Artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy rebuilt her "sun studio" from the ashes of a devastating fire that taught her how to listen to the land.
I knew I was seeking a new place to live, but I was just blindly driving around when I saw a For Sale sign on the side of the road, almost obscured by the long grass. I like to think it was waiting for us.
When we arrived in 2008, there was just a paddock with a boggy area, dotted with ancient pōhutukawa and pūriri trees. It wasn't until later that I was told by mana whenua that this is a sacred site but I knew there was an energy vortex, because I'd brought in a water diviner.
At the time, I thought that was quite fun but I didn't take it seriously until the following year when we bought an old Scout hall and moved it on to the property. Three weeks later, it burnt down, with my art studio inside. There's nothing like fire to initiate you into listening to the energies of the land.
It took more than 10 years to rebuild the studio, which was completed on the afternoon before New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown last year — more than 10 years after the fire.
People could say I'm a romantic but there are communities and cultures around the planet that have a very highly attuned sensibility to the living force of things that aren't only human. When you stand under a majestic tree, by which I'm surrounded, you feel its force. I learned to listen to the energies of the site and to ask for permission, taking very seriously the fact that this building could function as a sculptural form that has its own energy.
From the outside, it looks like a Monopoly house, but the proportions are quite specific. It faces directly east-west and has very much a whare sensibility, although it wasn't designed with that in mind.
Inside, the main room is like a gallery, with four beautiful skylights so I can look up and see the canopy of the trees. I call it the sun studio. On the north and south sides, big doors also function as windows that look directly into the landscape, and my office is upstairs on the mezzanine floor.
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At the front entrance, there's an earth acupuncture point where a hole was made in the concrete floor and packed with soil. That's where I sit sometimes to do a Sanskrit fire procedure called agnihotra, which is performed at the exact moment of sunrise and sunset. In 2016, when I was the artist-in-residence at McCahon House, it was part of my daily practice.
We've done a lot of native restoration on the land, which looks out over Mahurangi Harbour [a 45-minute drive north of Auckland], and a big chunk of it is covenanted bush. I did a permaculture design course before we started and what I learned through creating our beautiful vegetable garden are the fundamentals of what I teach now through For the Love of Bees. I think of it as painting with plants.
This is a place of serious abundance — 90 per cent of the veges we eat every day comes from our garden. Yesterday, when I was walking across to my studio, there were literally hundreds of birds flying around. At the moment, there are kererū in the almond trees. It's a living biosystem and you can feel it humming and pulsing with life.
— as told to Joanna Wane
Joy Field, artist Sarah Smuts-Kennedy's first exhibition of work created in her new studio, opens today at Sumer gallery in Tauranga and runs until November 6. The former actress is also the originator of For the Love of Bees, a community initiative working to create self-sustaining urban farms through bee-friendly regenerative organic horticulture.