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PartnersJuly 13, 2023

Emiko Sheehan makes time to create


From poetry to weaving, printing, video and drawing, there’s not many disciplines artist Emiko Sheehan hasn’t dipped her toes into. In the fourth instalment of our Art Work series, she talks about using art as a way to connect.

Emiko Sheehan (Waikato, Tūwharetoa, Raukawa, Ngāti Tahu–Ngāti Whaoa) is a multidisciplinary artist who has worked with video, drawing, muka and poetry. Her work explores ways to reconnect with whakapapa and whenua. She is one of 10 creative enablers selected for Creative Waikato’s first artist-in-residency programme Whiria te Tāngata.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

The admin

On Monday my mum is often free so she can take my daughter for a couple of hours and then I’ll try and smash out my emails. Me and my partner’s money is in a small business that we run – he does film work, I do art stuff and it all just goes into the one account and we pay ourselves a wage from that. I do admin on that, and try to do taxes, which I’m learning.

Running a business is really cool, and hard if you don’t know about it. I feel like I’m slowly understanding how to work with money and do all of that.

Tuesday is Wāwāhi Tahā class, and my Te Reo class is Wednesday. I’m usually inspired from the day before, to go get materials or work on art, then try to get some more admin done. While it slows down, by the end of the week I’m tired, I’m like “I don’t care, we’re just going to the park all day. We’re gonna go to the beach.”

How having a baby changes things

We moved out of Tāmaki during that big lockdown and ran away to the Waikato to live with my partner’s sister out in Te Aroha in a yurt for a bit. It was a little bit hectic going completely off the grid and also having a baby at the same time. 

I feel like since then, and since having a baby, I’ve restarted again with my arts practice. All my ideas have changed, my thinking has changed, and my perspective has changed so I feel like it’s been a little reset button on my work. I feel like at night when I’m doing printmaking and stuff, I don’t have these expectations on myself of what I want, so it’s just free playing for me, which I love.

I don’t know what I was doing before I had a baby. I had so much time and it would take me ages to make anything. Now, it’s so hard because it takes my brain a little while to get in and actually focus. With creative work, if I have something set up, and my daughter is entertained, I can just jump in and out of that space way easier because I’m way more enthused to do it and I’m way more into it. 

But it’s the actual making, that’s what I love doing.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

Working at night

Mostly I try to do the boring stuff during the day, the emails and the house cleaning and try to leave that space for actual art making at night. 

I’ll have my daughter and depending on how the night before went, I’ll either sleep with her when she sleeps during the day or put her to bed, and then after she goes to bed, whatever is urgent, whatever needs work on the most gets my attention. I might stay up until like 2am working on something, but it’ll alternate. If I stay up until 2am one night, the next night I have to go to sleep early.

That’s my time – at night – when I get to sit down, sometimes I’ll have a sneaky vape and beer and I’ll sit there and I’ll enjoy that. I’ve also enrolled in Te Wananga o Aotearoa for a raranga paper so I’ll be working on whatever project I have going on – for that course.

I really treasure it now – that time. I don’t get much time to myself, so when I do get that time to create, I’m right in there. 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

Teaching mahi

So Monday is when I’ll do admin, but also get any materials or prep that I need for my class that I run on Tuesday for Whiria te Tāngata. It’s called Wāwāhi Tahā and it’s a māmās and babies art collective – all focused around giving the māmā this time to create and commune with each other, talk about our tamariki and talk about any creative ideas they have.

I try to, as much as I can, like, take their babies off their hands so they can focus on creating. Or some weeks it’s for the babies, so we’ll set up activities and create with them. That’s part of the philosophy, that having our babies around those creative environments to build their creativity, to build their thinking and how they’re brought up in the world, having them in those environments to uplift their mana and tapu.

That takes roughly 20 hours a week, and I’ll also do my own personal research for what I wanna do in each class. At the moment what I’ve done is try to change up the activity every week or every couple of weeks so I give all the different māmā experiences with all the different materials, and seeing what kind of art medium they might be into, or what they like. We’ve done painting, and drawing, we’ve done textile based works, we’ve done clay mahi and printmaking. 

I’ve also done other planning of things that I want to do with them. I want to celebrate each seasonal change, so just doing research around the different seasonal celebrations or ceremonies that Māori did. For Matariki, I’ve booked out my marae down in Te Kuiti and planned what we’re gonna do there and hopefully have a little noho and stay there for a few nights.

It’s fun work!

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

What I’m working on

I’ve been enjoying doing a little bit of printmaking. I’m really excited to get into the whatu work, which is muka extraction of the harakeke. I’ve been learning raranga and other whakairo weaving techniques just to wait for the right season to harvest for muka, and I’m excited to get back into that. 

I’ve made a few muka sculptural pieces before, and I really want to make more of those. But I’ve just got to get the muka, and do the prep, which takes the longest! I’ve also been trying to go through some of my old writing and poetry and rewrite some of those ideas, because I reread some of my stuff lately and it’s all these really cool ideas that I had, but they were all before I had a baby as well, and I’ve grown in my perspective since writing those.

I’ve really liked doing this mahi with Wāwāhi Tahā, and experimenting with all these different mediums again, so I’m dabbling a little bit all over the place, which is real fun, I feel like a baby artist. 

What I want to do is start moving from activities each week, to working as a group collectively to make bigger cohesive pieces together. I know there’s a few other māmā who would be keen on that, and they’ve got great ideas as well. But because we don’t have a lot of time it’s hard to create a full body of work or something, so I wanna bring us all in together and bring our ideas together. 

We work so well, we bounce off each other and it’s a really lovely group of people that have decided to come. I have a couple of friends from Tāmaki that come down on a Tuesday as well. That’s commitment.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

The importance of support

Creative Waikato (who run the groundbreaking Whiria te Tangata programme, which provides artists a full-time stipend, mentorship and other support) have been really great. Between Jeremy (Mayall) and Leiafa (Wilson) there’s a lot of knowledge, and there’s a bit of a kind of tuakana-teina thing, so we’re all matched up with a mentor. Mine is Regan Balzer, she’s a painter. Beautiful, beautiful painter. 

I get really inspired when I talk to other artists and especially when I like their work and their mahi. At the moment I get inspired by other Māori artists that are weaving their art practice and their Māoritanga together and killing it. At my last meeting with Creative Waikato we were talking to Melanie Baldwin (curator of Hoea! Gallery) over on the coast and I was just like, “You’re cool, I wanna hang out with you!” 

Creative Waikato’s been really good to put me in touch with these other artists and really supportive around the funding side and making sure that we don’t miss out on any of the money that we’re supposed to be getting. They’re really keen to be able to pay artists to be artists.

But it’s my tane, my friends and my whānau, I couldn’t do it without all the endless support and aroha I get from my community. 

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

Being a full-time artist

This is the first time I’ve ever been kind of paid, or “artist” has been my main job, it’s always been on the side for me. I’m learning now about that hustle and how important it is to make these connections with other people.

I feel like I’ve got a bit more of a drive now, because I want this to be my main job now, apart from looking after my daughter, that’s my “main” job. Having a baby has created this extra drive that I want to be an example for her, I want to make sure that we are living a healthy balanced life as well, you know making sure we get that sleep and we’re eating nice healthy foods and she sees me being happy. 

And I’m really happy when I’m creating and making stuff.

(Photography: Ralph Brown)

– As told to Sam Brooks.

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