An artistic escape in New Zealand

We investigate a weekend art retreat on an island off Auckland

Church Bay Studio
Church Bay Studio
Gabriella Lewenz
Gabriella Lewenz
‘Vanish’ by Gregor Kregar
‘Vanish’ by Gregor Kregar
Mawhitipana Bay in the north of the island
Mawhitipana Bay in the north of the island
The approach to the island via ferry
The approach to the island via ferry
‘Skeleton Trees’ by Regan Gentry
‘Skeleton Trees’ by Regan Gentry
‘Other People’s Houses’ by Neil Dawson
‘Other People’s Houses’ by Neil Dawson

Hop on a ferry from New Zealand’s largest city Auckland to find a resort that lives creativity.

New Zealand’s Waiheke Island is upscale Auckland’s offshore beach resort of choice – but its thriving creative community means it’s also a paradise for art lovers of all types.

The artist – Church Bay Studio Gallery
Volcanically sculpted, framed by the Pacific and resplendent north to south in Jurassic green – New Zealand’s fantasy landscapes have made it something approaching the world’s dream destination in recent years.
But spare a thought for the Kiwis themselves – where on Earth are they going to find their Xanadu? Where do affluent Aucklanders drift away to as they’re, say, idling in their Remuera tractors (that’s showroom-clean 4x4s, the vehicle of choice in the well-to-do suburbs) while stuck in the city’s notorious rush-hour traffic on the Harbour Bridge, staring out from their cage into the inviting blue of the Hauraki Gulf?
The answer is likely to be in their direct line of sight. Not so long ago Waiheke Island, just a 40-minute ferry commute from downtown Auckland, was little more than a sparsely populated outpost of hippy hermitage and Maori heritage. Now, though, it’s widely regarded as the North Island’s most desirable 92 sq km of beach-bound real estate. In the past two decades it’s become famous – in Kiwi consciousness, if not yet beyond – for three things: grapes, wealth and art.

The fact that this small, bumpy island is home to many of New Zealand’s most celebrated grapemakers only makes sense once you take a drive into the looping hills and troughs of the interior. Geologically, Waiheke is a chunk of Tuscany that’s been cookie-cuttered out and shipped to its equivalent southern latitude. Naturally, the success of the local grape industry explains the influx of rich people, but the art is unexpected.

Waiheke is weighed down with artworks – signposts for galleries and open studios clutter the intersections. Unexplained roadside sculpture out-populates the pedestrians. Billboards and flyers promoting art happenings are everywhere in the chi-chi beachside micro-resorts. Like any free spirit that has recently come into money, Waiheke Island is giddily ostentatious about its collection – a symptom, perhaps, of a 20-year process of gentrification that’s seen it shift from beatnik backwater to boho millionaires’ row.

‘Waiheke’s always been an island of artists,’ says Gabriella Lewenz, a Greek-born American painter who moved here from Connecticut 17 years ago to set up her studio and gallery. She remembers the neighbouring Mudbrick restaurant – on the next hill over and currently at the pinnacle of New Zealand’s vineyard-dining scene – was ‘scruffy and sort of struggling’. This was back when Waiheke ‘wasn’t quite a place that buyers and collectors had necessarily thought about. It’s becoming a destination now.’

She’s reluctant to admit it, but the home that she, her husband, Claude, and four hired hands built from local earth-brick on a superb outlook in the billowing Church Bay area has probably had something to do with Waiheke’s cultural upswing. The striking structure is their own take on a Mediterranean villa (with a mission bell shipped in from Inveraray Castle in Scotland, no less) clad in beacon-bright orange, which belongs in a pastoral scene by Titian rather than on any hillside in real life.

Adjacent to the courtyard is Gabriella’s large studio-gallery, open to browsers and potential buyers. The place is strewn with her paintings in various stages of completion. Richly layered Rothko-esque colour-fields are suffused with the vistas and elements she has chosen to surround herself with – a hemisphere and several palettes away from the black-and-white canvases she says that she used to exhibit in New York. ‘There’s something vibrant about this part of the world,’ she explains. ‘Here, every day has this incredible show of colour and texture.’

The island’s creative community, Gabriella included, have helped bring this spectacle to wider attention on the mainland by organising Waiheke’s biannual Sculpture on the Gulf festival – a monumental art walk that winds its way around the western headlands. During its three-week run in January 2013 the event attracted 40,000 art trekkers – over four times the island’s permanent population – and they’re planning more in 2015.

The collector – Connells Bay Sculpture Park
If it’s a paradise for artists, Waiheke is also a playground for collectors. In the opposite corner of the island from Gabriella’s studio is an ambitious project that outshines most big cities’ approach to public art. Connells Bay Sculpture Park, everyone agrees, is Waiheke’s mantelpiece. In the past 21 years, owners John and Jo Gow have carefully commissioned, curated and occasionally helicoptered in large-scale contemporary pieces to enrich their Arcadian vale by the sea. It’s essentially a private collection, but the couple are keen to share it with an appreciative public and conduct tours by appointment from late October to late April. ‘It’s much bigger than our little timespan,’ says John, a vigorously good-natured man who made his money brokering West End musicals for Cameron Mackintosh, ‘in the sense that we die one day, and these monumental works are left here’.

The real monument, though, is the generous sweep of land itself. A two-hour wander around the beautiful gardens reveals a keen site-specific sensibility. From Cathryn Monroe’s Mayan-ziggurat take on New Zealand’s hydroelectric engineering works at the start of the trail, to the monolithic Scottish poet Robbie Burns’ verse half-submerged in a hillside towards the end, the sculptures are all in close dialogue with their setting, not so much installed in the park as embedded.

The park’s 25 hectares are host to a panoply of styles: eerie alien kinetic structures by Phil Price breach the canopy in the wooded areas; classical imagery meets Kiwi contemporary in the bronzes of sculptor Paul Dibble (whose New Zealand War Memorial has been in London’s Hyde Park since 2006); while a variety of traditional Polynesian styles, courtesy of celebrated Samoan artist Fatu Feu’u – including an update on the iconic Easter Island head carved from an ancient tree stump – are a reminder that we’re a long way from Dubai.

Yet the works all complement each other with easy conviviality – a tribute to the Gows’ painstaking commissioning process.

John’s enthusiasm for his artworks and their creators spills over when we come across one of his favourites, by Regan Gentry: two trees woven from 4.5km of No 8 fencing wire – the secret weapon of Kiwi livestock management, it turns out – so as to be barely distinguishable in form from their non-metallic neighbours. These ‘Skeleton Trees’ are a balance of homespun iconography, home-grown talent and the requisite attribute of ‘just naturally sitting there in the landscape’ that epitomises the unique aesthetic he and his wife have created at Connells Bay.

Well worth the NZ $30 (Dhs90) admission alone, though, is a showstopping work by Slovenian sculptor Gregor Kregar. His ‘Vanish’ is grandiose self-portraiture as seen through the homogeneity of a totalitarian state. Featuring 150 meticulously clay-cast models of himself, arrayed in a grid in which each row diminishes in stature, ‘Vanish’ delivers menace, industrial oppression and garden-gnome kitsch. It’s an illustrative example of John Gow’s topline brief for Connells Bay commissions: ‘We tell them, “Come up with any idea you want – but think big.”’

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