Tawhiti Museum: Such A Gem In Hawera

Tawhiti Museum welcome sign

Sometimes your spur-of-the-moment decision becomes a wonderful discovery. That was certainly the case when we visited the Tawhiti Museum in January.

And although most of this blog is centred on Southland and it’s people, Tawhiti, owned and created by Nigel and Teresa Ogle, is such a fabulous museum that I had to let you in on its secrets.

Entrance to Tawhiti Museum
The entrance to the unexpectedly entrancing Tawhiti Museum.

Tawhiti Museum

Remember those dioramas you made as a kid for school projects? The tiny figures in painted shoe-box scenery probably took you hours to make. Well, Tawhiti Museum has taken the art to a whole new level.

This surprising place brings history to life with hundreds of dioramas. Miniature models sync with life-size scenes to show Taranaki’s vivid past.

There’s so much to Tawhiti that you could easily spend all day there.

For a start there are three astonishing collections to see, as well as the cafe and workshop. It’s hard to choose between them if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the creator of all this magic for he is often found hard at work in the Body Shop, painting his next piece of magic.

Tawhiti Museum owner and artist Nigel Ogle paints a tiny figure for his next exhibition.
Nigel Ogle

Tawhiti Owner and Artist Nigel Ogle

Nigel and his wife Teresa bought the old Tawhiti Cheese Factory just outside Hawera in 1975.  How could they imagine what it would become? Fast forward 40 years and Tawhiti is now one of the most innovative private museums in New Zealand.

It all began in 1980 as a hobby for school teacher Nigel; a way to combine his two great passions, art and history. But the model collection soon took on a life of its own. So in 1988 Nigel left teaching behind and became the artist – storyteller we see today.

Taranaki History In Models Great And Small

Nigel doesn’t just make figures, he brings whole scenes from Taranaki’s past to life with detailed props and scenery.

Every expression and frozen gesture brings you into the story. Looking at their faces it’s easy to imagine their thoughts and feelings in the moment.

Nigel can take anywhere from months to years to create a display.

He’s often persuaded friends, relatives and locals to let him cast their moulds which have later become his life-size models. And he’s painstakingly created many tiny figurines in wax, too. These make the moulds which allow him to recreate hundreds of each.

Not only that, Nigel has created all the detailed scenery, right down to the last flax leaf and musket. It’s hard for him to get away from it all. Even when walking the dog he collects driftwood and rocks for his next masterpiece.

Close up on a tiny figure and detailed scenery in a Trader and Whaler diorama.

All that detail is something that visitors to Tawhiti frequently mention.

Moturoa and Te Atiawa

In the 1820’s the wars between iwi in Waikato and Taranaki were fierce. When a Taranaki warrior killed a great Waikato Chief the Waikato tribes vowed utu — revenge. Waikato had long been trading for muskets which gave them a huge advantage.

Into this hotbed sailed two traders, Dicky Barrett and Jacky Love bringing muskets a-plenty for whatever Taranaki iwi had to sell.

So it was, in 1832, that when Waikato came calling once more, the Te Atiawa were ready. The battle at Otaka was long and hard. But this time, with European muskets and cannons to use, Te Atiawa managed to repel the invaders.

Then, fearful of the retribution that was bound to follow, the whole tribe fled. Some went south to Kapiti and Wellington. But Barrett and around 300 villagers set up home on the offshore island of Moturoa.

Traders and Whalers

I can’t say that I knew a lot about  the trading and whaling history of Taranaki before we visited Tawhiti. The museum brings it vividly to life.

We saw miniature dioramas and information boards a-plenty but the true magic of Traders and Whalers comes as you float back in time. Because, incredibly, Nigel has recreated the rocky Moturoa caverns and cliffs as a ride inside the museum.

Now, you can step onto a boat and let the story come to life around you.

The scale is incredible.

Scene after scene comes into the light as you swish along on the dark river. You see life-size warriors sharpening spears. Traders, women, children — all going about their daily lives in the cramped caverns. There are buildings, goods, food … even a pitched battle erupts around you.

And you can’t help but end the tour wondering. “How did Nigel build all this in four short years?”

Watch from 3:35 to see a little of the Traders and Whalers ride in action.

Farm Hall

You can’t imagine how big the Farm Hall is, or the incredible collection that waits inside.

Here, lined up for inspection come tractor, after tractor, after polished tractor. There’s every brand you could possibly name — and more —  to begin this amazing tour.

Polished red tractors lined up in the Tawhiti Museum farm hall.

But it doesn’t stop there. The tractors give way to army jeeps and steam traction engines. Turn the corner and you’ll see old balers, mowers and every type of farm machinery you could ever imagine. Miniatures, models and tools vie for space on shelves and walls.

I’m not a mechanical sort of gal, but this collection left me stunned.

It would take you days to explore it all. I guess that for vintage enthusiasts, the Farm Hall is probably akin to machinery heaven.

Hawera

We visited Tawhiti on our final day in Hawera, and I really wished we had more time to spare.

In fact, Hawera turned out to be a delightful town to visit. It has lovely parks, two interesting beaches and its fair share of cafes delivering delicious food.

But surely Tawhiti Museum has to be the jewel in its crown. I can’t wait to return.

P.S.

If you stay in Hawera I’d have to recommend the Kerry Lane Motel. Five minutes out of town, this motel has everything a family could possibly want. Comfortable, spacious units, lovely gardens, animals and plenty of space to play. What’s not to love?

Picturesque motel unit and garden at Kerry Lane Motel in Hawera.

More Artist Stories To Enjoy On TOML

Tawhiti Links

Tawhiti Museum home page

Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

Michelle Goggans: Portrait Of A Whimsical Artist

Portrait of a Dragonfly Surrounded by Fire by Michelle Goggans

Art is one of my students’ favourite subjects at Garston School. Mine, too, because I love to experiment right alongside them.

However, even the 6-year-old children often produce paintings better than mine. It’s sad, but I’m afraid I don’t have even one artistic bone in my body.

But according to Denver and Kingston artist Michelle Goggans, that’s not necessarily the problem. The desire to succeed is far more important than talent.

What’s more, you have to be willing to work!

If It Was Easy, Everyone Would Be An Artist

“I certainly wasn’t the best artist at school,” she says. “I had friends who were amazing  — theirs were the paintings that decorated the walls on parents night. Mine were never chosen.”

“But in the end, art wasn’t really their thing and they drifted away from it.”

Those students could have gone on to produce some stunning paintings as adults, but they just weren’t interested enough to put in the years of work and study that it takes to be a top artist.

“I wanted art with a passion,” Michelle says,  “I wasn’t born with heaps of talent: it’s practice. I’ve worked at this my whole life.”

And work she certainly does. I was amazed, when I met up with Michelle at her home in Kingston, just how much work it takes to create her beautiful watercolours.

Composite photo, Michelle Goggans and 8 photos of her artworks
Michelle surrounded by some of her art.

Preparation is Key

When I think of watercolour paintings, I tend to think small, delicate landscapes and pastel colours. But Michelle’s largest painting to date is Catharsis (above, bottom right) and it measures 32.5 x 25 inches. That’s close to a metre across — and the special commission took a LOT of work to create.

Many of Michelle’s paintings are done on paper. If you ever painted with watercolours as a kid, you’ll immediately understand the first problem. Paper buckles as it dries. To fix that, Michelle will completely saturate a sheet of 140lb watercolour paper and stretch it out on a strong wooden board. She tapes the paper to the board, then staples it all the way around for extra security.

For “Catharsis” Michelle had a large, extra-thick board especially made. Wet paper is strong and shrinks as it dries. Believe it or not, shrinking paper nearly 1m long could easily snap an ordinary plywood board in half. Even then it took several attempts and a few ruined sheets of expensive paper before it was finally secured to the board and painting could begin.

How Do You Model A Fantasy?

Michelle’s inspirations come from myriad sources. Initial glimpses of nature, photographs, people or animals are then coloured and transformed in her mind’s eye. It’s Whimsical Art she says and is a style she’s been developing over the years.

Even the greatest artists of the past used models and views from real life to paint form and perspective, but there are no real-life models for the pictures forming in Michelle’s mind. Fortunately, she has two modern tools that past generations lacked: her trusty iPad and the innovative art app “Procreate”.

It takes hours and hours of research on the internet, but eventually, Michelle finds forms and details in photos which capture the shapes she needs for her painting. Procreate lets her take those shapes and place them together as a mockup for the picture in her mind’s eye. Now she has a model for sketching and outlining onto paper.

Michelle Goggans Bulletin Board showing practice artworks
Michelle’s bulletin board shows a few of her many experiments on the details in her paintings.

Beautiful Experiments

The work doesn’t stop there. Michelle showed me pages and pages of experiments in her art book, as she worked out every tiny detail. Skin tones… colours… hands… faces… the way a dress should flow. Finally, the right ideas and skills have married up and the painting can begin. I see fire behind a dragonfly… flames surging from a lions mane… a Yogi at one with a rainbow universe.  These are just some of the diverse whimsies that are now beautiful paintings thanks to Michelle.

Working in Other Media

Michelle’s favourite reaction to her paintings is the amazed question, “That’s WATERCOLOUR?”

When I looked through her online portfolio, I had exactly the same response.

But Michelle’s portfolio holds more than watercolour. There’s also Scratchboard.

What’s Scratchboard? Think sgraffito on steroids; beautiful black and white portraits made by scratching black top-coat to reveal pure white underneath.  

“Scratchboard needs a different perspective,” Michelle explains. “Normally I think about applying colours to create the picture. With scratchboard, you have to think in reverse.”

I’m captivated by the process and the stunning results.

Connecting With Michelle

Back in Denver, when she wasn’t painting, Michelle worked in interior design and project management, so she has plenty of the skills needed to fit into the current Queenstown work environment when her partnership visa comes through.

But of course, her dream is to paint fulltime. So it’s a blessing in disguise that the visa process takes so long.  For this precious time, Michelle has the luxury to concentrate on painting. 

Want to see more of Michelle’s beautiful art? You can find her at:

www.artistswhim.com

https://www.facebook.com/artistswhim/

On Instagram as Artists_Whim