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Three years in the planning, a year in the making; the Back Beach Poetry Trail will evoke creativity for decades, writes Bruce Munro.
Tina Grubba is standing on a headland jutting into Otago Harbour. Behind her, a breeze ruffles the blue and silver water. Gulls call from on high.
Facing her, houses peer down from a tree- and vine-covered promontory.
Between the two, the green and blue, a grey gravel road winds along. This is Back Beach, on Peninsula Beach Rd, a magnet for many seeking fresh air, peace and beauty.
From Sunday, this oasis of serenity will have a new feature. Dotted along a couple of kilometres of road will be 11 concrete plinths bearing short poems on ceramic tiles. It is the work of ceramic artist Tina Grubba and fellow members of the Back Beach Writers’ Group, an offering they hope will inspire creativity and be replicated along the entire length of the harbour’s edge.
The Back Beach Poetry Trail was born in 2014, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Writers’ Group.
The group comprises writing enthusiasts who live either in Port Chalmers or elsewhere along West Harbour. None are full-time writers, but some have been published. Rachael Stedman won the New Zealand Post young adult fiction award for her novel A Necklace of Souls. Robert Free’s poems are regularly heard on Radio New Zealand National.
The members had been gathering monthly since 2004 to critique and support each other’s writing efforts, when they decided on a project to enhance the slice of coastline that gave the group its name.
"It is a place with which each member felt a connection,’’ Grubba says.‘‘We have each walked this road many times."
What has been created is 11 rectangular tiles, each bearing poetry written by group members that was born from thoughts and feelings triggered by that spot. Each poetic tile is accompanied by a smaller circular tile with an image related to the words and scene.The road to this point in the project has been as winding as its physical manifestation.
Early encouragement came from the late Barry Brickell, OBE. Brickell was a potter, writer and founder of Driving Creek Railway on the Coromandel Peninsula. He had strong memories of Port Chalmers and Back Beach from a period of work with the late Ralph Hotere, ONZ, in the township during the mid-1970s.
Brickell offered Grubba a residency at Driving Creek Railway, but he died before that could happen. Grubba, however, was able to collect clay from Driving Creek Railway for the tiles. One of the tiles bears words by Brickell.
To produce the tiles, Grubba used a process she developed during a 2013 contract with Architecture Van Brandenburg. She was called on to create prototypes of tiles which have since been reproduced in their millions for the outer layer of the headquarters of Chinese fashion house Marisfrolg, in Shenzhen, China.
The sculptural headquarters was designed by Dunedin-based Van Brandenburg.
"It was a process I developed so that it’s all one clay but you get different colours within the clay that come from the firing process," she explains.
It took Grubba a year of almost continuous work to produce the Back Beach Poetry Trail tiles.
The Otago Polytechnic School of Art provided space for her to work.
Each of the 11 tiles began as a 14kg block of Driving Creek Railway clay.
"Before you even begin working with the clay you have to do something called wedging to get the air out of it."
Each block was rolled out on a slab roller, then allowed to dry slightly before being measured and cut.
Getting the poetry wording right on each tile was not straightforward.
"I had to print out each poem, with the lettering to the correct final size, and then lightly go over it with an impressing tool before putting the letters in."
Glazes had to be selected, tested and tweaked.
"Before I could even get the glaze on the tiles, I had done three or four glaze test firings. And some of them I didn’t like, so I remade the tiles."
Each tile had two firings, during which they shrank as water was removed. There were some breakages, so those tiles had to be remade.
In their final form, the tiles, which do not absorb water and can withstand frost, should be a feature of Back Beach for decades.
Making the smaller, circular tiles with images related to each piece of poetry has been an exercise in paying attention, Grubba says.
"I have walked around this walk many, many times. But ... reading the lines that people have written ... [and then] actually having to look closely at the water to get the right colour for the tiles ... stimulates my imagination."
The group members hope something similar will happen for passers-by who come across the tiles.
"We’re hoping that people who never really think in poetry, who never read poetry, because the tiles are highly visible and the poems are short, that they will stop and read them, and it might stimulate some creative impulse in them as well."
They also hope, given that Dunedin is a City of Literature, that others will be inspired to undertake similar projects along the entire length of existing and future sections of the harbourside cycleway.