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Aotearoa's Art Angels

28 Dec 2020
Best of 2020: So many grassroot NZ creatives went the extra mile when the nation was in need of a morale boost during the pandemic's darkest days - it's time to celebrate them.

As 2020 comes to a close, we reflect on some of the leading stories that inspired, entertained and informed our readers. Our Summer Revival series puts stories like this back on your radar to soak in once again or experience for the first time.


When Aotearoa needed it most - the arts were there.

There have been countless tales told of New Zealanders going above and beyond to make a difference for their communities as spirits sagged during the COVID-19 pandemic. These actions may not have attracted headlines but no matter how big or small the deed, each proved an inspiration, a distraction, a reason to smile in dark times that made an impact on those around them.

While we’re glad to have those darkest of days behind us, The Big Idea wants to pay tribute to those in the creative community who played their part in keeping the nation emotionally engaged.

Here are just some of the Art Angels of Aotearoa.

Akau - Ana Heremaia and Ruby Watson

Akau’s commitment to their art form, their community and how they empower taitamariki is inspiring. During Lockdown they continued to release resources for taitamariki to keep them engaged and active. One of the kaupapa on the ĀKAU Design Kete was Kaitiaki Aroha. Creating an animation featuring different Kaitiaki Aroha designed by people around Tai Tokerau and Aotearoa capturing ways to be kaitiaki (guardians).

Kaitiaki Aroha was about understanding what whānau were doing, what was good for the environment, for them and the community during the pandemic. The Task was to design a 'Kaitiaki Aroha' a loving protector, give it a name and tell Akau what special kaitiaki superpowers it has. A great initiative that had a great response.

The Voice Collective -Tanya Nock and Ryan Beehre

Known as the Choir with a difference - The Voice Collective is community-spirited at its essence - allowing people of all singing abilities to find their voice and find confidence in the performing around the Nelson/Tasman regions by coming together to sing a song at a local pub.

Founded by local musicians, Tanya Nock and Ryan Beehre, they did their part to keep spirits up during lockdown, providing virtual pub crawls to keep the community engaged and supporting the Save Our Venues campaign.  

Now they can do what they best in person again - you can still engage from afar, with all their performances recorded and posted to their Facebook page

COVID-19 Portrait Project - Lily Emo

Lily started this Facebook project "as a way to say thank you to all those doing hard work to keep their communities safe and well during lockdown, as well as a way to help me process what was happening in the world."  

Through receiving nominations, Lily drew portraits of essential workers and recorded their feelings and perspectives as a way of sharing their stories, the portraits were published with the stories on social media.  Each original portrait will be gifted to the person it represents.  

One of those nominated, Natalie Gousmett, said she was humbled to be included and felt a growing sense of community as people from different walks of life were profiled by Lily. 

Plunge Comics - Aru Singh

Aru produced regular weekly #livestream discussions with some very interesting people in the Northland arts and business community. Guests have been wide-ranging, including financial experts like Lucas Remmerswaal, a Children's Book writer teaching about money and budgeting.  

Aru is intense, strong in his cultural identity and yet unassuming. Despite suffering his own mental health challenges, it hasn’t stopped him from having conversations, discussing what matters then writing and creating through comic books as his artistic outlet.

Sri Lankan Dance Academy

A Wellington-based dance school that teaches traditional Sri Lankan dance in Porirua and Lower Hutt, SLDA ran their dance lessons over zoom during lockdown. Lead choreographer Mohan Sudushinghe talked with his students before each lesson about their experiences, and regularly the conversation turned to gratitude for the front-line workers. They came up with the idea of creating a heartwarming video to show their appreciation to the essential workers involved.

MD Galleries - Megan Dickinson


The beating hub of Whangerei’s visual arts scene, the gallery has carved a reputation in an ability to shift perspectives and enhance visual impact across various mediums.

But like so many, owner Megan Dickinson was forced to hit the ‘pause’ button during COVID-19 so, as a way to support the region’s art makers, she offered free online (via zoom) critique/mentoring sessions for artists during this time which she called ‘Art before Breakfast’. 

It had always been in her plan to offer courses and sessions of this type to artists. This period of isolation emphasised how much value connecting with her gallery community on a daily basis had. Collectors popping in to see what's new,  meeting with artists to discuss their work.  For the remainder of level 3 lockdown, Megan continued to offer free online critique sessions for emerging through to mid-career artists who aspire to exhibit their work in a commercial gallery. 

Tauranga Rocks - Kerry Dawson

Tauranga Rocks is a community-based project that has been thriving for over three years. They paint rocks and hide them all over the city for people to find and to bring them joy. 

Over the lockdown period, participants were very busy painting and now that joy is being spread with many of the members painting hundreds of little works of art to share - making sure that creativity will carry on for the community, putting smiles on countless little faces and stories to be passed from classroom to classroom.


CUSP stands for courageous, uplifting, spontaneous performance - an improv troupe who perform at schools and public events. So when those options were taken away from them, thankfully they are experienced at thinking on their feet.

The group went all out to perform live online - offering free and interactive performances on Facebook with a series called Outer Reach, having fun with the theme of social distancing with a space station vibe.

Northland Art Centre - Julia and Jason Tapp

Julia Tapp and her husband Jason run what’s said to be the only dedicated airbrush school in the country. The centre is run like a community service, aiming to bring creative expression through recreational activity. Northland Art Centre is also geared for people who might not otherwise be able to take part, either because of disability, other special needs, timetables or cost. 

During lockdown, they didn’t know whether they could keep the business going, so they turned to offering art classes online to keep connected with their community as they are all about bringing art to everybody.  The family suffered a devastating loss five years ago when their 3-year-old son Ezra drowned near their home in Waihi.  In the aftermath, Julia has linked with groups that support bereaved parents by sharing helpful information — such as where to get tailor-made tiny caskets, ''angel gowns'' and artful memorabilia and mementos. The help she now gives through forums such as the Angel Portraits Charity and the Angel Memorabilia Facebook page is another busy aspect to her artwork.

Pencil Case - Stef Naldi


Already an online space for drawing lovers to “meet, draw and talk 4B, HB and 4F” before lockdown, Stef kept up the cause during lockdown.

From the launchpad of a Facebook Page, Stef volunteered her time and engaged with budding and experienced artists alike through drawing group chat and video calls - coming up with themes for the week and allowing contributors to share their work with each other.


Do you know of any #TBIArtAngels who deserve a spotlight? Contact us at [email protected] or DM us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.