Even the drive down to Waitomo felt somehow magical…Early evening light cascading off the fields, hills and trees releasing a million shades of spectacular colours and moods spreading a welcome calmness around and within us.
Daniel Ormsby and I first got to know each other through video call, that no longer new, and now weirdly comfortable post covid whakawhanaungatanga phenomena. I had previously shared the Lots of little Fires kaupapa with Daniel via email. To my relief and excitement, he was instantly curious and keen to get involved. With a shared sense of humour and a mutual recognition for each other's kōrero and mahi, it led to a natural trust and child-like excitement to meet in person.
Arriving at the Red Shed, Muredach (our awesome videographer) and I, were warmly greeted and welcomed in. Daniel has those smiling eyes, full of warmth, fun and sincerity. We felt an instant sense of calm, an almost therapeutic feeling that both the space and Daniel seemed to embody. After a personal tour of his studio, learning about his beautiful pieces of art and the modes he works with, Daniel led us outside to a nice spot outside with stunning views across the hills. Gleaming, he turned to us and said;
“How’s this for a spot to light up a fire?!”
The view out the back of the studio was a natural heaven with glowing colours of sunset beams streaming through the valley. Muredach’s eyes lit up seeing the opportunity to film with such beautiful light and so he decided to set up the camera and film outside. Daniel got busy sourcing and splitting small off-cuts of wood that had been neatly stored away and began building a small fire for us to sit around.
‘It’ll get cold quickly out here once the night closes in… this should keep us warm.’
All in all it felt like a very magical evening was about to begin and once we were ready to film, Daniel and I settled in and began to talk freely around the warmth and crackle of the fire. We laughed as we knew there was so much to talk about and so many places to start… so we chose to begin with the obvious…what is the Red Shed…
“The Red Shed is about art. The main one is Māori art because that's what I do but it's all art forms. It came about primarily from growth. It is a space where anyone, no matter who you are, can come and do art.’
Daniel has been doing art his whole life, he says;
‘It is a passion, it’s a job, I guess it's a kind of duty.’
As a working artist it starts when he is personally creating art.
‘When I’m in that art zone, I’m not me anymore, I forget what my name is, I don’t know what the time is. I don't know what the music on the radio is. But I’m not Ngāti Maniopoto anymore, I’m not Ngāti Pākeha anymore, I’m just this empty vessel. Yeah that's the beautiful place, you get rid of your ego.”
Something in the way Daniel explained this process ignited a spark of relatability within me. I too have experienced this feeling and was bursting with kid-like excitement to share it with him. Jumping at the chance I blurted out ‘Me Too!..’ only to suddenly cut myself off realizing how dumb that would sound comparing myself to a respected and revered artist. Daniel quickly pushed back and asked me to keep sharing. He seemed genuinely interested and so I clumsily followed his lead. He went on to say;
‘Art’s for everyone, just like singing is for everyone, music’s for everyone. Just because you can’t play a musical instrument doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to be involved with music. If you can bang a spoon on a table you’re a musician, same as if you can pick up a pen and doodle on a piece of paper, and it makes you feel good, then it’s yours.’
I guess it is the fear of being judged and that feeling of unworthiness when we are not confident in ourselves or our abilities that makes us not want to express ourselves; most likely a product of that sadly common experience of sharing with vulnerability, authenticity and commitment, only for it to be dismissed, judged or ridiculed by others. With Daniel it was different. A professional artist and someone who’s words on this subject can really be respected, not only made me feel safe to share, but enthusiastically validated my experiences of being an ‘artist’...of sorts.
I can see the unfiltered joy he gets from seeing even just me talking passionately. It is the innate joy he gets from seeing others passionate about creating or achieving something that drives his work with the community. I ask Daniel where he thinks that comes from, why does he get so much joy from seeing others do well?
“Well I remember when I was young and not being able to sleep at night because of that little achievement I had that day and the excitement to do it again…so yeah, I get my kicks from that”
It is remembering that feeling and seeing that same spark in others that really lights him up. Knowing the feeling that creating art brings and how it can help others find peace through an accessible form of self-expression, Daniel opens up his art studio to many community and youth groups. They come to the ‘Red Shed’ to explore creating art where they can learn and work in an environment that is non-judgemental, positive, caring and fun.
“I just love seeing other people beaming. Whether it's the first time they’ve run around the field three times, or the first time they've done a picture that actually looks like the person they’re trying to draw, or the first time they’ve done a clean cut with the chisel. I just love seeing that spark in them.”
Daniel staunchly believes in making the Red Shed a space that is safe for everyone, no matter who they are. This means ensuring the culture of the Red Shed is upheld by all those who are welcomed in and who use the space. There are times where Daniel see’s certain behaviours that threaten the safety of the space and this requires him to ensure people clearly understand what is ok and what is not.
‘“I’ve got my own tikanga and I’ve seen how it’s worked for people and how people can flourish under it. Disharmony comes when you break those rules, and that's in life aye… If you’ve got your values strong, honesty, integrity, manāki to others, aroha, then anywhere you go and you exhibit those you get the same results.”
It is hard to capture all the unique facets that make up Daniel. I guess that is the problem with writing about someone, it never quite seems to do them justice. In my experience, it is not just what people do that counts but more how they do it, it is who they are that bridges the gap between true engagement with others and skin deep transactions. The result is a way of being, an atmosphere created by Daniel that allows others to feel safe, to flourish and to freely be themselves.
I ask Daniel what drives him, what inspires him to provide opportunities and access to art that are inclusive to all… what lights his own fire;
“My fire has always been lit by those people who aren’t getting acknowledgement for it. When I do stuff, I think about all the people who got me to where I am when I was young. The best way I can repay them is by being the best I can in the spirit of the way they were.”
The recognition of what others do that does not get seen by so many is something special and for that to be recognised and valued by others even more so. Those people who just get on and do. The everyday commitments of good people who go the extra mile to support those in their community who need it most.
“How many people are out there that just every week are doing more than I am. They probably spend 8-10 hours in the meatworks, go home, have a quick wash, a quick feed and they go and coach sports and they’ve been doing it for 15 years. No one's ever really given them any credit or acknowledgement. They’ve always done it and always will. There’s so many people that's their whole life.’’
Humility, self-reflection and gratitude for others is something that really stands out in the way Daniel talks about the contributions others make to the betterment of his community. It leads us on to wider topics around the ways in which people in community can be supported to thrive. Daniel has a lot of experience in working with and alongside groups that support community and has seen the damage ‘outside in’ change can do when it comes to ‘trying to help’;
“I think real change always starts within the community. Passionate people who see a need and decide to do something about it. When these people are seen and trusted to do what is right for them and their communities by outside agencies, then good things can happen. But you can’t manufacture community led.”
Understanding communities and what makes them tick is something we are both passionate about. We land on the idea of being ‘bridge builders’, people who are able to understand and communicate with people from diverse backgrounds and can empathize with many different perspectives. Daniel feels this is such an important trait or skill in community yet one that is so often overlooked or undervalued in our daily interactions.
“So many people don’t understand what others think and feel about things because they haven't experienced the realities of their world, or at least taken the time to try and understand. Knowing how to ask the right questions in the right way and with the right words is so important for people to feel understood and valued…just being authentic to yourself, yeah, that's the big one.”
It is in this way that Daniel can use the Red Shed as a place, where people are encouraged to listen, to drop their own agenda and to learn to understand each other. He uses the creation of art as common ground where any social divides can be left at the door. Daniel laughs and explains how part of the art world actually does the complete opposite to this. He explains that some artists use language that can be interpreted as elitist by those without an academic background.
“We get it all the time in the art world . Whether it is intentional or not, some artists use really fancy words to talk about their art. I call it Art Wank! Because I have seen how it can make others feel small and excluded and that their art is not worthy because they cannot talk about it with the same fancy words. So yeah, I try to knock down those walls and communicate in ways that are real ,relatable and accessible to everyone...isn’t that the whole point of art anyway!”
As our time with Daniel comes to an end, we wrap things up and crack open a couple of beers while sharing some scroggin. We cannot thank Daniel enough for his time, his manaaki and his aroha. It has been a very special evening with a very special man who’s wisdoms, perspectives, and most importantly, his actions, provide fuel to the fire of so many people's wellbeing in the community, who are lucky enough to spend time with him at The Red Shed.
*Something I have learned to recognise and value more and more over the years is people who embody authenticity, truth, kindness and self-reflectivity. People who are honest to who they are and exhibit a gentle humility about their own successes and failures in life. These people inspire me, make me feel safe and possess a bright light that can be seen and felt by all those around them. I know that if they make me feel this way then they will for others too.
Daniel houses this light in abundance and if wisdom is simply the result of experiences lived, deep reflection, lessons learned and new perspectives formed, then Daniel is a man with much to offer; so much value for our own wellbeing and for understanding our place in the world and our purpose in it.
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