Art in Matakana

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The Early Years It was in 1977 that Anthony Morris and Sue James first put Matakana on the creative map. They’d bought a run-down piece of land in Matakana that had a priceless treasure hidden under the gorse: clay. Ant had a vision, founded in potteries he’d worked at in England, of a ‘creative community of artisans’. He loved the idea of a process that required a group of different talents who contribute to stages of making, creating a whole. “The potter’s work,” he likes to say “reflects the imagination, talent and skill of all who participate in this creative community”. For decades, Morris and James Pottery was pretty much the only reason anyone came to Matakana, apart from the beaches. But then a wider creative community began to stir – business owners prompted by a need to lure more visitors to spend money, artists by a need to show their work. In 2004, Richard and Christine Didsbury began to shape Matakana into the arts destination it is today. It began, as many things do on the Matakana Coast, with wine.

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By 2004, what we now know as Brick Bay Winery had been there for thirty years, much of it as a farm; the Didsburys had drunk their first vintage in 1998. But it was a little off the beaten track: Christine and Richard began to wonder how they could get more people to come and buy their rather excellent wine.

They walked some of the best sculpture trails in the world. Their favourite was in Sussex – the Cass Sculpture Foundation at Goodwood Estate. They decided to try and build something similar, with a café attached – a gateway to the sculpture trail, and as the wine-tasting room. Architect Noel Lane built them the extraordinary Glass House – a work of art in its own right – and so it began.

The Brick Bay Sculpture trail opened in 2007, just after Art Matakana at Country Park, which was set up by Bronwyn and Bill Harris to provide what’s become a hugely valuable art venue for locals. Around the same time, the farmer’s markets, cinema and new shops at Matakana were being built, providing more options – the beautiful Piece Gallery is now a mecca for glass, ceramics and handmade jewellery fans.

The Vivian was next – rustic but elegant, it’s a purpose-built ‘barn for art’ in the Matakana countryside, and although it’s only a few years old, it’s hard to remember when we didn’t have it. There’s a social get-together at every exhibition opening; it’s a community event.

Other, smaller galleries have joined the field over the years (see our new Art Stop Map on page 38). The Small Works gallery at Matakana Village is a recent arrival; owner Sally Marshall curates a broad range of art, prints, photography, sculpture and design. And hot on Sally Marshall’s heels is Jo Baker at Borgo di Chianti with her multi-disciplined Zen-inspired store at Borgo di Chianti in Warkworth. All have added more value to arts in the area.

Chatting to these women gallery owners at the Vivian, it’s clear they are passionate and committed to their work. The Didsburys have been major patrons of the arts in New Zealand for decades. They’re about to become Foundation members of the new Auckland Sculpture Trust, commissioning large-scale works to grace the city centre.

Bronwyn from Art Matakana says, “the art scene has evolved here hugely over my ten years in the business. We were only open at the weekend then but now it’s busy nearly all week. And there’s still so much scope for more: the artists who live around this area need more gallery spaces. In Pakiri alone there is so much talent; the Gossage family could have their own gallery!”

Sally Marshall agrees. “We’re also getting international visitors and sending a lot of work overseas. There’s a resurgence in people wanting art for their homes, I feel.” Jo Baker loves the mix she has in Matakana of the arts and the outdoors. “It’s all about gumboots and pearls. You do your outside chores and pop into the gallery when visitors arrive. It’s quite grounding…”

Anna Didsbury, who at 37 is the youngest here, is General Manager of Brick Bay. She’s as keen as everyone to advance the arts in the area. “There are so many practicing artists in the region – we need more studio space,” she says. “It would be great to be able to offer a residency, perhaps at one of our regional parks –Tawharanui or Scandrett’s.”

She finds Mahurangi college kids’ visits to Brick Bay Sculpture Trail heartwarming and encouraging. “I think it’s important to remember that it’s about our community embracing art as well – and making it available to the next generation.”

Helen Crosby at the Vivian warmly agrees. “And more Art Fair fringe events would also be great – ­ we’ve hosted a few but would like to do more.” The Vivian, she says, is evolving towards working more with artists approaching her with their own ideas for shows, and for putting them together. Helen is up for it. “Having the space and facilities for artists when they know what they want is fantastic,” she says.

Ant Morris would heartily approve of these discussions. The creative community of his 1970s vision is alive and thriving.