Bound to nature and its cyclic rhythms, both geographically and conceptually, New Zealand-based artist Ophelia Mikkelson Jones allows her work to reflect and celebrate her coastal surroundings. Fluid with medium, Ophelia applies her artistic intentions across a variety of fine art and fashion offerings, including painting, design, photography and film.
We visited her studio-home at Tairua Beach, in the Coromandel, on a crisp yet clear winter’s day, driving out of the city on a Friday morning, knowing full well that everyone else would like to be doing the same. There’s a certain sensation wrapped up in that early escape, a feeling that is felt again as we follow Ophelia out of her back door and onto the flowering dunes that nestle against her garden. Out here, on the edge of the sandy bank looking out to sea, we realize there is no escaping nature. It is abundant and brilliantly engulfing. Maybe this is the reason why Ophelia is so drawn to this spot, as a place that treats her well and gives her the energy to put back into her work – acting as one giant and pleasurable circle of appreciation, patience and respect.
— You have roots in Auckland but choose to live and keep your studio in Tairua. How does this remoteness influence your art practices? On the flip side, why is that you choose to keep one foot in the city? What does the hum of the city offer your work? And why is it important for you to have both?
Living out of the city fills a well of time and space for Ryder and I to be able to work solely on our art practices. We love living next to the ocean, this is vital to us, and having the space to spread out and make a home that has an abundance of rooms that have become our studios and workshops. (Although however much I try to stick to my studio space I always end up working on the kitchen table!) I love being able to make my own calendar, to act on spontaneity and to be consumed by a view. This way of living serves my way of making as I like to slide between projects, to pick something up for awhile and then put it down, to notice the light at dusk and to stop what I am doing and go into it. In saying this, the trick for me is finding a balance between living remotely and visiting the city. Both places rejuvenate me in different ways. I grew up in Auckland, in a small seaside town in a big over flowing and creative family. I love working with people so it is also important for me to go to the city every few weeks for a couple of days to see friends, work on photography projects, see a film, get Indian takeaways and go to the supermarket! Over the past three years that we have lived in Tairua, we are still figuring out the perfect balance. It changes season to season. In winter I like to go back and forth more often and in summer weeks go by and I am happy not to leave the oceans side.
— Tell us some of your best times spent here.
The best days in Tairua—Waking up early to blue skies and sunrise, an ocean swim, walking up the Paku stairs, doing a drawing or painting that I like, lying in the sand, making tortillas from scratch and watching the moonrise.
The best days in the city— Fresh bread, friends around the table, sitting next to the fire, taking photographs, ticking things off my to do list, going to the movies and getting dumplings.
— You've also said that toast toppings are very, very important. What is your philosophy around giving everyday activities a second energy?
This question made me look back on a piece of writing that I wrote when I was writing my thesis. This is what I found:
“I used to wish that the toaster would toast toast faster. That you would pop it down and within a matter of seconds it would pop back up and be ready to best dressed and eaten. I shared this strife with my mother one morning. She said to me that a few beautiful minutes start when the toast goes down, a time of complete peace in the early morning, a moment you can have to yourself whilst your piece of bread begins to gently bronze the in the contraption next you.
These moments are vital to a day. The ones that take place as you stand at your kitchen counter top, its edge slightly cool against your hips, as you look out to the garden in front —It is mid July, and outside is well below 10 degrees. Although it is winter here, the skies are incredibly blue, a summers blue, a fools blue. The sun hangs lower than usual and, although bright, seems to be smaller, further away than normal. Maybe this is why it is so cold? Maybe the sun has stumbled backwards toppling over itself unable to resume its usual distance between here and there. (Understandable though, really, as it must be a dizzying job.) It is still outside. The cherry tree’s branches hold only about twenty leaves, each a burnt orange, speckled with black. As they fall incrementally, they lie on top of each other, collapsed in a pile as though laughing on their tired backs. They had been holding on to their silvery stems since last spring and after a lifetime of clinging on they fall loose; entering a new phases where they are free to roll upon the wet grass and dance lightly on the winds battered breathe. Behind the cherry, three citrus trees are heavy with fruit. Bulbus oranges weigh down deep green branches—
The toast jumps. I place it on the marble and squash half a banana on to its golden skin, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and a pinch of sea salt, and turn. Its darker inside than it is out.”
I think treating each other and ourselves, as well as any action that we do, with more care makes for a more engaged and immediate relationship to the world. To cultivate attention, awareness and care in something as simple as doing the laundry or making breakfast is very important to me.
— You once mentioned to me that romance drives everything you do. Can you give me some examples of romance that exists in your current work?
I think love and kindness for me are so intertwined. One is the other. I am drawn to gesture and the everyday, and where love or romance shows up in these places. I have been working on this series of photographs for about 4 years now titled ‘Men carrying flowers’. I take these photos when I go to city for work, it started back when I was studying and would walk though town a lot. I take them quickly and under-cover on my bad iPhone 4. I haven't put pen to paper too much about why I do this but I know its something about capturing a gesture of kindness, an exchange between two people, a loving action. A thoughtfulness that has been acted upon.
There is something important, too, about flowers as they hold an ancient language or symbolism for virtue and meaning. I like to think of the person who would be receiving the flowers, that feeling, that unknown (to me) smile on their face, him looking at her, her blushing somewhere in some house I might not ever see. There is a narrative that takes place in my head. A feeling that swells up.
— Ryder’s and your own work seem to bounce off each other naturally, collaborating at times. Does your relationship inform your work? And, if so, in what ways?
Ryder and I met at Art School over six years ago. He was 19 and I was 21! I was thinking this morning that, from that very first day we met and for every day since, we have been together working side by side- our desks within sight of each others, stopping for cups of tea and long conversations about what we are working on. The first thing we collaborated on was a piece of wood that Ryder found and turned. He turned it into a beautiful shape that stood alone like a small column. He gave it to me and I painted it with a thin layer of stain that I had made by crushing lavender and saltwater, tracing the wood grain and turning it pale lilac.
I think we have always been excited by each other’s sensibility, the differences as much as the connections between them. We have a shared awareness and a deep draw toward similar things. This shared ground extends, most importantly, to the way we want to be and live in the world, to live with grace and intention. We collaborate both knowingly and inadvertently through proximity, conversation and enthusiasm for each other and what we make.
— The same could be asked of your relationship to NZ. What do you feel the NZ environment serves you or your art practice that you could perhaps not find elsewhere?
The older I get the more and more I feel connected to New Zealand and to its land. It is a very blessed place and the beauty that surrounds us here forever blows me away. There is something completely freeing about living on a remote and isolated island that feels safe in a way that I haven't felt in other places in the world. Similarly, Ryder was born and grew up in Hawaii on the island of Kauai, which is the most isolated landmass on earth. For me there is an innate connection to the ocean and land by living on an island and within a pacific culture. This week we drove up north and stopped at a Marae. There were school children there having hangi (a traditional Māori method of cooking food) for lunch and a display of the most beautiful kete (woven flax baskets) that the women had made. It was very touching to be welcomed into such a scared space, to witness ritual that has been passed down through generations of Aotearoa and see these traditions being celebrated, honoured and shared.
— What ideas or concepts do you find yourself gravitating towards this year? What sort of feelings are you experiencing or what questions are on your mind?
I want to become more essential: to seek clarity, to be more intentional with my time, to expand my capacity of doing. This year, I want to return to a more intimate way of object making, to find space between projects and for things to stand up on their own. I want to work with focus and ease, with graciousness and energy!