Amber’s exhibition


Arrowtown-based artist Amber Stephens is combining her two passions.

The accomplished painter and dancer, who returned to the Wakatipu 18 months ago after stints around the world and New Zealand, hosted an exhibition at Arrowtown’s La Rumbla on Thursday.

For Stephens, 34, the paintings and watercolours are an expression of the culmination of a life spent indulging her passion for dance, music and art which took her to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna for four years.

Stephens says the chance to study at the academy was opportunistic in a typically Kiwi way. In her mid-20s and on a speculative trip to Europe, she was wandering around Vienna’s art museum district with her portfolio when she walked into a back office hoping to get someone interested in her work.

It turned out to be one of the region’s biggest creative agencies.

“I wandered in and said I needed to speak to the curator and they smiled and smirked and said ‘That’s interesting, but we’re a design agency’.

“I felt a bit sheepish and embarrassed and was about to walk out and this guy comes out and asks to have a look at my portfolio. He pulled me aside, looked at my work and said it was really interesting, and he’d never seen anything like it before.”

Stephens says from there the man – who turned out to be the agency boss – put her in touch with a contemporary DJ who was looking for a dancer to do collaborative exhibition projects.

“He said ‘Look, you have a lot of potential in this country, lots of advantages as a foreigner and a lot of get-up and go. You could go a long way – why don’t you stay?’

“He told me the best way to stay was get a student visa and study at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he believed I could get in.”

The rest is history – Stephens got accepted and spent four years studying abstract painting, all the while continuing her dancing training and performances which she managed to include in her studies.

It’s just part of her CV which is as varied as it is impressive.

Stephens, who learned ballet from age four, studied contemporary dance in Auckland before completing a post-graduate diploma in the subject at Unitec.

The accomplished musician has also played violin in the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra – and started doing portrait paintings from the age of 15.

It wasn’t all fine arts – after spending part of her teens in the Wakatipu and getting the snowboarding bug she headed off for a season at Jackson Hole and Tahoe and ended up in San Francisco doing design work for a snowboarding magazine.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Stephens came home and spent a year at the South Seas Film School up north studying film directing – and even had her end-of-year drama project Lilac Wine shown at the Wellington Fringe Festival.

It was later when in Vienna at the academy that she seriously began combining her love for art and dance.

Not that it was easily accepted by her tutors, causing conflict with one professor, she recalls.

“He just wanted me to paint, he was a purist but I was doing all this performance dance stuff and he thought it was sacrilegious to my painting.”

During her four years in Vienna as a student, Stephens collaborated on a series of performance projects for highly-regarded festivals and venues including contemporary art centre Kunsthalle Vien and at the Stadfest Festival in Germany.

At one stage, the multi-talented Kiwi even put on her own dance theatre show which she co-wrote – The Beggar and the Bird – at London’s Odeon Theatre.

Stephens says it sold-out just about every night of its season but she barely broke even – but has plans for further spin-offs from that project.

But now that she’s back in her old stomping ground, Stephens says she’s been happy to have some time and space for reflection.

“When overseas I did miss the spirit of the land. I really love the NZ landscape, it really feeds my work and the energy of this area. Q’town, Wanaka, the mountains, it’s a really powerful place.

“So it’s been a really reflective period. But as an artist you have to go inside. It’s just part of it.”

The reflection time has culminated in the work going on show at tonight’s exhibition which starts at 6.30pm and focuses on her abstract work, she says.

“I’ve got back to doing three-dimensional designs and putting layers on top which is just so satisfying to me, it’s like a dance on canvas. It’s got that perfect balance of structure and fluidity, something really structured and something that’s really loose and intuitive and emotional.

“It’s a culmination of me going really deep inside and coming up with work that’s really true to the journey I’ve been on. Having that quiet space in the mountains to work has been really imperative … it’s not like I’ve been hiding away – though I have been hiding away compared to what I’m used to.”

Stephens’ eight paintings and six watercolour originals – selling from upwards of $3800 – will be on display at La Rumbla for four to six weeks.

Stephens adds: “While it’s not a big gallery thing, I like it because it’s got an air of informality, it’s approachable and fun. I’m interested to gauge the public reaction to it.”