Community at the heart of Elam graduate’s artwork

Elam School of Fine Arts alumna Emma Jane Ormsby finds inspiration in her Māori heritage and working with the community.

Emma Jane Ormsby with a pātaka kai featuring her artwork.

For Emma Jane Ormsby, art can be many things: a way to spark conversation, a tool to uplift people or a vehicle to raise a political point. But it’s the opportunity it provides to interact with the community that she relishes the most.

The 22-year-old graduated from the University of Auckland earlier this year with a conjoint Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Arts and recently painted a number of pātaka kai for the Salvation Army. Pātaka kai are community street pantries based on a “take what you need and share what you can” philosophy. They help make food more accessible for those in need and encourage the sharing of surplus food within neighbourhoods. Emma Jane’s artwork has not only helped beautify the street pantries, it’s also helped raise their profile in the local community. 

Emma Jane says she took inspiration from te ao mārama – the natural world – for her design of the pātaka kai, while also “including the voices of the community that is going to be most impacted by the work”.

The artwork was funded via a philanthropic donation made to the University of Auckland by Lyndy Sainsbury ONZM. Emma Jane says it’s heartening to know there are people like Lyndy out there supporting the arts.

“Things like art are the first to go when there’s a crisis,” says Emma Jane. “But art is, I think, what brings happiness to life. There are the essentials and then there are things that make life worth living – and I think art is one of those things.”

Community-centric projects like her work with the pātaka kai are a theme in Emma Jane’s work.  While still a student at the University, she led a project at her former college, Westlake Girls High School, painting a 58-metre-long mural on a graffiti-prone wall of the school. The mural was created in collaboration with students at the school who took part in workshops with Emma Jane. She then turned their ideas and art into a cohesive design that she painted, describing the process as a “dialogue between myself and the community”.

Although she hopes to eventually create work for galleries, too, for the time being, it’s community projects like these that lie at the centre of her art.

A pair of pīwakawaka painted by Emma Jane.

“I think art has the most impact when it’s within communities and not just a highbrow type of thing,” she says.

Another creative muse for Emma Jane, who is of Ngāti Maniapoto and Ngāti Porou descent, is her Māori heritage, which she describes as “the number one inspiration for my work”. Art is also a valuable tool to reconnect with her whakapapa and iwi, “a way to open doors for myself”.

“It can be quite scary just off the cuff going and visiting a marae that you've never been to or grown up with and meeting people that you haven’t met before. So having art as a bit of a bridge is amazing for reconnection,” she says.

Emma Jane is continuing to explore her whakapapa with her current project, also at Westlake Girls High School. This long-term project involves working with students to create a space at the school that “focuses on the feminine energy within te ao Māori … done by women for women”.

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Helen Borne | Communications and Marketing Manager
Alumni Relations and Development