Guest Voices: Project Sunshine

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director
This is our second post in our 'Guest Voices' series; short pieces by creative people we've welcomed in to The Dowse


There's something quite special about sunflowers. Isn't it amazing that such tall, sky-kissing plants can grow from such small black seeds? I love the way the flowers drink up the sunlight and it is really quite impressive how they turn their heads to follow the sun throughout the day.

Sunlfowers often capture the imaginations of artists too. Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Gustav Klimt all painted sunflower-filled oil paintings. In 2010–11, Ai Wei Wei's Sunflower Seeds (2010) spilled through the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall; each of the 100 million sunflower seeds was hand-crafted in porcelain and they completely covered the vast gallery floor space.

Closer to home, Frances Hodgkins used watercolours to paint the yellow flowers in Pleasure Garden (1932). A few years ago I danced with three of Christopher Langton's large moving Sunflower (1996) sculptures at the Adam Art Gallery in Wellington. They responded to sound, swaying back and forward! And Karl Maughan sometimes paints sunflowers in his garden-filled canvases.

Sunflowers are such a cheery plant, so I think I'm pretty lucky to be working with Project Sunshine Aotearoa, where I'm surrounded by the beautiful golden flower. Based at Epuni School in Lower Hutt, we send sunflower seeds to people throughout New Zealand to create beautiful spaces in our communities and help our bees by planting one of their favourite foods.

Last year the Epuni children planted 500 Giant Russian sunflowers in a field at school (you can see some photos here on our blog). The flowers were absolutely enormous - bigger than dinner plates! The children then dried the sunflower heads, saved thousands of seeds and packaged them up into beautifully-decorated seed packets.

Over the last few months we've been busy sending hundreds of these seed packets far and wide throughout New Zealand to anyone who would like to try growing them. We're even tracking their distribution on a customised google map, and so far we've added more than 220 locations. 

Recently, we held our 'Sunshine Day' at The Dowse: a celebration of sunflowers, our local neighbourhoods and sunflower-inspired art and craft activities. We wanted to share our project with the wider Lower Hutt community, and The Dowse was the perfect place for people to come and talk to us, make some art and take home sunflower seeds and seedlings for a gold-coin donation.

We set up in one of The Dowse's outdoor spaces: John Reynolds' Titoki Gallery. It seemed quite fitting to sit quitely under the trees with our little seedlings and make beautiful art with people who stopped by.

We laid out colouring-in pages, blank stickers to draw bees on, 'sunshine necklace' materials, and chalk for drawing sunflowers and bees in Dowse Square.

Luke in his sunshine necklace

Luke in his sunshine necklace

The children at Epuni have a saying: "we have two hands: one for giving and one for receiving". This concept is central to our project: in return for a packet of our seeds people have shared all sorts of koha with us, including fruit trees, hand-made journals and pencils, packets of vegetable and flower seeds, stamps, Maori potatoes, and jars of jam.

During our sunshine day we practised our 'giving and receiving hands' with our seed-packet painting activity: if visitors painted two seed packets and let us keep one, then they were able to fill the other packet with a handful of sunflower seeds and take it home. We will fill the gifted seed packets at a later date and send them to other places in New Zealand.

At another of our art craft/stations, we helped people 'upcycle' old milk bottles into watering cans. Using a hammer and nail, we pierced holes in the plastic lids, then tied them to the handle with a piece of string (so that the lids won't get lost). I've found that once the bottles are filled with water, they make the best watering cans for little people, as long as they are not too heavy to carry.

Our watering can activity completely captured the imagination of the children and to my delight they took their watering cans in a direction I hadn't anticipated: once they'd transformed their bottles into a useful garden tool, several children then glued sunshine necklace charms on to them. Others took their watering cans to the seed-packet painting station and started painting them with beautiful motifs.

The once-plain milk bottles were soon covered in sunflowers, suns, stripes, and rainbows.

The children then wanted to test out the watering cans, so they rushed to the drinking fountain off to the side of the titoki trees and filled up their bottles.

By the end of the day we were happily watching children make sunshine mud-pies and rivers at the edge of the Titoki Gallery. Sometimes the best art activities are the ones that children come up with themselves. We look forward to seeing what these little artists make in the future.

We thoroughly enjoyed our Sunshine Day at The Dowse - thanks for hosting us! We'd love to hear of any sunflower-related activities that other people might be doing or making, so please get in touch.


Catherine Field-Dodgson

Catherine lives in Lower Hutt and likes making things. She has 2 children, 4 chickens, and lots of sunflowers growing in her garden.

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