Guardian of arts

Catching up with the effervescent Nansi Thompson – gallery coordinator at the Franklin Arts Centre, proved no mean task last year. But when HELEN PERRY finally pinned her down to talk about the gallery and her personal career, she discovered a woman as passionate about the arts as she is of life itself. Nansi Thompson is a surprise.

I didn’t expect the beautiful long braid, the textured tights or that the way her smile reaches right into her eyes. I don’t know why not; artists, and those who move in the realm on arts, are frequently colourful, perhaps eccentric and are often known to exude personality.

Nansi has all of the latter. And, her life has certainly been colourful. She has lived and worked in many exotic places and although I don’t know her well if enough to deem her eccentric, I soon discover she has huge enthusiasm for her role as gallery co-ordinator at the Franklin Arts Centre.

She also has a way of expressing appreciation of various art mediums that excites. Four years into her gallery job, which includes overseeing the New Zealand Steel Gallery within the arts centre, Nansi is firmly focused on exposing the talents of local artists and crafters whilst also bringing to Pukekohe the works of both emerging and acclaimed national and international artists.

“New Zealand is such a young country and we don’t have the depth of culture found around the world but we are building depth and we are coming of age in recognising our Maori culture through art.

“For example Whenua Hou – New Maori Ceramics, featured diverse works by nine Maori and the quality of work was quite outstanding.

“New Zealand is now doing really well where its indigenous art is concerned but there is still so much more to explore – music, dance, writing, visual arts – it’s a very exciting time.”

While Auckland Council’s arts and programming team plan the Steel Gallery’s exhibitions, showcasing works from all over the country, Nansi is still actively involved, ensuring its smooth running.

However, her principle role is to co-ordinate the Community Gallery space, which artists of every description can hire for a peppercorn rental to display their work for up to three weeks. Retail and administration responsibilities, naturally, follow suit.

“We see a diverse range of artists booking the Community Gallery – everything from beautiful jewellery to felt works, pottery, all mediums of painting and a huge array of unusually crafted pieces which continually attract interest.”

From the outset, Nansi says she has been struck by the unique relationship between the Steel Gallery and the arts centre.

“We can show the best from all over New Zealand and beyond but we also have a strong local presence. We are a place where the whole community can feel it belongs – all cultures seeing all avenues of art.

“That’s so good for the community. The wider perspective the gallery brings to Franklin allow for a much broader range of works to be seen from emerging and recognised artists.”

With a clear vision for growing the gallery to ensure the district continues to see as an extensive and comprehensive range of art, Nansi is enthusiastic about council’s strategy to now initiate a full year’s programme of exhibitions.

“By making this available early, people will be able to plan for what’s coming up. What’s more, with the library next door, more folk are taking an interest in what’s going on in the gallery. It’s so motivating when newcomers step inside for the first time and suddenly discover a world they have previously passed by.

“What’s more, it’s extremely gratifying to see visitors recognising the depth and beauty coming from our local and national artists; subsequently they are buying it too. I think the future of the Franklin Arts Centre will be really exciting and I’m thrilled I can be a part of it.”

Globe-trotting creative

Japan, Italy, Brazil, Hong Kong – Nansi Thompson’s global lifestyle has given her an appreciation for the diverse cultures which have, and still do, influence the broad arts domain.

Although her wanderings may seem exotic to some, Nansi’s solid Panmure upbringing has instilled in her strong Kiwi values with an underlying No 8 wire mentality – when she is set on doing something she just does it.

Now, as gallery co-ordinator at Franklin Arts Centre Nansi has, for the past three years, brought a wealth of knowledge to her role.

It was her performance arts background that took her from Hong Kong (where she had spent three years) to Japan in 1990, primarily to study Butoh, a form of post Second World War Japanese dance which encompasses a range of activities, techniques and motivations for dance performance or movement.

It is traditionally performed in white body makeup with slow, controlled motions and may include playful even grotesque imagery, taboo topics and extreme or absurd environments.

“It was definitely ground breaking then but is increasingly performed around the world,” says Nansi who lived in Kyoto for six years – “a beautiful city, rich in tradition and culture.”

However students can’t live on learning alone, so she taught English to support herself; “this later became my go-to for living wherever I went.”

From Japan, Nansi spent a year in Brazil then travelled to Italy where as well as teaching she also worked in antique furniture restoration and curated a landscape sculpture exhibition.

“The thing about Italy though is that it was really about learning the art of living,” she says. “Just going to the markets and talking to people is a creative act!”

While living in Milan, Nansi also met her Italian husband Riccardo and with him became immersed in northern Italian life.

“We travelled a lot including through Jordan while I was working there for the British Council. Our decision to move back to New Zealand was to spend more time with my mother, who is now in her mid 90’s. Otherwise we would probably still be in Italy!”

Returning to New Zealand in 2011, Nansi continued to find contract work within the arts arena including three years on Waiheke Island where she co-ordinated the Artworks centre and was also artistic director for Waiheke’s Sculpture on the Gulf in 2013.

Then in 2016 she was asked to choreograph the first Shoes Extravaganza in Auckland. “A bit like the wearable art of shoes, it was held at the Tepid Baths and I was actually able to incorporate some of my Butoh dance experience into the event. It has enjoyed ongoing success with a second event this year and I just see it getting bigger and better.”

With Nansi having also completed a Master in Arts Management, the gallery job in Pukekohe was an opportunity to put her amassed arts experience and management skills to good work and she is revelling in her diverse role.

What’s more, she says she has finally put down some roots – figuratively and literally!

“My husband Riccardo and I had never really committed to buying a home in Italy where it was much more common to rent. But we are well settled in Pukekohe and have bought a home here.

“I love that I can walk to work and having our own place has generated a new interest – gardening! I’ve taken to growing tomatoes. Italian tomatoes, of course. For making sauce. Yes, pasta is still a big part of our diet and cooking can be very creative. It certainly complements the arts!”