Love, loss and the art of building community

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Step into Karen Clark’s studio in Waitara and breathe in the smell of fresh harakeke grass.

Once a male-only pool hall filled with cigarette smoke, it is now a quiet, airy, spacious place dotted with woven creations of harakeke-kete, artwork and putiputi.

A man is a rare sight here, but always welcome.

Karen has another memory of this space on West Quay near the bridge.

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“When I was a teenager, it was a billiard room and video games.”

There are still large tables here, but these are set up like an island in the middle of the room for the weaving learners.

It’s also deeply peaceful, like a chapel, one with Bob Marley music swirling in one corner, a photo of his great-grandmother Maraea Te Iritawa Taiapa sitting in another corner.

This wall hanging is made from harakeke whenu and colored red using Teri dyes made in New Zealand for harakeke.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

This wall hanging is made from harakeke whenu and colored red using Teri dyes made in New Zealand for harakeke.

Here, under her longtime label, KareNZ Kitz, she weaves and, most weekends, leads weaving workshops.

People can see her in action during her first participation in the Taranaki Arts Trail, from October 28 to November 6. Karen will open her studio for 10 days, but will not be teaching.

The annual arts trail is a collaboration with the Centuria Taranaki Garden Festival and the Taranaki Sustainable Backyards Trail, which run concurrently.

Karen was born in Gisborne, so Hikurangi is her maunga and Ngāti Porou her people.

But she has lived in Taranaki since she was a teenager and has close ties with Waitara.

Her great-uncles, Pine and Hone Taiapa, carved over 100 marae around Aotearoa, including Owae Marae, while on the East Coast her great-aunts were well-known weavers.

Kōpaki tūpāpaku or burial shrouds like this are often made by a group of weavers, often including whānau.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

Kōpaki tūpāpaku or burial shrouds like this are often made by a group of weavers, often including whānau.

However, she first learned how to harvest and weave harakeke around 20 years ago from an energetic and wise Englishwoman called Deb Gillanders.

“She taught me the konae, like this little basket hanging on the wall,” she points to a small kete without a handle.

Before harvesting harakeke, Karen thinks it’s important to say karakia.

“From the first workshop with Debbie, when everyone was able to share their beliefs around prayer and earthing, it opened my eyes to people’s different but similar beliefs.”

She feels connected to her whakapapa through weaving and to the whakapapa of her students when they share their own experiences.

“I tell my students before saying karakia, that the pronunciation or what we say does not matter as much as what is in our hearts. Because some may not know who Papatūānuku is, but they know who Mother Nature or Gaia or the Universe is,” she says.

“I take a few breaths, meditate and thank Tane Mahuta and wait for the fantail to come and greet me. It’s a sign that everything is fine.

Karen feels the weave connects her to her whakapapa: I feel like Papatūānuku - Earth Mother - and Ranginui - Sky Father - are our oldest ancestors.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

Karen feels the weave connects her to her whakapapa: I feel like Papatūānuku – Earth Mother – and Ranginui – Sky Father – are our oldest ancestors.

Karen wants to write a book on tikanga around harakeke, a practice that takes care of the environment and the weaver.

Early in her weaving journey, when she was in her early twenties, Karen wove many kete, pīkau (backpacks), pōtae (hats) and putiputi (flowers) and for cousins ​​and extended whānau as special occasion gifts.

“My sister has many of my pieces at her house. She uses them once and hangs them on the wall – it’s like a museum.

For Karen, her sister’s collection is an invaluable archive that contains the models she has used.

20 years ago “I was teaching a few students at home and 10 years later they started the first weaving course in Te Wananga o Aotearoa and I was invited to join this course”.

Kete, showing different designs and colors, is supported by some of the 14 four-pointed stars designed to be part of Maureen Lander's 2018 Flat-Pack Whakapapa exhibition.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

Kete, showing different designs and colors, is supported by some of the 14 four-pointed stars designed to be part of Maureen Lander’s 2018 Flat-Pack Whakapapa exhibition.

It was a difficult time for Karen, who had to deal with a new life and a loss. Tragically, her 17-year-old son, Sonny Wyatt, was hit by a car and killed the day before his baby was born.

It was 16 years ago.

“I can only talk about it now. I was numb and my mother stayed with me for my freshman year and took care of my son (Tahi Waipapa) so I could weave.

Over the years, weaving has been Karen’s faithful companion.

“I love it. It makes me independent – I’m in control now. I can put gas in my car and buy my own chocolate because I sell weaving, but mostly I teach.

The family gifts continue. “I’m known for it – every year I handcraft Christmas gifts and Christmas cards.”

And yes, sometimes she will work until midnight to be ready for the big day.

Behind Karen hangs a curtain of dyed and natural prepared harakeke ready for weaving.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

Behind Karen hangs a curtain of dyed and natural prepared harakeke ready for weaving.

The other big days are the workshops that she organizes most weekends, except in September, so that she can prepare for the artistic journey.

“Sometimes we hold workshops with a group of six people to make a kōpaki tūpāpaku or a burial shroud,” she says. “It’s for someone who is sick. Usually family and friends come to help.

A community in the far north dedicated to caring for the land sent some delegates to learn how to make the harakeke burial shrouds and pass the knowledge on to their people.

She also organizes short workshops to learn how to make putiputi, konae and how to prepare harakeke, then to make something.

As she speaks, Karen’s hands twist and smooth, crossing whenu (weave strips) over whenu, pausing to spray a mist of water and vinegar to soften the strands. This scalable red artwork is a wall hanging for an organization.

She was also asked to make kono (small baskets) for a charity called Baby Loss. These kono are used to hold someone’s dead baby.

“They were helping moms with the loss of their babies.”

The weavers were asked to teach the volunteers, so Karen set up a space in the Waitara Community House, where she waited every Tuesday for two months.

“But the volunteers didn’t come, so I started teaching random people how to weave putiputi.”

These classes proved so popular that people flocked, including one woman who came on her mobility scooter, until she outgrew the community house and was asked to move.

“It grew from there.”

Always happy to weave, Karen is also studying online studies through the Flax Floristry School.

ANDY MACDONALD/Stuff

Always happy to weave, Karen is also studying online studies through the Flax Floristry School.

Karen found a room, and every Tuesday gave lessons to people of all ages, from tamariki to retirees. She asked for a donation of gold coins, which paid for the rental of the premises and provided a cup of tea.

The women brought cookies, pastries, jams and produce from the garden.

Without realizing it, Karen had created a community of weavers.

“After a year, I decided we should have an exhibition – the whole community saw people walk away with these brightly colored harakeke flowers,” she says.

“We were called The Dream Weavers. These were people not only of different ages, but also of different religions and cultures.

And they dreamed by making wall hangings, kete, backpacks, putiputi and piupiu. One woman even made an entire nativity scene in harakeke.

They were all on display in a high street shop for a few months.

The group even collaborated with three florists. “We made these putiputi, dropped them off at the florists and they made these wonderful creations.”

During this time, Karen led workshops six days a week, again teaching all ages.

“My mother and aunt Ngoi Ngoi stayed with me for months during and after the exhibition, helping me harvest and prepare the harakeke, including the dye, for the workshops,” she says.

The exhibition was a huge success and Karen was even interviewed on Radio NZ National.

“After that, I was very tired. But I got emails, texts and phone calls – ‘when is the next workshop’. I took a month off before opening this place on September 11, 2017.”

Around the workshop walls, 14 large woven works each have the shape of a four-pointed star.

These were woven by Te Mauri Mana Wahine, made up of Karen and other Taranaki weavers, who were invited to contribute to a traveling exhibition by Maureen Lander, called Flat-Pack Whakapapa. The works were exhibited at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2018.

The stars are always on Karen’s mind as she focuses, with some excitement and some trepidation, on opening her doors for 10 days during the artistic journey.

She studied astrology, which she says is very much about spirituality. “I’m thinking about how to incorporate some of these planetary archetypes into my weaving,” she says, her hands still twisted, smoothed, crossed.

“I feel a little embarrassed because people complain about their work and I love that. I could do it all day and I do.

This story is published as part of a partnership between the Taranaki Daily News and the TAFT Arts Festival Charitable Trust.

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