Thursday, November 30, 2023

Cultivating creativity to tell farming stories

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There’s never been a more important time to build an understanding of farm life with people who have not seen it at a grassroots level, Richard and Laura Morrison say, so they decided to act – and at the same time invest in the arts…
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TEAMWORK: Richard and Laura Morrison have been farming The Gullies for the past few years. Photo: Colin Williscroft

There’s never been a more important time to build an understanding of farm life with people who have not seen it at a grassroots level, Richard and Laura Morrison say, so they decided to act – and at the same time invest in the arts.

Living just out of Marton, with a cottage getaway for hire on the farm, the couple realised they could do something to offer artists space and time to incubate ideas and create, while also providing an opportunity to help share the farming experience with a wider audience.


“Being part of the farming community, it’s been incredibly frustrating over the last few years when there has been a lot of pressure on farming and ag, where sometimes the messaging has also not been quite right,” Laura says.

“(The residency) felt like a novel but interesting way to promote more positive conversation, to have people who potentially have nothing to do with farming come into our world and see what we do and translate that in a way that is accessible to people beyond the farm gate.

“We’ve got so many really capable people within ag, from R&D through to the land itself, but what we’re missing is conveying to the rest of New Zealand just how important and intrinsic ag is to the running of the country.”

She says the residency is a different approach to getting some of those insights across to a new audience.

Although not immediately obvious, there are similarities to the way artists and farmers approach their work – and Richard says it’s not just because they both often work by themselves.

“You don’t normally associate artists with aggies but break it down and, well, most farmers probably do think quite creatively at times,” Richard says.

He says with the residency coming up, he’s been amazed with the interest shown in it by farmers, although the continuing success of the nearby Kimbolton Sculpture Festival is testament that many in the rural community have an artistic bent or interest.

“They (farming and art) are not mutually exclusive,” he says.

“It (the residency) is a little bit different and it’s amazing how many closet creatives there are out there in the ag world who are absolutely fascinated by it.”

Richard’s family has been farming in the Marton area since the 1860s.

The Gullies

HELLUVA VIEW: The Gullies is about 270ha (200 effective) in Rangitīkei. Photo: Florence Charvin

He is the sixth generation to do so and he and Laura purchased the block they farm from a bigger family business a couple of years ago, starting their own journey.

“We’re still at the early stages of that,” he says.

The farm, which is about 270ha (200 effective), including quite a bit of unfarmable gorge and bush, is called The Gullies.

There they winter 2000 stock units, mainly sheep, of which about half are Wiltshire, with the rest their own easy-care composite Texel/Wiltshire-cross.

He says Wiltshires are currently on the radar of a lot of farmers, mainly because of their shedding traits.

The Gullies’ Wiltshire flock is basically the breed’s original NZ flock and every Wiltshire in the country should be able to be traced back to their flock.

“It’s quite nice to have that heritage within our genetics,” Laura says, “even though The Gullies might only be two or three years old.”

The couple also have about 50 Hereford cows calving every year, with a focus on breeding bulls for the local dairy industry.

50 Hereford cows

BREEDING BULLS: The farm has about 50 Hereford cows calving every year, with a focus on breeding bulls for the local dairy industry. Photo: Florence Charvin

However, farm work and bringing up two young children has recently been combined with getting the arts residency off the ground.

At this stage the residency will run once a year for eight weeks.

The artist will be paid a stipend, partially funded through Creative NZ, after Laura applied for a grant through the Creative Communities Fund.

She says that money will help provide Andrew McLeod, their first artist in residence, with funds to cover his outside costs.

“It means that he can take a load off. He’s got a mortgage to pay back in Auckland. It could also help in some way towards materials, or offsetting some of his other costs,” she says.

McLeod, a well-established Auckland artist, will stay in the cottage on-farm, and the farm will cover his utilities bills.

He will also be able to utilise a studio next to the cottage that the Morrisons have created in recent weeks.

As part of the residency every artist commits to producing an artwork, either during their time on-farm or not long after, which can be reproduced as a limited edition run, the size and number to be agreed with the artist.

It will give new collectors, or people who would just like to own one of the artist’s works, the opportunity to have one in their home.

The money that generates will be shared between the artist and a residency charitable trust status that is the Morrisons’ four to five-year goal.

When the artist is not in residence there will be a booking system in place so anyone who has a Rangitīkei address can spend some time in the studio for free.

“We want to be able to offer something to people in the local community, to give them an opportunity that they might not otherwise have,” she says.

She says the residency was set in motion through a soft launch because although she has always been interested in art and art history, neither she or Richard are artists themselves so they did not have a profile in the arts world.

“We used social media and I did a roadshow to Auckland, Wellingon, Christchurch and Whanganui,” she said.

There were 22 applications, which a selection panel made up of the Morrisons, a curator and two gallery owners went through.

Richard says just looking at the quality of artists who sought the residency was a humbling experience, adding that Laura, who follows the art scene, was jumping for joy about the calibre of the applicants.

“With Andrew’s profile, it’s pretty exciting for us having someone like that coming for the first one,” he says.

“It puts it on the map and hopefully sets it up for years to come.”

Laura reinforces that, adding “it’s a huge coup but also exciting for him (McLeod), to have a change of scene, particularly after the last couple of years with covid”.

And it’s not as if McLeod doesn’t have some sort of rural connection, despite being based in Auckland.

“There’s so many lovely little side notes that came out of us talking to Andrew that we didn’t realise existed before,” she says.

“He’s from a semi-rural horticultural background and learned to drive on a tractor.

“He’s a lover of nature and the environment. I knew that through his work but speaking candidly with him, he’s really excited about coming down here.”


STOCK: The farm winters 2000 stock units, mainly sheep, of which about half are Wiltshire, the rest their own easy-care composite Texel/Wiltshire-cross. Photo: Florence Charvin.

To celebrate the inaugural residency and McLeod’s arrival a welcome party had been planned for later this month.

Unfortunately, because of the covid protection system’s current red traffic light rating that caps event attendance at 100 that has had to be cancelled.

However, halfway through the residency there will be a studio open day, where people can come and meet McLeod and have a look at the studio.

The farm gate will also be open, so it’s really a farm open day.

At the end of each residency the artist will plant a native tree, with the aim to establish an avenue of trees viewable from the cottage and studio.

“That way they’re (the artists) remembered and they can come back and visit it any time,” she says.

“It’s also part of us telling our farm story.”

Laura hopes sharing those types of stories will encourage more people to think about the role farming plays in NZ.

“Food production is essential to not only feeding people but also to how NZ makes money, how we pay our way,” she says.

“I’d just like to ask a simple question: if ag was to die out tomorrow, how would NZ make its money? How would we pay our way?

“That’s what I want people to ask themselves.

“The question is how do you get people to think about that without sounding preachy or like you’re standing on a soapbox, or even defensive of what you do?

“It’s not like we think we’re noble people for farming to produce food.

“It’s just that it’s (food production) kind of necessary, not just for sustaining people but also for our economy.”

She says for more people to start thinking about those sorts of questions, more farming stories need to be put in front of people outside the agriculture sector.

“I think we’re at the point where there’s enough cooks in the kitchen when it comes to telling farming stories within the industry, now it’s actually time to start hustling, whether it be through Beef + Lamb, Feds, DairyNZ, or through all of them, or through Farmers Weekly or On Farm Story, we need to keep making sure that it is translating through to mainstream media, to the wider community,” she says.

She says the arts residency is their way of generating some of those discussions – about raising awareness, not pushing an agenda.

“It’s only little, but it’s novel and exciting. It’s also positive and people are taking notice of it,” she says.

“It’s up to Andrew what he creates, it’s up to people whether they come and visit, but it’s novel enough that people have been interested in helping to share our story, which means more people find out about The Gullies, which means more people then find out about farming, that’s the ripple effect we’re after.

“Positive stuff that’s creative, that demands critical thinking rather than just being spoon-fed science and stats. 

“That has a place, but critical thinking means people take on personal responsibility that I’m not sure they do if they’re just presented with facts and told what to do.

“Something like this means people can find their own way, find their own messaging and interpret what we do, hopefully positively.”

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