all the answers," she says.
"I absolutely loved the job until I woke up one day and realised I was over it. Although it sounds very glamourous, the constant travel and pressure was beginning to take its toll on my wellbeing. And my children were getting to an age where they were really starting to miss me when I was gone," she says of Isabella, 13, and Miller, 11.
Giving up her career in the fashion industry to plot her own course has tested Hawthorn's mettle. "I could never have guessed how often a need for bravery would come up on this journey. You need to be willing to put something which is extremely personal in front of people. I've spent a large part of my life being creative in a commercial environment, so expressing the real me was challenging," she says.
"It can be hard to stay focused and positive when something disappointing happens. There have been times when my work didn't make it into a competition or it didn't sell at a show. You have to dig deep to keep going and believe it will work out. My love of routine and self-discipline has been my biggest ally. I still get up early to exercise before the kids get out of bed and I drive to my studio five days a week."
Looking back, those early days in the studio were a struggle: "I know this sounds ridiculous but I had to learn to paint, even though I'd spent my entire working life creating colour palettes and assessing proportion and composition. I hadn't picked up a paintbrush since my student days," says Hawthorn, who is a fashion and interior design school graduate. "In fact, I had actively avoided it as I sensed it would absorb me and I really didn't have a spare moment between being a mother and my corporate career."
Over time she developed her own distinctive style and began showcasing her paintings on social media. "I was terrified the first time I posted my work because it felt so revealing but it's helped quell my fear of other people's judgment. It's helped me get comfortable with being seen."
Initially, she painted portraits of young children with haunting eyes, which possessed a dark beauty. Recently she has been working on a series of abstract landscapes. "I've started to paint what I think of as daydreams of nature, remembered from my childhood. One of my favourite places was - and still is - lying under trees and looking up at the sky and seeing all those lush green branches intersecting that beautiful big blue expanse. It's my happy place."
Three years on, Hawthorn still feels uneasy calling herself an artist. "It seems too grand, like I'm claiming a title that is reserved for people in the history books. I'm more comfortable describing myself as a painter, although that can cause confusion. My husband Paul's a builder and I'm sure people assume we have a decorating business," she laughs.
Fleur Woods, Upper Moutere
Fleur Woods has taken the ancient handcraft of embroidery and given it a fresh twist, creating artworks that are a fascinating mix of the past and present. She creates contemporary stitched paintings inspired by nature from her studio in the beautiful rural village of Upper Moutere, near Nelson.
Home is an old farm cottage, where she lives with her husband Cam and daughters Lily, 13, and Saffron, 10. Surrounded by vineyards, hop farms and orchards, the front porch overlooks a rambling garden and paddocks that draw the eye to the valley below.
Woods also sells DIY embroidery kits online and runs popular embroidery workshops. She has turned her creativity into a financial success but there have been a few bumps along the way. "I really should have gone straight to art school after high school but I didn't and kind of mucked around before moving to Australia as a 19-year-old."
She worked at a call centre in Brisbane and did the occasional art class before heading home to Wellington, where she got a job in advertising and studied art and design part-time.
Woods continued to create art but didn't consider making it a full-time occupation until she left corporate life and moved to Nelson with Cam to start a family. "Initially my biggest challenge was that I didn't really know who I was as an artist and so had to make a lot of (mostly terrible) work to try to find my style."
In 2014 she had a breakthrough, of sorts. "I took part in a project where I created a piece of work inspired by a song each day for 100 days. At the end some fellow artists and I had a show. About 90 of my pieces were pretty disappointing but 10 showed me where my strengths were. After that show, I took a year to create more work, had another couple of shows that were sort of successful, in the sense that the work would sell but I was finding it hard to connect with the wider art community and gain gallery support."
Multiple approaches by Woods to multiple galleries led to multiple rejections. Choosing a different tack, she seized an opportunity to establish her own gallery in the old Post Office in her local village. Woods & Co opened its doors in 2016.
"I literally opened it because I thought that it might help me to be seen as a serious artist. Initially, I positioned it as a contemporary art space but quickly realised that I wasn't that great at selling art and needed to pay the rent. I stopped trying to be clever or cool and just made what I really liked: floral, nature-inspired, feminine stuff. I'd already started to explore stitch through my mixed media pieces. It was at this point that I embraced it."
She landed her first solo show at the Kina Gallery in New Plymouth in 2017. "I still work with them today. Something like 11 of the 14 pieces sold quickly and the New Plymouth art collectors totally got it, which felt great. It gave me the confidence to keep going." The next big break came when a glossy interiors magazine from across the Tasman spied her work on Instagram and commissioned her for a shoot.
Exhibitions in Australia and New York followed and now Woods' work is sought-after by collectors around the world. She's so busy keeping up with the demand, especially from Australia, that she's had to close her gallery. "It just shows how important it is to believe in yourself and trust that all the hard work will eventually pay off."