by Helen Martin
While she is a relative newcomer to Helensville – Denise Marshall moved here from England in 2007– she has been quick to make her mark as an artist with a keen interest in community projects. Born rural Lincolnshire, Denise worked in electronics on leaving school, a profession which she enjoys returning to from time to time and which has greatly helped her hone her design and hands-on skills and knowledge. The catalyst for her career as a carver happened when, in her 30s, she saw a carved bench in a park. “It was big and bold and medieval and something in it spoke to me - I thought ‘I’d love to learn to do that’,” says Denise. Her first step was to take part in a community project where, with the help of professional sculptors, participants carved a wild life-themed oak bench, bringing stories out of the wood. “You learned by osmosis,” Denise explains. “It was an amazing experience and I was hooked. Carving is meditative. You lose yourself. Tap, tap, tap – you’re gone.” Funded by the forward-thinking local council, which worked from the premise that art is a catalyst for recreating communities, Denise became a rural arts worker, assisting with running stained glass, wrought iron, sculpture and other projects. She began creating community-carving projects and at the same time expanded her own carving activities, receiving a lot of commissions and selling her work. For 18 months, for example, she worked on carving the three wise men, almost life sized, in a commission from a local church.
When their son George was 12, she and husband David immigrated to New Zealand looking for a better life(“England didn’t feel like a good place for our son to grow up”) and quickly found a compatibility with Helensville. “It had a nice vibe, people were friendly and looked you in the eye when they talked to you. It was the place we wanted to be.” Beginning with volunteer work, Denise eventually found employment – jobs she lists include education support person, gardening, home care, airfield maintenance controller, electronic work and computer-aided drafting. “For the last 30 years, I’ve not had a job doing the same thing every day,” she explains. “To me the best way to work is to have variety.” She also continued carving and, with painter Jo Oram, set up the shop Handmade in Helensville at the railway station. When she began a community carving project three years ago “to give others the same opportunity I had to contribute to public art” there was no shortage of people interested in taking part and the local board provided some funding. There have been different venues – latterly the project has been based at the Historic Museum - and people have come and gone, but to Denise’s delight the three macrocarpa benches, now finished, are soon to be installed around Helensville.
In another big project Denise, now living alone, has designed and built a Tiny House, a job which provided much scope for her love of designing and problem solving. After a year looking at options, Denise bought a purpose-built trailer and, with huge help from her partner John and trade experts where needed, over 11 months built an off-the-grid house on it which has solar power, tank water, gas heating, a composting toilet and a small wood burner. There’s a deck for outside living, an adjacent container for Denise to carve in and a garden, currently the target of a determined possum. It’s a small, but perfectly formed contribution to Denise’s commitment to sustainable living.
Denise has been involved in Art Kaipara since she arrived and is one of the founding members of the Arts in the Ville organising committee. She’s now ready to start another community carving project “if people want to carry on”, she has some commissions to complete and then there are those painting, knitting and metal sculpture projects she’s been working on.” There’s always something I want to be doing,“ she says, ”and I’m very happy to be doing it in Helensville.”
by Helen Martin