Seeing the light

17:00, Jun 06 2014
Nelson light festival
ILLUMINATING: More than 16,000 people visited the inaugural Light Nelson last year.

Nelson has always been known as an 'arty' sort of place, but what is it that compels people to drop their law degrees and pick up a paintbrush?

'There's just something about Nelson that inspires people." I am sitting with local artist Nic Foster and we are sipping chai lattes in the iconic Morrison Street Cafe. Colourful artworks cover the walls. The cafe is well known for supporting Nelson's art scene, with galleries at its front and rear, and exhibitions changed every three weeks.

Foster is telling me about all the people he knows who have moved to Nelson, and abandoned their high-flying careers to pursue more creative ambitions.

Nelson has always been known as an "arty" sort of place, but what is it that compels people to drop their law degrees and pick up a paintbrush?

According to Foster, it's the laidback lifestyle, for one thing. The panorama of mountain and sea views, for another. And also the fact the region has some of the highest sunshine hours in the country.

"Make sure you mention the light," he urges. "We get this really beautiful, pure, almost Mediterranean light here."


I see what he means. The climate really is enviable. Stepping off the Interislander in Picton, I immediately have to peel off my Wellington woollies. By the time my bus snakes its way into Nelson, I am practically basking in the buttery late-afternoon sun.

Foster is the driving force behind Art Expo Nelson, a three-day event next month showcasing works by South Island artists. There are said to be about 400 working artists in the Nelson region alone, and through the event, Foster hopes to coax some of them out of the woodwork.

Last year 4500 people visited the expo, and more are expected this year. The closure of Nelson's Trafalgar Centre due to earthquake risk has seen the expo shift into the region's main sports complex, Saxton Stadium.

It's about accessibility, Foster says, with all artworks sold under $5000. Entry is $5 for adults and free for children. And while sales are great for the artists, people are encouraged to wander at their leisure and admire the artworks, with an on-site cafe and bar to make the experience even more enjoyable.

The expo is one of three major events on the Nelson arts calendar, which this year will coincide for the first time. Art Expo Nelson, Light Nelson and the Winter Music Festival have all joined forces in an extravaganza that organisers hope will show off the region's creative might.

The events are particularly meaningful as it has been a decade since Nelson lost its famous World of WearableArt Awards Show to Wellington - and it's still a source of resentment.

But if the departure of WoW left any void in the region's cultural life, it's quickly being filled by equally cutting-edge, weird and wonderful projects.

One of these is Light Nelson, which transforms the heart of the city into the canvas. The festival turns the historic Queens Gardens and surrounds into an outdoor gallery, with a series of light installations and multimedia works.

When it was launched last year, Light Nelson was a runaway success, attracting more than 16,000 people over three nights.

This year there will be more than 40 installations. The event is part of the curriculum for design students at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (NMIT), marrying science, technology and art.

The festival's founder, photographer John-Paul Pochin, and tutor Klaasz Breukel of NMIT, walk me through the site of the festival, beginning in the campus, across Albion Square and through the almost ghostly Victorian gardens. They point out where the installations will go - a laser through these trees here, a rainbow projected over that bridge there, a flock of glowing sheep beside those bushes - and it's easy to imagine the magic on a mid-winter night.

While Art Expo Nelson and Light Nelson are just beginning to blossom, one event is already an institution - the Nelson Winter Music Festival.

It all began 20 years ago, as a way of celebrating the centenary of the Nelson School of Music, and has since grown to include some of the biggest names in New Zealand music. This year Kiwi icons Dave Dobbyn and Don McGlashan will provide the headlining act.

Running over two weeks, there is something for everyone, festival director Frances McElhinney says, from jazz to musical theatre, and even a poetry slam. As the Nelson School of Music auditorium has also recently been declared earthquake-prone, this year's festival will be in the Old St John's heritage church, converted into a funky music club for the event.

The festival's theme is "Nelson by day, music by night" - which leaves plenty of daylight hours for some retail therapy.

I launch into Nelson's CBD with the somewhat snobbish air of a city slicker, but am quickly eating humble pie. The main streets are compact enough that you can walk around without feeling overwhelmed, but packed with unique, quirky little specialty shops, art stores and boutiques.

I lust over the bling at the Jens Hansen artisan jewellery workshop - the home of the One Ring used in The Lord of the Rings films. While it is this connection that tends to draw the tourists (and fans will be happy to know the shop contains a special range of affordable One Ring replicas), it is worth a visit to admire the pure craftsmanship of Hansen's designs.

I am also enchanted by a boutique named Trouble and Fox. Brimming with clothing treasures from international and local brands - such as COOP, I Love Ugly and Sass & Bide - it's the kind of shop you would expect to find in Auckland. The owners conveniently have another store especially for blokes - Sidecar: The Menswear Store - right next door.

While pawing through luxuriously chic jackets and coats, I remember the forecast is for rain. But the sun is still shining, the air is crisp, and when the brief spell of rain comes, I don't even notice, lost as I am in my shopping happy place.

It is perfect weather to check out the farmers' market, held in Morrison Square from 11am to 4pm every Wednesday. I'm told it's where many Nelsonians grab lunch and stock up on fresh local produce. I make my way around each of the stalls, sampling handmade chocolate truffles, organic fruit juices, and breathing in the scent of sizzling German bratwursts.

Markets are a much-loved part of Nelson's culture, and every Saturday a larger market is held in Montgomery Square, offering high-quality arts and crafts, coffee, gourmet delights, fruit and vegetables.

And peanut butter. It was at these markets that Pic's Really Good Peanut Butter first debuted seven years ago. The business has become a great Kiwi success story, with 7000 jars a day churned out and devoured at home and overseas. Owner Pic Picot stays true to his roots, and he and his peanut butter can still be found at the Nelson market every Saturday.

I meet Pic and his guide dog, Fido, at his factory in Wakatu Estate. He tells me the story of how it all began - a story he's clearly told countless times, but still relishes. In 2007 he discovered all the peanut butter brands were using sugar, emulsifiers and other yucky stuff. "Bugger it," he thought, "I'll make my own."

There is now so much demand for his peanut butter that he has had to expand into a warehouse down the road for the extra storage space.

"World domination is the aim," he says. "So I've got to rattle my dags a bit."

Part of his master plan is to eventually turn the factory into a "peanut butter world", a Willy Wonka-esque attraction with all sorts of oozing bits ("the kids will love it!"). For now, the factory holds short tours most days at 11am.

I leave Pic's with visions of thickly spread pieces of peanut butter toast dancing in my head, but these will have to wait until the next morning, because I have some slightly finer dining to do.

Lunch is at Petite Fleur, nestled within the vineyards of Seifried Estate Winery. We are seated next to an open fireplace, and dine on delicate nibbles presented on a long, narrow wooden boat - a slither of home-dried beef, homemade cheese, soup in a shot glass, and a chunk of smoked salmon. We have the chef's catch of the day as our main - melt-in-your-mouth monkfish, pan-fried and served on a bed of vegetables. The boat soon makes another appearance, this time bearing samples of each of the dessert options.

I am spoiled for seafood on this trip. Dinner the night before was at The Styx on Wakefield Quay, overlooking the waterfront. I go for scallop carbonara, which is so creamy and filling that I have to take my leftovers back to my hotel room in a doggy bag (for a midnight snack).

To complete my visit, I pay homage to the World of WearableArt & Classic Cars Museum. The museum is a perfect introduction to what it's all about: the lighting, music and rotating catwalk have been set up to resemble the atmosphere of the show. But here you can see the garments up close, and the intricate detail that has gone into them. Exhibition pieces are swapped around every six months, which keeps it fresh for the repeat visitor.

Though I typically can't tell a Ford from a Ferrari, I am surprised to find that I also enjoy the classic cars, which are so beautifully presented they could be described as artworks themselves.

What I come to love about Nelson is that creativity can be found in the most unlikely places - at a festival, a museum, on a plate, or even in a jar of lovingly made peanut butter.


■ Art Expo Nelson July 11-13 Saxton Stadium ■ Light Nelson July 11-13 Queens Gardens and surrounds

■ Nelson Winter Music Festival July 11-27 Old St John's 320 Hardy St nelsonwinterfestival. 

The writer was a guest of Nelson Tasman Tourism.

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