“Karamea is a secluded haven, snuggled into the warm northwest corner of the South Island. Long empty beaches, river estuaries, incredible granite and limestone formations as well as tamarillos and fruit trees growing happily alongside Nikau Palms. It’s a great place for those seeking to get off the beaten track…”: That’s how the town’s website begins.

The last census gives the population as 357 but local health workers say they have gained about another 200 people since Covid: the town has been discovered by those who can work remotely.

Most people who live here love the isolation but, in the winter, when the days are short, the weather is bad, and the farmers are having a break from milking, they come out in big numbers to attend their Winter School, which runs throughout July – as it has done (except for in 2020) for the last seven years.

This year 320 people, that’s about half the town, joined one of the 44 free workshops organised by the local Community Arts Council.

It was Creative New Zealand that first funded the School – providing a small grant to pay for venues needed for workshops which met its community criteria. Today the programme has broadened. The small grant is still used to fund the venues for arts or craft-related workshops, like dance, felt making, poetry, writing, singing, drawing, crocheting or flax weaving, but otherwise the whole event, including venues for the workshops like yoga, meditation, cooking gardening and beekeeping – is organised and provided by volunteers.

Kathy Ramsay, the Karamea Community Arts Council chairperson, says that she thinks that one of the programme’s strengths is that no one gets paid. “There is no system of paid and unpaid tutors. There is no paid coordinator. We are all
the same.”

A month or so before it is due to start a group of volunteers begins collecting information about what people would like to teach.

Kathy, always ready for a chance encounter, says that she carries a notebook with her when she’s out shopping, so she can take down details on the spot: “People want to offer something. They get excited by it. Last year because of Covid, it was cancelled, so I think that people were particularly excited this year. The energy was up. They came out in big numbers, and they met each other. The RSA in the centre of town was the venue for several workshops, so town became a hive of activity.”

The main way people heard about the workshops, she says, was word of mouth. “They did use Facebook, the local website and paper – as well as posters, but word of mouth worked best.”

Angela Cronin, who ran two art classes in a community space she and her husband have created underneath their house (and which was used for a lot of other workshops), thinks the Winter School enhances the community wellbeing. “In winter people tend to hibernate at home. But in July we have a good opportunity to get together and socialise.”

For the newcomers it is a chance to meet with the long-established locals: “That’s one of the benefits,” says Kathy. “In a small, isolated community, knowing each other is important, because in times of crisis like an earthquake or flood, when we can be cut off, that’s often all we have.”