Off the beaten trail

Opunake artist Viv Davy with part of her masters project - a daily "journal" written on cloth in different coloured ink, recording mundane domestic activities.
Opunake artist Viv Davy with part of her masters project - a daily "journal" written on cloth in different coloured ink, recording mundane domestic activities.

In the third instalment of a series leading up to the Taranaki Arts Trail next month, Isobel Ewing finds an artist in Opunake who dyes tapestries with blood, and a jewellery maker working in a derelict dairy factory.

There are some peculiar secrets hiding away in Opunake.

Behind a pohutukawa hedge on the edge of cliffs crumbling down to the sea, artist Viv Davy weaves tapestries dyed with animal blood and makes paper in her glasshouse.

Opunake jewellery maker Mili Purpil with some of her pieces crafted from precious stones and metals.
Opunake jewellery maker Mili Purpil with some of her pieces crafted from precious stones and metals.

Meanwhile, in an old dairy shed on the sprawling, lumpy land between sea and mountain, self- proclaimed non-artist Mili Purpil polishes semi-precious stones and cuts greenstone for fine pieces of jewellery.

Davy says her art has gone through "many morphs" over the years.

She began making things out of necessity which evolved into conceptual work, then physical constraints led her away from weaving and into exploring the fabrics themselves and how to remove dirt from them.

She began weaving textiles when she was pregnant with her daughter who will be 40 this year.

Back then, Davy was making practical things for her household like tablecloths and placemats.

Then she went to Canada and set up a business in Vancouver running weaving workshops and selling New Zealand wool that she brought over in bales.

"Canada's perfect for weaving because it's so blimmin' cold."

She had two summer residencies at the Banff School of Art where she rubbed shoulders with some of the best weavers in North America.

"It blew my mind, it was the most fantastic, amazing experience."

Her time in Banff shifted her focus to making conceptual work, so she applied for the Ontario College of Art where she studied for three years.

She once took a Greyhound bus through a terrible blizzard to do a Swedish drawloom workshop with a weaver in a tiny town in Michigan.

"That was quite an experience."

Before arriving in Canada, Davy didn't know about wind chill and how it can make your gas freeze inside the tank.

"I'd go off to take night classes at the local community centre and wonder why no-one was on the road.

"Coming from Auckland, I didn't know petrol could freeze."

Davy is currently halfway through her master's of visual arts and design through AUT, except the crux of her thesis work isn't actually weaving.

Weaving is hard on the body, Davy says; her eyes and wrists suffer from a life of spinning yarn.

"The trouble with weaving is that you get old."

So instead she decided to focus her thesis on exploring the social implications of clothing care and the manual labour required to maintain cleanliness.

The idea was triggered while Davy was weaving her tapestry work, An Old Friend, which depicts an old washing machine.

"While I was sitting there weaving, I thought the only thing I stand up to go and do is put the washing on, bring the washing in and fold the washing and put it away.

"I was so focused on this washing machine it got me thinking about why we care so much about our clothes, why they take so much of our lives and how much laundry, we, women, do."

Hence the core of Davy's research came about, focusing specifically on the Victorian era in New Zealand.

She looked at the dirts women had to wash out of clothing at that time - horse manure, blood, food - and what methods were employed to remove them.

She reenacted the processes of cleaning using muslin, silks and cotton - scrubbing and boiling 8 metres of fabric to imitate women's skirts.

Becoming obsessed with these dirts, she explored the value of the invisible, mundane work that women do to support society.

"I became really interested in how much labour [there] is in maintaining cleanliness and the judgement that goes with whether or not you are acceptably clean.

"How do I make people stop and realise it has a huge value that nobody puts any money on?"

She insists her work is not a feminist statement, rather that everybody should have equal value for labour.

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of Davy's research is the lack of information anywhere about removing blood from fabric.

"So here you are in New Zealand; Maori wars, clearing the bush, injuries everywhere. Childbirth, normal periods, you've got blood everywhere.

"I spent thousands of hours reading Victorian manuals on how to clean everything. Ink, wax, you name it, but not a thing about blood."

As part of her research, Davy gathered the names of 30 women from the Opunake cemetery who had died before the advent of washing machines.

She photographed their headstones and calculated how many wash days each would have had in their lives.

She then made a ribbon for each women, washed them in animal blood then stitched each women's name in a code, bestowing some identity on these women forgotten by history.

"There is no women's history.

"They weren't literate, stitch was their language."

Davy's interest in dirts has translated into work dyed with natural materials like pohutukawa leaves and kelp.

A daily "journal" as part of her thesis project is made from wax- coated pages adorned with items representing her own "invisible" mundane activities; a flower bud for gardening, a piece of cloth for the laundry.

Down the road from Viv Davy is another artist, but she refuses to call herself that.

"Artist's a really posey word," Mili Purpil muses.

"If someone asked me to describe myself I'd say I make things."

Purpil thinks artist is a word someone else should use when referring to you, not one you should use to call yourself, a bit like "genius".

The thought of spending 30 years at a machine made Purpil run away from her factory job in West Auckland some years back.

She bought some books and tools and started teaching herself about jewellery making, then started repair work for Brownsons Jewellers in New Plymouth.

"I built up from being a cowboy."

From a trade background, Purpil puts her creative side down to growing up with hippies.

"All my teachers were hairy- legged ladies named Moira.

"At primary school we did weaving and clay and lino cuts."

She moved to Taranaki in 1998 and now operates out of an old dairy factory with her husband, a "mad crazy blacksmith" who makes samurai swords.

Inside the cold concrete walls are machines for cutting and polishing stones.

Purpil's practicality influences her work; she recently made an engagement ring for a neighbour who needed something she could wear in the milking shed.

Mili changed her name from the innocuous Brown to Purpil in 1999 and with that came the distinctive purple hair.

Davy and Purpil are part of the Coastal section of the Taranaki Arts Trail, along with Alby Carter, Dale Copeland, Lynn and Mike Spencer, Glenda West, Waitai Gallery, Paul Hutchinson, Graham Kirk, Roger Morris and Marianne Muggeridge.

Taranaki Daily News