Lindy Laird meets a couple who tap into a community spirit at their unique Whangārei recreational art school.
Where they're not covered in stylised sketches, painted portraits, angels' wings, airbrushed tigers and murals made from milk bottle tops, the walls of a large Whangārei art studio are lined with bare cardboard. Needs must. It does the job.
The floor of faux-wood vinyl strips came out of a builder's skip and the plastic surfaces of fold-up tables are so layered with daubs of colour, dry puddles of paint and drifts of glitter they are abstract works of art themselves.
The atmosphere is an inviting mix of eau d'art - paint and cleaners — and joy. This is the Northland Arts Centre's studio, behind its shop on a Whangārei city centre street.
Surprisingly, Northland Arts Centre is also the premises of the biggest — well, currently the only — dedicated airbrush school in the country. It's run by Julia Tapp, a 14 times award winner whose work hangs or has been published in 17 countries and who is the fastest airbrush artist in New Zealand.
Julia, who studied the Australia-origin Venturi System for 10 years, is the only person in New Zealand qualified to teach courses in the method. While the Venturi comprises locked-in block courses for students, Julia also offers introductory airbrush courses. The resulting uses for these skills are food for thought — cake decorating, T-shirt and clothing design, body art, car painting, custom effects, murals and more.
Julia also teaches other art classes at the centre she and husband Jason opened 18 months ago, although they can be more like drop-in encounters, the couple jokes.
That's because the centre is run like a community service, aiming to bring creative expression through a recreational activity . It is also geared for people who might not otherwise be able to take part, either because of disability, other special needs, timetables or cost, Julia says.
The Tapps offer lessons that are paid for one at a time rather than families shelling out for lump-sum course fees. There are also classes for preschool kiddies but a parent or caregiver has to be with each child. And Saturday morning children's session are popular.
''We're all about bringing art to everybody,'' Julia says.
''We have an older student with Alzheimer's who keeps forgetting he's in a class. We have one with Parkinson's who we've developed a drawing method for.''
That man is accidentally skilled at shading, it suits his tremors very well, although it is rather shaky shading.
''So he does all this shading and then we tape the pen in his hand so he can put in straight lines. He draws trees, landscapes, all sorts of things now.''
For the Tapps and their students, the studio is a happy place - but it's hard work. What the couple could do with is more support. They'd love to get community-minded art teachers or advanced students to volunteer to take some lessons.
The Tapps are totally up-front about how the school hasn't been a gold mine, in fact they haven't made a bean - so they've restructured it from a ''shop front business paying tax on that basis rather than a community service'' to a charitable entity which will hopefully be eligible for grants so they can offer free classes.
The family suffered a devastating loss five years ago when their 3-year-old son Ezra drowned near their home in Waihi.
The aftermath includes Julia's links with groups that support bereaved parents by sharing helpful information — such as where to get tailor-made tiny caskets, ''angel gowns'' and artful memorabilia and mementos.
The help she now gives through forums such as the Angel Portraits Charity and the Angel Memorabilia Facebook page is another busy aspect to her art work.
When Ezra died, quite coincidentally Julia was painting a portrait for a couple, depicting their infant as an angel. After Ezra drowned, the Tapps were contacted by a woman who made ''angel casts'' of the feet and hands of babies and toddlers who have died.
''I thought, am I being guided here? How can I use my skills to help?''
That's partly why the Tapps are so accommodating of special needs students.
Ezra was autistic, had difficuluty communicating with language, but was a lively, adventurous, Houdini kind of a kid - skilled at taking off without anyone seeing him go.
One day in August 2014, he ducked through a gate and his disappearance wasn't noticed immediately. A short while later, during a search by emergency services, family and neighbours, Ezra's dad found the little boy face down in the Ohinemuri River, close to their house.
As medics confirmed their child was dead, Julia and Jason Tapp cradled him in their arms on the riverbank, and sang to him.
Singing Ezra's ''comfort song'' - the song that used to centre their sometimes excitable third child - was a natural response for the couple in whose lives music has played a large role.
Jason was only 2 and a half when he first stood on a stage and sang country music, and got paid for his effort.
''I was given 20 cents and a chocolate bar by a 92-year old lady.''
After a break from music for a few years and a battle with cancer at age 26, Jason entered the NZ production of Stars in Their Eyes, and impersonated Johnny Cash.
He began working around New Zealand doing similar performances, and was known as this country's 'Johnny Cash'. For a while he and Julia travelled together doing covers of Cash and his wife June Carter. A stint in the USA saw him work in the music scene and her study and make art.
A year almost to the day after losing Ezra the couple's fourth child was born, a boy. As the famous Johnny Cash/June Carter song goes, ''Will the circle be unbroken?'' For this family, a deep spiritual thread runs through their lives.
But, despite the locals being wonderfully supportive, the Tapps had a sense of discomfort living in the town where they'd said farewell to Ezra.
''We were a bit lost.''
They moved to Whangārei and set up their art school. Julia had lived in the city for a few years during her childhood.
It is now home. They have a sense of belonging, and are again a family with as much purpose as love.
''I always tell people we have four children, three of them walk and one flies,'' Jason said.