This little-known coastal tourism trail is an art-lover's delight

Travel News from Stuff - 28-11-2022

“I like beautiful things,” Pokapū art gallery owner Andrea Leighton says.

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Standing in her gallery showroom in Bulls, she swings her arm to get the pūrerehua turning. The artwork in her hand is a laser-carved wooden piece, the size and shape of a leaf, and once she gets the trajectory right, it emits its distinctive whirring buzz – as heard in the opening scene of Once Were Warriors.

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Leighton is clearly delighted. The piece is just one the former wholesale food sales rep now sells in her gallery, in a midlife quest to “re-engineer her life towards more beautiful things”.

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That sounds like a noble goal, and one I’m on board with this long weekend, as I drive the Coastal Arts Trail from New Plymouth to Whanganui, and on to Palmerston North.

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My mother and I are travelling together, and if it wasn’t for a breakdown, we would have been on the road in Vallery, a campervan that doubles as its own quirky gallery – with 50 pieces of art from 25 artists built into its decor.

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It’s probably just as well Vallery is out of commission as the only other time Mum and I hired a campervan, some 20-odd years ago, I backed it into a Saab outside the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua. A standard rental car might be safer.

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We start in New Plymouth and I’m enchanted instantly.

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It has Pukekura Park (why doesn’t every park have its own human-made waterfall?), and the coastal walkway, a 13.2km waterfront path, and there’s a snow-capped Mt Taranaki rising in every vista.

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But we’re here for the art, and New Plymouth delivers. A first stop is to the Len Lye Centre/Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand’s only single-artist gallery.

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The outside is crazy enough, with its towering wavy polished stainless steel walls, reflecting one of the town’s oldest buildings, the 1844 White Hart Hotel.

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And the staff are eager to answer questions and ensure you see the scheduled showings, one of which is Lye’s Sky Snakes kinetic sculpture, which is a whole room of 4.5m lengths of ball chain dancing in the sky for 10 crazy minutes each half hour.

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We call in on ceramicist Maria Brockhill, known for her brightly coloured, often botanical, works.

Bell Block, where Brockhill’s studio is located is “a bit out of the way”, she says, but it has so much room for her shopfront, huge work space and three kilns.

Brockhill says the colour in her pieces reflects her mood.

A former office worker, she took advantage of the change in circumstances that motherhood brought her in 1998. “I was always buying other potters’ work,” she says.

She wants people to touch her dotted vases, kawakawa leaf receptacles, nīkau palm works. I take one away with me, which is to be a recurring theme.

The first night we stay in splendour at Hosking House, a grand villa restored by its owner such that it feels like art itself. Our rooms each have a claw foot bath, and the sheets are deliciously white and crisp.

Before leaving the next day, we stop at Paul Maseyk’s ​Kingsroy Gallery.

His highly decorated work is wood-fired, which he tells me takes perseverance. He gets up at 5am to light the fire which slowly gets more and more intense over the day. The wood ash and the variable temperature give his work its variation.

We head to Whanganui, which unbeknown to me, is famous for its glass art. I’m about to be educated. Our first stop is at the New Zealand Glassworks Te Whare Tūhua o Te Ao.

Sadly, we weren't there on a day when glass artists were working. But we loved looking at the glossy myriad designs it’s somehow possible to make from molten sand. So much good hand-feel.

We are given a warm welcome when we check in to our centrally located hotel, The Avenue Whanganui, where the rooms are being renovated to a high standard.

Sunday is a good day to be in Whanganui, a place I hadn’t been for 20 years. Since September, the formerly down-at-heel Castlecliff neighbourhood brims with people and tunes and food trucks from 4pm to 7pm.

In his gallery along the road, Ivan Vostinar​ is working on a sculptural piece. It’s novel to enter a gallery through a room dedicated to bouldering, but this one has a climbing wall with half-metre thick mats and multi-coloured holds up the wall. It’s apparently well-used by the artist and his children.

Vostinar says he chose Whanganui to live and work as it has “the best arts scene per capita in the country”. He attributes some of that to cheap real estate and to the town’s grittiness.

He mixes creating his own organic abstract work - many of the human form - with some more quotidian tableware, which he sells at wholesale prices to make it accessible to all.

Back on the road, we make the short trip to Palmerston North, and find it competing for arts scene prominence too.

At Square Edge, the town’s community art space, there’s exhibition space, studio spaces, a cafe, arts therapy room and a music suite, where a child is right now practising on the grand piano, his brother asleep on a bench nearby.

Here, you can do workshops in just about any genre, but artistic director Karen Seccombe​ shows us the newly set up ceramic workroom, with four wheels and a brand-new kiln.

I convince her to take me to the city’s public gallery, Te Manawa, where a group she founded, Women’s Art Initiative, which uses art-making as a form of resistance to violence, is staging an exhibition. Seccombe’s own work is in glass. “I use glass because I value light”.

This part of New Zealand is killing it for creativity.

For our final night, we stay at the Last Church at Āpiti, an Airbnb that - a spectacular church renovation that is, fittingly, a work of art itself.

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