Kam Donnelly is not one to shy away from controversy. It comes with the territory when running a gallery featuring emerging artists, many of whom have a background in graffiti, tattooing and street art.

For Kam, Safe As gallery is a labour of love; a small space in Palmerston North showcasing boundary-pushing artists was never going to be a huge cash cow. A plumber by trade, Kam is grateful to have a day job he can fall back on when the gallery goes through a rough patch, but it’s the creative world that he’s really passionate about. Through Safe As, Kam made the connection with the Palmerston North Council who employ him in a ‘semi-official’ capacity as Arts Co-Ordinator. “Basically, I’m the hook-up guy that acts as a go-between for artists and the public spaces that need beautifying,” he explains.

Te Manawa, Palmerston North’s public art gallery and museum is home to some of the biggest names in the New Zealand art world, but it’s on one of the gallery's external walls that new artists get a chance to shine. Kam manages the wall on the corner of Church Street for the council and uses it exclusively for new artists.

When we visit, the wall has been painted by a local artist Amy Cameron, known as Arccult with a colourful mural featuring the statement: ‘Don’t Be Rude.’ It’s great exposure for the new talent. Kam tells me that while she was painting it, Amy secured three more commissions from passers-by who liked her style.

The biggest project that Kam has been involved with to date is the rejuvenation
of Berrymans Lane. Formerly a dingy and uninspiring alleyway, the lane now bursts with life and colour after the two Beats Bites and Brushes events Kam organised, with funding from the council.

The laneway was painted in October 2017, with artists out in force for the day-long event. It’s staggering to think that such enormous, beautiful artworks were created in such a short time. And in such inclement circumstances.

“It rained for 60 hours straight,” says Kam. “I was running around with tarps, and setting up a temporary roof structure to try and keep the artists dry, but it was crazy! You can see some of the spots where it got wet and the paint ran.”

Huge panel murals now line the alleyway, with spectacular work by renowned street artists from Palmerston North and further afield – Gasp and Adore from Auckland, and Haser, the graffiti artist known for his collaborations with Burger Fuel ‒ have all contributed pieces.

The Palmerston North Council sees the value in this artwork. Not only has it helped to fund the initiative and invested $100,000 in lighting the Berrymans Lane murals, it’s paid to install a graffiti-proof lacquer over each artwork to protect them from unwanted additions. But, as Kam says, they’ve never had any problems with vandalism since the murals went up.

“There’s a network of respect with street art,” he explains. “You don’t hit other people’s pieces.”

In contrast to the vibrant street art, Zimmerman Gallery on Main Street is a quiet, white and beautiful space. Inside,

I meet owner Bronwyn Zimmerman. “The whole arts scene in Palmerston North is really flourishing these days,” she says. While the artists featured in Zimmerman are more traditional than the spray-can wielding creatives outdoors, the work is certainly not just from the old guard. Bronwyn’s collection is curated to include both established and emerging artists; local and from around the North Island. Cute, offbeat animal portraits from 20-year-old Paige Williams sit alongside realist-style paintings by Andrew Moon – a pseudonym used by a former high-ranking officer in the New Zealand army – and iconic bronze sculptures from renowned Palmerston North artist Paul Dibble.

Art in the Manawatu is not just limited to Palmerston North City. On a leafy suburban street in nearby Feilding, there’s another artistic experience, where you can literally get your hands dirty: Homeprint.

Formerly a school principal, John Brebner now runs a home-based printing studio. John makes prints from scratch using beautiful vintage equipment and the slow, labour intensive processes of traditional printing – and he encourages visitors to do the same.

Back in 1974, John and his wife Allison first began printing to make enough books for the pupils in their primary school class. They loved it so much they turned their passion into a lifestyle, welcoming the creatively curious into their home for workshops, tours and classes. Not only does John create his own pieces, he also makes the prints of all the works by esteemed New Zealand artists Michael Smither and the late Cliff Whiting.

Feeling inspired, I try my hand at making my own piece of art. Following John’s instructions, I pick the letters for my name out of large type trays spread across the work table. John shows me how to hold the word in place with magnets and carefully roll the blocks with red ink. Laying a piece of thick paper on top, I turn the handles on the heavy iron press to ease the print through the rollers and back. I hold my breath as we delicately lift the sheet off the press so as not to smudge the wet ink. After a day of visual stimulation, it’s incredibly satisfying to craft my own – albeit very rudimental – artwork that I can take home with me.

Reported by Jo Percival for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue

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