Outside, the rain has finally stopped and the sky begun to lighten. In here, a radio burbles quietly in the corner and five people have their heads bent over the art pieces they are working on.

One of the five is Gary Gerrard, the tutor who came to Mix to teach bone-carving 20 years ago. “Then they found out I could do other things,” he says.

Artwork at MixSome of the "other things" Gary has shared with students can be seen around the room in this Hutt City creative space. There's the mask with Māori tattoos, the swirling abstract paintings, a steam punk hat, the globe with olive branches and flying doves.

Next door in the clay room are cups and plates, animal figures and koauau – small pottery traditional flutes the size of a cricket ball from which Gary can coach music.

But this morning, like the others, he is working in pastels, a new medium for this class, and from time to time, he breaks off from his piece and uses it to show the class a technique they could use. They listen and then bend back over their work.

"This is like my second home"

Jane is using the pastels to complete a picture of an owl she began last week. As she works, she explains that she started at Mix three years ago. “I didn't have any friends when I came here first. Now this is like my second home, here and the Mix group in Upper Hutt.”

She tells me about selling some of her work at one of the exhibitions that Mix organises, “It was a painting and some glasses I had coloured.”

Mix artist KarenAcross the table is Karen. She has been copying a drawing from a book. Now, she begins to use colour to make her sketch come alive. She too has found art making at Mix as a way through a difficult personal time.

“I got really sick, off work, was in the house all the time. I got badly depressed but coming here gave me lots of opportunities. I’ve been given lots of skills here as I did my art work and shared it with the people in the class.

“We have a big annual exhibition in March that I got work into and we have stuff on Facebook too. That gave me the confidence to show my work in other places. I've done that in Wainuiomata and sold pieces.”

Karen opens her mobile phone to show me pictures of some of the other work she has done. There are many drawings of birds – “I like them – and a picture that Karen tells me are zentangles, where patterns are repeated within the formal structures of a picture.

Done with meticulous care

They are done with meticulous care, intricately detailed and complex. “I find doing those calming, quite meditative.”

As they continue to work, Jane and Karen tell me how doing the art classes at Mix has also introduced them to other activities that have supported them in reshaping their lives. “On Wednesdays there's a recovery programme. We look at managing stress, at healthy eating and how exercise is important.”

Garry GerrardAnd they appreciate the shared meals with the other people at Mix, which are an important part of the week. Karen explains that she is now an elected student representative on the board at Mix. 

Gary brings this session of work to an end. We're in the minibus and down to the Hutt Art Society's current exhibition and for 20 minutes, Gary and the students act as critics, going round the pieces in the show, deciding what is especially good, and noticing and commenting on the techniques used by the artists to achieve their effects.

There's a pastel of seed heads, which Gary and Karen focus on. They try to work out how the artist has achieved her effects and how they might be able to learn from that.

I talk later with the creative space’s administrator, Ruth O'Grady. She confirms what Karen and Jane have said about the impact that coming to Mix can have.

“It's been a real journey for them but the atmosphere here is a positive one. It supports people to grow and I have seen that happen so many times.”

I leave as the students settle to lunch around the kitchen table. The rain is still holding off and the day feels brighter altogether now.

Keith Reeves is a retired English teacher from the UK and volunteer writer for Arts Access Aotearoa.

Reshaping lives at Mix creative space


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