Arts and culture Care and compassion Creativity Health

Painting through tough times

Two artists, Heather Davis (left) and Linda Pryce, work on their canvas image transfers at a Waitaki Creative Wellbeing session in Oamaru this month

Tucked away at the Ara Institute in Oamaru, budding artists are mastering much as they try new techniques and create a caring community.

“The delight that we find in doing new things, and the discovery of it – it’s really good for the soul,” one of the artists, Linda McCauley, says.

Waitaki Creative Wellbeing runs free creative sessions for adults struggling with isolation or mental wellbeing. They’re held weekly in Palmerston and Kurow and for two Oamaru groups.

Linda has been attending the Oamaru sessions for more than a year. She’d seen them advertised and was attracted by the fact they were free and all materials were provided.

She is the primary carer for her husband, who’s had a stroke, and the group provides time out and a break in the daily routine. Her husband looks forward to seeing what she’s made.

The group is valuable for several reasons, she says.

“It became a group, that we all just sort of recognised, [that] everyone was broken for their own reasons, everyone needed to be here for their own reasons.”

Some weeks, she might not feel up to coming, however she reminds herself that she’ll feel better once she participates.

“We pull each other up when someone’s sad. We care, even if you can’t do anything about it.”

Watching Linda work, she seems to have a natural sense of which colours and images go together. However, she hasn’t always felt confident about art.

Transforming: Linda McCauley patiently rubs photos on painted canvas, which will become a canvas image transfer

She talks about the day their artist lead, Natalie Carpenter, gave each person a piece of black paper and three different-coloured pieces of chalk and told them to draw.

Linda was swearing away to herself, when she remembered a shag photograph which she’d taken while walking at the wharf.

She drew a really good shag.

“I did light and shade and perspective and all those things. I didn’t even know I could copy, let alone draw!”

Others have also blossomed, she says. She’s excited that everyone creates something different and they can exchange ideas.

“It’s like a food for us, it’s comfort. For me, it’s conversation, experiencing things that make you feel good. I would not want to be without this group.”


Natalie and intentional peer support worker Toni Huls run the Waitaki sessions under the umbrella of Artsenta, an award-winning Dunedin art studio.

Natalie grew up in Central and South Otago and lived reasonably remotely. She knows the lack of opportunities for many, and the time it takes newcomers to establish themselves in rural communities.

“Finding connection, and creative connection, can be difficult.”

She says rural people pay rates and should have access to the arts, however, they can’t always get to a main centre.

“I really love that we take it to the people,” she says of the sessions.

In the country, some people have known each other for a long time and are friends. Creating together in a small community, people find new common ground, which enriches their friendships. They have something new to talk about.

She says alternatively, some may not know each other and the sessions provide a safe way to connect, including with those who are marginalised.

In rural communities, a family name can hold a certain meaning and people can be characterised by that. Both Natalie and Toni are originally from elsewhere, so they don’t know individual histories.

“To find acceptance is really incredible to see. There’s a place for everyone – we try to offer that.”

Mixing art, friendship and community

Natalie says it’s sometimes challenging to buy all the art supplies they need in a small town.

Each week between 25 and 30 people of varying abilities attend the Waitaki sessions. They’ve learned how to work with decoupage, acrylic ink, air dry clay, polymer clay, embroidery thread and much more.

They cover a range of arts and crafts and if they do a textile-based project one week, they’ll paint the next. The process changes all the time, so people don’t get despondent if they don’t feel they’ve achieved with one medium.

Practising techniques: Linda McCauley’s trial run canvas image transfer

Toni says the “delicious mix” of art, friendship and community which has developed has had ripple effects.

Participants support one another outside of the groups: messaging, meeting for a walk, or swapping clothes.

A lot of people, they’re lonely, they’re disconnected and isolated. A lot of people coming here, they’ve made friends. And that’s life-changing,” she says.


Creativity is part of wellbeing, she notes.

The budding artists also acquire perseverance. One despaired that she’d made a mistake, however with Natalie’s help, her blob became a koala.

“Natalie will talk through that ‘a mistake can be an opportunity to do something different’, and you work through it,” Toni explains.

When Daily Encourager participated in an Oamaru session in March, the atmosphere was warm, welcoming and supportive. Patience was required as the artists worked on collage techniques to create canvas image transfers.

While the canvas results could eventually be seen, one person’s passing remark summed up the even more startling work going on beneath the surface. This artist talked about how she’d offered someone help.

“A year ago, I probably wouldn’t have gone out to help someone else because I wouldn’t have had enough of my own strength.”

The artists’ work will be exhibited at the Forrester Gallery in Oamaru in July.

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For further information:

About Waitaki Creative Wellbeing

About Artsenta’s rural activities

Our Dunedin Artsenta story


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