Keri-Mei Zagrobelna is another local gem in the crown of Aro Valley - read on to learn more about this wonderful artist, what inspires her and the exciting projects she has on the go!
So tell me about yourself and your art practice!
I guess you could say I'm a contemporary Maori Jeweller because that’s my predominant creative practice, but I do delve into drawing and sketching also. I'm moving into more installations and larger works as well, I'm very interested in that.
Next year, I’ll be exhibiting in the Courtney place lightboxes for the Matariki exhibition which I'm very, very humbled, honored and excited to do.
The series will be honouring the modern Maramataka Maori lunar calendar - A lot of the moons are associated with different times to plant, times to rest, times that are a bit more productive - not only to do with work in harvesting and planting or growing and fishing, but also to deal with our own mental health.
There are some moons that are associated with being not the best of times - where people may be prone to be going through a bit of a depression or a low mental health energy period. And so, in those times when you know they are coming up you kind of have to bring everyone in close around you and bring your whanau near for you to prepare for it. There's several papers that have been written on the Maramataka calendar in regards to mental health, exploring how it does actually even affect children with autism for example. So I thought that would be beneficial to our community and suitable for Matariki.
I'm a little bit nervous because it is a challenging project, I've been researching for well over a year now.I think just through my own experience of now living more purposely to the calendar and to the moon phases it's been really beneficial, so i wanted to share that knowledge with others through my art.
Yeah, that sounds like a really cool modern fusion of hauora and art and how there's all this wealth of traditional knowledge, and you're introducing it through a completely new medium to a completely new audience, who may not have encountered anything like this before. So exciting!
Another big project I'm working on is a public sculpture that will be going up on the Porirua writer's walk for Elizabeth Knox; one of the writers being represented on the walk. So it's been an interesting experience because I'm taking a piece of writing, and interpreting it into a 50 meter high permanent piece. I've been working on it for over a year as well, with a team of Industrial engineers and all that good stuff, so it's been really interesting and im super excited to be working with Elizabeth on this project.
That's so exciting! Having 2 large scale projects running at the same time is no joke, how do you balance the workload?
This year I just started working full time at TLC. so definitely has been a challenge, and I love my job, absolutely. But in saying that, my studio practice has definitely suffered from the extra demands on my time. So I'm trying to find that equality again. I've definitely learned to be a bit more disciplined. I'll have days where I'm just not feeling it, but if I just sit at my desk, pick up a material and start to play with it then that physical action can get the creative juices flowing and then the excitement kicks in again and it's like “I've got this”.
You just have to be strict on yourself and prioritize and try to be streamlined where you can. So my commercial work, because I've been doing it for quite a few years now is a lot faster and it's a bit more streamlined, but it supports the more kind of fun work and passion projects of mine
Tell me more about them!
So the one i'm working on at the moment is called Barnacle Barf - I just had all these mussel shells cleaned up and was looking at them thinking I wanted to do something playful, colourful and fun to create, mixing materials is quite interesting for me, these are the kinds of thing I get excited about. Because all my work has another layer underneath it, the conceptual meaning is what you put in the ocean, you eventually put in your mouth and consume one way or another.
The nice thing about wearing it is that you can play with it,it's quite tactile and very recognizable to us as kiwi. So it's a fun kind of project to be working on!
Another reason why I work in the field of contemporary jewelry is I see it as a really good medium to be able to communicate my culture and build cross cultural discussions or understanding. A lot of the materials I'm using are traditional Maori materials like wood, bone or Pounamu which I love blending with more modern jewellery materials and techniques. So someone from, say, Germany might recognize the gold or the silver on the piece where someone from New Zealand might recognize the mussel shell first. When that happens, that allows them to see familiar materials in a new light and opens up conversations about the unfamiliar materials used.
It's just expanding on the cultural melting pot that is New Zealand and it's really cool to see the fusion of all of those cultures represented in jewelry.
What are you inspired by and how much of your creative energy do you draw from your environment here in the valley?
Yeah, well I whakapapa to Wellington, whanau Apanui and Tiati awa ki nga Poneke so it's this area and also the east coast. I've been here about 5 years now and i feel very happy that I'm here, because of the history behind Aro valley.
Epuni Street was originally called Tepuni street, Te Puni is actually one of my ancestors. My mother and my grandmother are actually buried at urupa out in Petone as well so just subconsciously knowing that all my tipuna and whanau are in this area and then working creatively here, just makes me feel grounded. There's an energy in Aro that I don't know how to describe but sometimes it feels very old.
I find that really comforting, because my grandmother and my mother worked at a museum, so I think being brought up in that environment it's reassuring to me.
We're also surrounded by so many cool creative people and fellow artists in the valley, and the community here is really cool. Everyone smiles at each other when they walk down the street.
Another thing I love is there's so many birds around here, especially kaka, although they are quite terrifying at times.
They like to sit in the cabbage tree outside my studio so I'll often glance out the window and see a massive Kaka staring me down!
I actually did a series about the Kaka poria,( leg rings ), because historically they used to be working pets - Maori used to put poria on kaka to have them on leads,then take them into the bush to draw the other kaka down from the trees, which they would then catch - kind of like a lure bird.
So that really fascinated me and I made poria to go around our human ankle or neck.
At the time I was creatively questioning myself a lot and in a love/hate relationship with my art; it was feeling very consuming and frustrating. I felt like I wanted to rest but I couldn't, not until I was”done”. So the whole concept of being trapped in creativity, in our art, it lures you in and holds you tight.
I was really anxious and depressed at the time, and the series spoke to how sometimes you can get really comfortable with those feelings of anxiety and depression to the point where you treat them like a pet. You know, you just get kind of used to having it around, and expect it.
The other layer to the poria is, it's a lot like our fishhooks, they were adornment but also practical; traditionally you wore your tools around your neck - another tie in with jewelry which resonated with me.
I was exploring all sorts of different materials, sizes, shapes and designs while playing with the concept, and then just putting it on my own ankle, and experiencing how that felt.
How did that make you feel?
Oh, it did make me feel somewhat trapped, or weighed down, because it was huge. It was just kind of heavy and awkward, and that's how I was feeling in my practice right then emotionally so to physically feel that was really cathartic.
My work and creativity is very much my therapy. When you're soldering metals or making a ring using heat and flame it's quite dangerous, you have to concentrate and focus. You have to really pay attention that you're not going to melt anything and that you've got the flame right and in that deliberate focus it's like meditation for me It brings me to that presence in the now. There's some designs that I repeat and those repeated designs act almost like a mantra for me.
After my mum passed away I went through a real shadow period, a very dark time, and I was all over the show. It wasn't until my friend suggested I should go to The Learning Connexion, that I discovered jewelry making. After TLC I went to Whitireia, and carried on with my practice and, now I'm working at TLC, art really changed my life.
That's a full circle moment - you discovered your passion for jewelry at The Learning Connextion and now you're working there with your passion.
Yeah i'm kind of blown away, teaching wasn't always a goal, but that's another reason why I love my job. We have such a diverse range of students that come to us, for so many different reasons and so many beautiful forms of expression of their art. I love being part of that community and sort of paying it forward and sharing creative passion with the next generation of artists, they inspire me so much.
The other thing that inspires and drives me is self expression. Where I'm from, how I see the world and my experiences living in it. I'm sharing who I am, as a person and I am feeling braver with my art and with myself - I was diagnosed with depression and through the process of creating art I became comfortable talking about my mental health, and not feeling held back by the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.
Where to from here?
Who knows what the future holds? My biggest aspiration is to one day start a scholarship for contemporary maori jewellers in honour of my mother and my grandmother. That's my biggest driving factor, and goal. Art and creating has just been so good for me, and I want nothing more than to sponsor opportunities for Maori artists to grow, develop and flourish - art is truly life changing.
Interview by Roxy Coervers
Photo credit - Roxy Coervers, Paradox Photography
Links to more about Keri