Weaving people

Sue James is a glass and stone sculptor
Sue James is a glass and stone sculptor

Landscapes are part of the soul that Wairau Valley sculptor Sue James says are also reflected through art.

She returned to Marlborough a year ago after moving to Wanganui in 2012 to do a bachelor of fine arts.

That was followed with a post-graduate diploma and a return to Asia where her interest in art had been awakened in the mid 1990s.

Visiting small villages in the Philippines and Laos, she found work as a volunteer, helping children learn English and express themselves through art.

Back in New Zealand, Sue took a trip down the Wanganui River and, as a way of expressing what she had seen, learned and felt on her journey, she made a glass waka.

Turning it upside down, she started decorating its hull, then identified the waka as the same shape as a hill rising from the Wairau Valley in Marlborough.

"I really missed the South Island."

Time in the North Island was important, though, and it was while looking at Maori works at Te Papa that she made connections with this country's culture and those she had witnessed in Asia.

There she had seen "incredible" works woven from cotton people had grown or synthetic materials they had collected. Sue could see the stories they were telling through their weavings.

"When I came back to New Zealand after being so in awe of those weavings and the language that came through . . . I went to Te Papa and saw Maori had done exactly the same thing.

"I saw how much Maori had lost and were trying to get back before it was completely gone."

As communities become more prosperous, traditional art forms are forgotten and people start expressing themselves through their wealth, she believes.

Sue decided to do an arts degree and do her best to preserve the culture that comes through art.

Although always a keen craftswoman, "art" was a new field, she admits.

In 2001 she enrolled in the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology art school in Blenheim. It was a low-intake year and extra numbers were needed, she guesses with a grin.

For instance, students were asked to bring along portfolios of earlier artwork. Sue didn't have one of those so she presented a cushion she had woven in the Philippines.

"Then they gave me some paper and some charcoal and told me to draw something . . . my drawing wasn't outstanding."

But she completed the year-long art course then moved to Wanganui and started a four-year bachelor of arts degree.

Wanganui was the biggest urban centre she had ever lived in and adjusting to city life had been hard, she says. "I became really aware of what impact . . . people have; how disconnected we have become from the environment.

"I have always been a bit that way," she adds, but the city-scape heightened that sense of disconnection.

"People walk right past your house and you don't know them - and they are not coming in for a cup of tea."

Sue sees art as an important form of communication that expresses things not easily described in words.

Viewers then add their their own interpretations.

Back in Marlborough where she lives on an 8 hectare property, Sue says she loves the sense of community Wairau Valley residents enjoy.

Her definition of community? "Where people understand each other, help each other and work together," she says.

The valley has a strong arts community, too, she says.

A second art gallery has just opened, there is a soap-maker, a lavender grower and a music club.

All can be visited by people who enrol for a four-day stone sculpture workshop and mixed media workshop Sue is organising with artist friends in April.

The Marlborough Express