Virginia Winder: Michelle Wilson focuses her lens on Taranaki's public gardens
A New Plymouth woman's artistic focus is on birds and blooms. Virginia Winder meets a photographer who gets lost in her art.
The gardens of Taranaki are Michelle Wilson's studio.
For the past five years the New Plymouth woman has been wandering through the region's public parks with camera in hand zooming in on flowers, birds and anything a bit different.
On a wet day at Tupare, Michelle looks out of the car window in the top carpark (we're waiting for her camera to be dropped off) and points to a blazing maple.
"Here it would be those little hanging balls," she says of a tree adorned with spiky baubles.
"You find beauty everywhere."
Because she doesn't have her own studio, a selection of Michelle's bird photos will be on display in the Gardener's Cottage at Tupare for the Taranaki Arts Trail on June 10 and 11.
She is a regular at Tupare, Pukeiti and Hollard Gardens, all under the guardianship of the Taranaki Regional Council, and New Plymouth's garden heart, Pukekura Park.
Her passion for photography began with advice. "I was doing a lot of bush walking and friends suggested I photograph where I was. Another friend said if you play with the buttons on your camera, you will have more fun."
So she learnt the functions of her little point-and-shoot – she has upgraded now – and began to go wild in the wild.
Since then Michelle has spent hours and hours at her favourite place, Pukeiti, and her second-best choice Tupare. Pukekura Park comes in third. Hollards, which she also loves, is just a bit far away at Kaponga.
"At Pukeiti I have got no cellphone coverage and my children can't get in touch with me. It's a peace of mind place. You just leave feeling refreshed. It's a magic place."
Inspired by the changing seasons, the blooms and birds, she has never been bored exploring nature.
Her favourite time is right now, because of the fiery shades of falling leaves. "I am red-driven. I photograph something just because it's red."
Maples, which at this time of year match her flaming hair, are her chosen tree for colour, but she will go anywhere for magnolias.
From flora she moved on to fauna, but first came sports photography. She began taking photos of inline hockey and learnt how to use her fast-speed shutter. Next she progressed on to things that flutter.
When she's on her photo rambles Michelle is totally focused on what she's doing. "If I'm in the gardens, I'm just lost."
At times she literally has been. "My friends and family say I should take a beacon with me because I walk on my own," she says. "I feel empowered when I'm on my own but other friends say I'm crazy."
She once got lost at Pukeiti in the early days and last year she took a wrong trail off a city bush walk (she won't say where) and was saved by wildlife. "I found a kingfisher and it rescued me."
The little bird flew off and Michelle followed it and found her way to a well-trodden track. "It went towards water and the path was near a river."
Going a tad astray taught her a lesson. "It just opened my mind to having a little more common sense about where you're going."
But Michelle will still go to great lengths to get a great shot – even into the sea.
Her most exhilarating moment was on a photo shoot as a member of the Inglewood Photography Club. She took a red balloon and an old school chair to Back Beach and was setting up a tripod in ankle-deep water when her daughter called out urgently: "Mum, mum, the wave."
It was too late – Michelle got swamped. "I saved the camera and got the shot."
That action image helped her take out an award among Photography Society of New Zealand regional clubs.
She's also taken a red chair all over the place to star in photo shoots and it's proved a conversation starter for the shy woman.
"It helped me be more comfortable," Michelle says. "Flowers don't talk, birds sing and people are scary."
Wedding photography is definitely not her thing, but people playing sports is different because those involved are immersed in what they are doing.
Despite her reticent nature, Michelle has built up a rapport with the gardeners at the different public parks, has become involved in Explorer days, bird counts and been a volunteer at fairs and open days.
At Tupare, she leads the way down the hill, past hydrangeas in various stages of life, to an upside-down tap, which she has photographed for its difference.
The zigzag track is one of her favourite haunts.
"You can sit up there and look out over the trees. In the spring time there's a tree that's called the ghost tree because it has little white flowers that look like ghosts," she says.
She enjoys watching the tui whizz through and there are always fantails, sometimes kingfishers and often quirky quails. "They are noisy and nosey. They will pop out of the hedge in front of you and disappear just as quick."
Once, when she was taking part in one of the gardeners' workshops, something big swooped past and distracted her. "I thought it was a hawk, but it was a kaka, so out came my camera."
Michelle says Tupare, like the other public gardens, is a wonderful place to have on the doorstep. "We are very lucky to be able to come in free of charge and enjoy the hard work the gardeners do here and it's obviously a passion of theirs because of how well it's maintained."
She has led the way into the Gardener's Cottage, where Sir Russell and Lady Mary Matthews lived while their Chapman-Taylor house was built.
Classical piano music swirls through a room in which the decor fits with the building's 1930s' origins. Now the information centre of the garden, it's also where Michelle will have her arts trail exhibition.
There will be about 10 photos on show, along with prints and cards for sale, but on this breezy autumn day Michelle has a folder of works to share.
Her absolute favourite photo is a sharp close-up of a tui in full paua-feathered glory.
Michelle was on a bird count at Pukeiti and spied the bird by the driveway just a metre away. "He just sat there and looked at me."
She was delighted. "When you get a good shot and you know it you do a little happy dance – he was my happy dance."
Another tui shot – it was over-exposed – was rescued by Michelle and looks like a work of art. "He was more accident than skill."
Other images include delicate Queen Anne's lace with barbed wire, a red toffee apple at a Tupare fair, an old piano out the back of Benneydale, a tomtit on a post and fat red rhododendron buds at Pukeiti, sparrows bathing on lily pads at Pukekura Park and the tarns reflecting Mt Taranaki at sunset.
"I have walked up twice to get the sunrise but I missed out – I'm not fast enough."
A newish tradition is to photograph a waterfall on her birthday. In order, she's captured Wilkies Pools on Mt Taranaki, Mt Damper, the Taranaki Falls at Tongariro and a cascade at Whangarei in March this year "just hours before it flooded".
She cites Taranaki photographers Peter Florence and Thomas Busby as her inspirations and mentors and her dream job would be as a sports photographer.
Meanwhile, she'll keep focusing on nature with the aim of selling some of her work – enough to get a reliable car.
"My camera equipment is worth more than my car," she says. "Most photographers will say that."
She has a Facebook page called I Am McLoven Photography, a title a friend came up with when Michelle's marriage broke up. It stuck. "I was redefining myself – that's what the photography has done."
And it's given her a fresh focus on our enchanting world. "The best thing about picking up a camera and learning the buttons is finding magic."