Weaving flax has already taken Whaingaroa fibre artist Ruth Port to Europe, and she hopes to head there again next year as one of three traditional Maori weavers recently invited by the British Museum to be a part of a kete exhibition in May.
She and the other artists selected — a mother and daughter from Whangarei — are scheduled to demonstrate the art of making kete (baskets) at the London museum next May after having their names put forward to the curator of its oceanic section by renowned Hokianga academic and fibre artist Dr Maureen Lander.The trio will also take harakeke flax weaving workshops so people can get hands-on experience in the artform, says Ruth.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” she says, now desperately seeking sponsorship or funds for airfares. Ruth missed out on the last round of Creative New Zealand funding on what she describes as a technicality, but is prepared to “try anything” to make the dream happen. She is considering approaching a service club or even putting together a presentation for Air New Zealand in the hope of securing a sponsored trip.
The Te Uku-based artist believes that “if we’re meant to go … the money will come”.
Ruth’s previous trip to Europe in 2005 — in which she ran harakeke workshops in England, Scotland and Ireland — was entirely off her own bat after she’d searched the net for contacts to whom she could teach flax weaving which, though it’s a traditional artform, she delivers in her own contemporary style.
She says the feedback she got then has provided useful contacts to draw on this time round, and she’s toying with getting a train pass and running workshops wherever she can to finance herself while in Britain.
Ruth’s also had another trip to Europe, not because of her weaving but to take personal development seminars in spiritual growth, work she undertakes in New Zealand too.
“A wise woman shapes her own destiny,” says Ruth, echoing the motto of Hamilton Girls High School. That motto has special significance as last year she won the school’s inaugural artist-in-residence scholarship, teaching students the disciplines and beauty of weaving. It was a 10-week third term placement at the school, with her own studio, for a salary of $10,000.
The scholarship capped off what she describes as an “optimum” year after she spent the second term based at Te Mata School as its resident artist, through the Education Ministry-funded Artists in Schools programme.
Ruth admits she’s doubly fortunate to do the things she loves and get well paid for it. But “why not?” she adds unapologetically.
Teaching is another of Ruth’s passions. She trained as a primary school teacher more than 30 years ago but as a weaver only since coming to Raglan in 2000, and now tries to marry the two to get the best of both worlds. Her work, which ranges from kete to wall-hangings and cloaks, sells locally in Raglan and at ArtsPost in Hamilton. Commission work also comes her way.
Currently relief teaching at Te Uku School, Ruth also teaches weaving — from beginners to advanced students — at the Old School Arts Centre. She is mindful of teaching both how to sustain the harakeke or New Zealand flax and how to use it respectfully, incorporating Maori tikanga or protocol.
Whaingaroa is now one of the country’s most significant nests of weaving, she says, because the flax grows here in abundance and attracts many “amazing” weavers to the area.
“I’ve learnt all my weaving here in Whaingaroa,” she says, attributing her beginnings to longtime local weaver and teacher Gwyn Brodie, aka E Rangi. Ruth went on to gain a diploma in raranga (weaving) through Te Wananga o Aotearoa’s Maori visual arts programme, and has a year to go to complete her degree.
She’s excited at the possibility of being able to do academic research next year in the archives of the British Museum as well as at Cambridge and Oxford Universities.
“I’m just so looking forward to going,” she says.
Raglan Community Arts Council chairperson Rodger Gallagher believes Ruth’s invitation is very significant given the British Museum is a prestigious, internationally respected institution. “To do anything (there) is a great honour,” he says.