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Painting a brighter future

Community art projects don’t just happen by themselves – they need a team of dreamers, believers, and creators, and someone to ignite the spark. Add in a sense of purpose – to highlight ocean conservation – and it seems like an insurmountable dream.

Wellington-based, Gisborne Tairāwhiti-born artist Kelly Spencer was home for the holidays, and was hankering to bring some art to the rohe. She’d seen the 2016 SeaWalls “artivism activation” in Napier, then contributed as an artist for the March 2017 activation, and she wanted to bring the movement to her home town.

But what is it all about? SeaWalls: Artists for Oceans is a ground-breaking programme devised by PangeaSeed Foundation, using art to bring the message of ocean conservation into streets around the world. They work with communities to create art festivals, and commission local and international artists to paint environmentally-focused educational art works on what were previously blank canvases across the community, in the form of buildings, fences, walls, and underneath bridges. It enables the community to get involved in a variety of ways throughout the festival.

Seawalls Tairāwhiti was the third “activation” in New Zealand, and as festival director, Kelly had to pull all the elements together, with help from the PangeaSeed Foundation. “It’s been run in 15 countries so far, and the Foundation has a “recipe” to follow and make it all work. I had lots of meetings with building owners, local businesses, suppliers, environmentalists, volunteers, and artists in the lead up to the festival,” she says.

More than a year before the festival was due to start, Kelly scoped out potential locations and met with Gisborne District Council to go through their database and track down building owners. “It was helpful being a local, because it made it easier to pull all the pieces together. We got most of the locations we wanted, and when word started getting out about the festival, people started to come forward.”

Kelly and her team approached Eastern and Central Community Trust for funding towards operational costs, to keep the wheels turning on the project, and received $7,000. The whole activation cost over $100,000.

“In the months leading up to the festival, the story was spread through word of mouth and the local newspaper, and people started to get interested. Everybody knows everybody here, so it gained momentum quickly. Street art isn’t a familiar festival format because there’s not just one point of focus. It also made the message of environmental impacts more accessible – it’s on the streets for people to see and process,” says Kelly.

The festival in Gisborne ran over ten days, with 21 hand-picked artists from New Zealand and overseas creating 20 purpose-driven ocean environmental public murals, and thousands of people interacting with the project in a number of ways. Part of the festival included taking the artists to the reef at Tatapouri, feeding the stingrays, as well as public film screenings, panel discussions, and art exhibitions.

“We’ve had amazing feedback on how it’s impacted people. Teachers brought along students to do art projects on it, and during the festival rangatahi were able to have conversations with the artists. Public art on this scale and scope does wonders to revitalise buildings, streets and the people who walk these streets. We believe a drop of paint can create an ocean of change, and through global collaboration, we can help save our seas.”