West REAP has long provided adult community education programmes that help people gain the confidence and skills they need to move ahead with their lives. Their programmes include literacy and numeracy, driver licence, preparing cvs and getting job ready, computer and digital skills, support to get basic NCEA qualifications, sign language and te reo.

And this year they have also been partnering with Development West Coast to provide Co-Starters, which, their website says, is a programme that “helps aspiring entrepreneurs with the insights, relationships and tools needed to turn ideas into action and turn a passion into a sustainable and thriving endeavour.” Economic development on the West Coast is a big issue as the old extractive industries disappear and REAP is actively supporting new opportunities.

But for years many people have been asking the REAP to provide art classes: It was hard for the organisation to see how they could make art align with their funding requirements.

Then four years ago Cheryl Smeaton, the ACE coordinator at West REAP, heard about a local art tutor, Kate Buckley, who she knew would be able to provide art classes and creativity in a way that opens a door to lifelong learning: “Kate has worked as an art teacher for adult and community education in her home country, Ireland”, says Cheryl, “and she knows how to use art and creativity to engage people who have had a poor experience of education. So we decided to offer art as a way of encouraging learners to come into a learning environment and find out more about their interests.”

The class was first established in Hokitika in 2015 and has maintained around 25-30 learners with about 12 there at any one session. A Greymouth group was started in 2017 and has grown to include up to 50 learners with about 30 attending each week in a day long session.

Kate says rather than focusing on the art (for example learning how to use water colours which in the end may not be what the learner is interested in), they have turned the process on its head, put the learner at the centre and provided a space for self-directed learning. Materials are free, the fees are low, people can come and go as they wish for their two hours and Kate is there to facilitate each learner’s chosen art form.

Kate: “If you can work with the individual and allow that person to be what they want to be, there is a whole personal development thing that comes with it, and after that a community development thing. And the changes are quite remarkable for many people. If you can have a positive experience in terms of artwork, it spills out from there into the rest of your life.

“The social and mental health value is very obvious too. We have found that the core group has become very welcoming and supportive. People who had difficulty fitting in with the group are now key members, and they are bringing other people along.”

Cheryl says that the end of year evaluations are without exception, positive. Apart from the wellbeing, confidence and social support some have gone on to study art, and some have found employment in other areas: “We have certainly found that art as a tool for personal development does work. It gives people an opportunity to explore their identity, get skills, find if they have talent, and take their new confidence wherever they go. At the launch of the Festival of Adult Learning this year we have put creativity at the heart of ACE. That is what we are celebrating.”