In Conversation with Bernie Ross
We were delighted to chat with the warm and humble Bernie Ross, a member of The Little Gallery Whangamata's new artist volunteer team. Born on a dairy farm in South Auckland, Bernie spent many years living in England working in landscaping before returning to New Zealand in 2002. Now living in Whangamata, Bernie is a full time weaver, as well as Chairperson of the local Arts Collective. Just ahead of The Little Gallery Whangamata's official Grand Opening, we caught up with Bernie to learn more about her background, weaving practice and her experiences in The Little Gallery so far!
What made you want to learn how to weave? Where did you learn?
It is weird how I got to how I started it. I remember visiting the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and seeing a real Indian war bonnet. It's the only thing that I can relate looking back and thinking, 'how did they make that'? It could be like a mid-life crisis! (laughs) When you're one of nine children there's no time to learn to draw or anything - so I think I just got there late.
I came back to New Zealand [from England] in 2002 with my husband and three kids, and in 2010 I started a four year degree in Māori Art, specialising in raranga (weaving) at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Tauranga. The final year of the degree was done in Te Kuiti. I started with the one year course, then the two year course, then I decided to carry on - never dreaming that I would do it! I finished my degree in 2013, and have been carrying on full-time weaving since.
Could you tell me about the process you go through to create your pieces?
Well firstly, to pick the flax. When you go to a plant there's a correct way of picking, and it's the tikanga or protocol that is really important. You would have a prayer before you start, you would pick correctly, and then you process it, split it, soften it, boil it, and dye it - so it's hugely labour intensive. I remember one of my nieces saying to me, "Bernie, why don't you just go to the shop and just buy some?" (laughs)
But that's not what it's about.
No, and you learn about the different varieties of flax - like there are names varieties that are suitable for different parts of the art. So for the korowai or cloaks you use a particular variety, for kete you use another - so you learn about those plants and their specific uses.
The colours in your weavings and the way that they criss-cross each other is especially striking. What inspires your choice of colours?
So with my work, I'm not an expert in pattern work but I work well with colour, that's what I do. Some weavers are experts with pattern - they can see a pattern and just reproduce it. I can't do that, but I can work with colour. Often I'm inspired by the sea. I'm convinced that when I'm fishing out there, the colours that I see in the water, the sky and they night hills work their way into my blues at the moment. I don't know why that's happening, but certainly those ones - when you're out fishing on the Coromandel, you look back to the hills, you see those two blues, and all the shades in between. And I remember sitting on the boat thinking, I wonder if I can make that? I'm doing another Porohita at the moment, and it's got less light blues , so it's going to be interesting to see the contrast between the two.
I imagine with the variations in colours, no two weavings are ever the same?
Never. It's the same with the kete, which I often make in browns and greens - ngahere (bush) colours. They're never the same.
How long to your pieces take to make?
A kete will take me a day to weave, but there's a lot of prep before that so it's hard to guess. The Porohita, the big circle, is about four to five days of weaving, for nearly six hours a day. But again there's the prep beforehand. There's about 400-500 pieces of flax in the Porohita, so it takes time to prepare that many, and then I've got to dye them. So it's probably seven days of work from picking to finish, I would guess.
I suppose raranga for you would be quite a solitary process?
For sure. Traditionally it would have been done in a group and my tutor was trained in the traditional way of weaving where you were brought in - you were selected to weave, you couldn't say that you wanted to, you had to be picked - so it was a really amazing process. It's different now in the university - you go on the course, and you do it for a while, or not a while.
You often complete your weavings with adornments such as shells and feathers. Where are the feathers on the kete from?
So there's peacock herl - peacocks are a bird that they're shooting all around New Zealand because they're a real nuisance in the bush. I get those from a woman down in the Western Bay of Plenty. The other one I use is rooster - just good old chicken, and I use the feathers from around the chicken's neck, which I get from a lady in Auckland.
Could you tell me a bit about the significance of the different types of weavings you make - the kete, Porohita and so on?
The kete I make were called 'Sunday Best' - so they were meant to be functional, but not functional like a kete riwai for getting your seafood with. They're not heavy-weight bearing - you took your handkerchief and your purse to church on Sunday and that's what you would put in those - like a Sunday Best handbag.
Porohita was recently taught to me. Our tutor was the only one around here who did it, I was too scared to try it when I first started weaving because I was not very good. But I recently learned from a student who learned from [my tutor], and I absolutely love them with a passion, they're just so enjoyable to do, I just love them. Porohita means 'circle'. For me you get those koru shapes coming through with all the colours that flick out.
And the flax wall hanging is based on the whāriki, the mats in the wharenui - you would have mats in the meeting houses. They would make them huge - you would add on, add on, add on - so that's how the construction of that is based. These are all coming from traditions; I look to them and turn them to contemporary pieces. You have to learn the basic building blocks to be able to build the contemporary pieces, I guess.
So when you think of weaving something it always stems from the idea of a tradition?
You said you were in Tauranga for some time when you first returned to New Zealand. How long have you been living in Whangamata?
Nearly five years. In England we'd lived in a small village of about 4000 people, and I wanted to get back to a smaller community. We were in Tauranga when we first came back, and now Whangamata. It's worked really well. I like that you can walk down the street and people smile and say hello!
Could you tell me a bit about the local Arts Collective to which you belong?
It came out of a group of three or four women who recognised that there was no active group in Whangamata, yet there were quite a number of artists. So it slowly grew, first starting out having tiny little exhibitions in empty shops, to the point now where we're an Incorporated Society as of last year. It gives an opportunity for people who maybe haven't exhibited before or who are just starting - and that's really important because I remember when I first started doing my work, I never dreamed anybody would buy a piece of my work - I couldn't believe it when they sold! And I know that artists seem to have self-esteem issues so I feel quite strongly about saying, "It's okay, you give it a go!" So for me it was really important to provide that avenue, and now the collective has the Big Arts Day Out in early January with the Harcourts Challenge; we do an Arts Trail over Easter, and on Queen's Birthday weekend we run workshops for people who want to try a form of art like weaving, or printmaking - it's about giving back to our community.
Why did you want to be involved with The Little Gallery Whangamata? How do you think the new gallery is being received by the community?
Well...I got asked! And that was really surprising too - that was another moment for me, thinking that somebody wanted my work!
Every person who visited the previous gallery of two or three years ago has come in saying, "Oh, I've been in here before, it's really good you're back!" And it's really positive. They love the website - the ability to be away and still view art online, they love the layout, they love the new range of work - there's a lot of comment about the work. I can only see it going up from here.
Have you had any favourite moments or experiences while working the gallery so far?
Sometimes you'll be watching somebody coming into the gallery, they'll walk in and they'll focus on a piece - and you know they've connected with it. I'd seen it with my work every now and again - 50 people will walk past and one person will just lock onto it, and you know that that piece is for them - and you see it in here too. I remember there was a piece here a couple of weeks ago, and this couple walked in and locked onto it - and they just came up to us and said "We want that!" They'd just connected.
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