Sustainability and artistic expression are woven into the lives of Rangiwahia couple Jim Richards and Bridge Murphy.
In 2010, they founded the Rangiwahia Environmental Arts Centre Trust (React), and now travel all over the lower North Island running workshops in schools and communities, helping people make toys, decorations, tell-your-story books, flags and banners, all using discarded and sustainably harvested materials.
Murphy, a Kiwi, met Richards in the UK. They fitted out an old British Telecom truck as a mobile home and art studio, and travelled through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the former USSR. Along the way they ran art workshops with NGOs, schools, orphanages, hospitals and universities. Many of these institutions had no art, nothing on the walls.
Richards says it was clear that art made a profound difference in communities affected by global events like the breakup of the USSR and the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. It was deeply satisfying to see people making art side-by-side, and putting on scrap carnivals, which unlike your average carnival don't cost a lot of money and don't generate waste to landfill.
Murphy says the connections are just as important as the art: "We believe in the power of people coming together to celebrate."
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React is probably most famous for its lantern workshops, and the lantern parade at Palmerston North's annual Festival of Cultures. There's also the Big Girls, giant puppets made with and for women of diverse cultures, for International Women's Day events. At the centre, they cultivate willow for these creations. Donations and grants allow them to reach into disadvantaged communities.
Richards recently found that discarded ends of willow can be burned to make charcoal for drawing. This is another thing they are trying to bring about: a circular economy, allowing humanity to live sustainably on Earth. They have planted vegetable gardens and fruit trees at the centre for food security, and biodiverse green corridors of native plants to link three nearby bush reserves.
This work is their livelihood, volunteer work and the way they choose to live, all rolled into one.
"For many, success is accumulating wealth. For us, success is making society better," Richards says. Some projects receive funding, others don't. They often work at other paid jobs while running the centre.
React has an open day combined with a willow-harvesting bee during Matariki in July. They are happy to have volunteers come and learn, and spread these ideas.
If you would like to know more, volunteer, collaborate or donate go to rangienviroartscentre.org.
• Environment Network Manawatū is a hub for about 60 enviro groups, working in areas ranging from sustainable living to wildlife conservation. Find them on Facebook or visit enm.org.nz