An artistic path was always on the horizon for Jade Townsend. Raised by her Māori father who was a sign writer, and her British mother who worked at a clothes shop creating window displays, Townsend has been surrounded by creative energy since she was born. After spending many of her early years living in Whanganui, the artist found solace in making art when she was uplifted to the UK at the age of 14 — eventually going on to train as a painter at Manchester Metropolitan School of Art. The rest, you could say, is history. Townsend is an accomplished multidisciplinary artist in both the local and international art scenes; with collaborations with Hermès and COMME des GARÇONS amongst her portfolio, and one of her most recent feats being a residency and exhibition at Ohio State University. Working at the intersection of both her Māori and Pākehā heritage, she hopes to get people thinking and feeling when they observe her works by weaving in stories of her whakapapa.
Below, we speak with Townsend about her current exhibition in Hastings, her biggest creative influences, and how she juggles making with motherhood.
In conversation with Jade Townsend
Tell us a bit about you, your background, and your career to date:
I am an artist of Māori and English descent and I make work about the complexities of navigating both of those cultures at once. I trained as a painter at Manchester Metropolitan School of Art but my work can look like many things beyond traditional painting… Such as commissioned exhibitions with luxury fashion brands including COMME des GARÇONS, curatorial projects such as Whānau Mārama with Commercial Bay, Artist-in-Residence at Ohio State University or my current role as co-director at Season (gallery).
Have you always been creative? What drew you to the medium of art?
We are all born creative! My ancestors set me on the path to be an artist. I was lucky enough to have teenage parents who were still experimenting with their fashion and music taste for my entire childhood. I have always been encouraged to express myself, to be resourceful and to practise! It is a very tough industry and you need people who believe in you.
You recently held your first exhibit in America. Could you tell us a little bit more about this and what went into it?
Yes, it is still on! I created four new works which travelled over there. I was offered a residency and exhibition at Ohio State University, the first ever Māori artist invited to do so. I accepted because I saw it as an opportunity to share stories of wāhine Māori leadership. The paintings are about the wāhine I look up to including Dr Hinemoa Elder, Zoe Black, Elisapeta Heta and Neke Moa to name just a few.
What stories or ideas do you hope to share with people through your art?
I am more interested in creating space for emotion. For example my new exhibition Te Whare Ātaahua at Hastings Art Gallery (9 December 2023 – 14 April 2024) represents my whakapapa – my connections to Heretaunga (Hastings), Whanganui and Liverpool. It is a luscious environment referencing the Liberty wallpaper that was in Oscar Wilde’s house and the Māori painter John Hovell for painterly references. Despite the beauty and celebration within the installation, there are feelings of loss and longing too. I hope Te Whare Ātaahua is a space to hold you while you move through your own hard feelings about family.
Aside from being something beautiful to look at, what is art meant to do?
Get you thinking and dreaming.
In what ways has your upbringing between Aotearoa and the UK influenced your art?
I am very grateful for my exposure to a broad range of art, politics, pop-culture and histories having lived in many different places. My art is a combination of all those experiences and it leads to me unique intersections such as “Missoni” patterned shell paintings or portraits of my British mother as Hina, the Māori moon goddess.
Which artist/s inspire you the most in your own work?
My big kid, Hayes-Ānaru who is five. Neke Moa my tukana and hero.
Biggest career highlight to date?
Opening a gallery at eight months pregnant.
What does an average day look like for you?
It’s a juggle. I get the kids ready (they are one and five years old) and take them to kura and kōhanga. I will then work on funding applications, write, meet with artists, plan exhibitions, sort the house – then collect the kids. My husband does dinner, we all play afterwards until bedtime. From 7.30pm, if it’s warm, I will swim at Takapuna beach and paint until roughly 1am – when the baby wakes up for a cuddle. I’m looking forward to putting the laptop and paintbrushes away and resting during these holidays.
What inspires you creatively?
My roles as a mother and daughter.
What’s next for you? Personally and professionally?
I’ll be dividing my time between Tāmaki Makaurau and Whanganui as an Artist in Residence at Tylee Cottage. I will also be opening my first Season solo exhibition in March.
This season I’m saving on… Petrol. We will be trying to use the car less.
The last item I bought for my wardrobe was… Wynn Hamlyn suit.
My favourite place to dine… At home, I love my husband’s food.
The best book I’ve read recently… The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy.
Inside my handbag you will find… A good black pen in case I need to draw something. Abel’s Black Anise fragrance. Kids snacks.
Where you’ll find me holidaying this season… At home, Takapuna Beach. Christmas day is relaxing for us, we have pancakes and bubbles under our favourite pohutukawa, swim until we get hungry again and walk home for lunch. We will do versions of this each day until work and school starts up again.
Best place for a cocktail… Classic Negroni from Hastings Distillers!