Growing up just outside of Picton proved inspirational for these two 20- something sisters – an artist and fashion designer
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY, TWO TALENTED PICTON CREATIVES SHARE A LOVE OF HAND- CRAFTED WORK WITH INDIVIDUAL PIECES THAT TAKE FIERCE FOCUS AND MANY HOURS TO MAKE
FOR A SMALL SPACE co-habited by two creative people, the studio Sarah and Rebekah Codlin share is surprisingly neat. Sarah’s side is pristine in black and white, with not a thread on the carpeted floor. Rebekah’s paints are tidied, her brushes washed, and a half-completed portrait gazes into the mid-distance.
Fashion designer Sarah (26) and artist Rebekah (24) share a love of creating high-end, slow art, whether that’s in fabrics or oil paint. In October they will also share a pop-up shop in Auckland’s Ponsonby Central where Sarah will officially launch her fashion label to the world, her collection in monochrome and neutrals featured against a backdrop of Rebekah’s large-scale, lifelike oil paintings.
“Being an artist or designer is not like having a normal job; we have to work together as a family,” says Rebekah. “We thought it would be cool to highlight that we’re sisters, both creative in our different artistic pursuits. We wanted to do a physical launch of Sarah’s label as her gear is so gorgeous to see, touch and try on. It feels so amazing to wear – the silk is beautiful.”
When Sarah was six months old, her parents Catherine and Paul moved from a farm in Karaka to Ngakuta Bay, a few bays north-west of Picton in the Marlborough Sounds. After 10 years they also bought a house in Picton, living between the two. These days the family, including aged spaniel Fergus, mostly occupy the house in town since both sisters are ferociously busy.
Sarah is launching the first collection for her new label, Stray Birds. The name derives from the title of a book of poetry by Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, which she spotted in a secondhand store in Havelock. “‘Stray’ sums up what I’m going for: straying from the masses, straying from rigid style. And birds are so free. I knew straight away that was to be my label name.”
Her collection, ‘From the Ether’, is all flowing silk and velvet, ultra-feminine but still strong. Each piece is hand-constructed by Sarah using the Shingo Sato technique, a free-flow way of creating patterns where much of the designing is done on the dressmaker’s model. “I’m really into flattering the figure, to embrace the feminine look, but in a loose way. My designs are something you can dress down, wearing a skivvy underneath and Chuck Taylors, or dress up with heels and full make-up.”
Sarah’s been making clothes since she was four, using what came to hand or modifying store-bought garments. “I’d get a top I liked the shape of and chop it. Then I’d get a pair of pants I liked the fabric of, and undo the seams back and front to make a skirt. Then I’d join it to the top to make a dress.
“As a young girl, I didn’t like generic clothes; I’ve always loved the thrill of being able turn something flat, like a sheet, into something 3D able to be worn and used.”
As a teen Sarah would be stopped on the street by women asking where she bought her clothes. It happened so often she decided to turn her talent into a career.
While Sarah almost completed a fashion degree before a medical issue forced her to stop, Rebekah’s skills are entirely self-taught. She always enjoyed art but became serious at 16 when her then-boss at Le Café on Picton’s waterfront, saw sketches she’d done of other staff. He suggested she display her art at the café. “I painted my first body of large works and from that show became busy with commissions and exhibition requests. I’d been planning to go to university to do something ‘sensible’ like accounting, but my art career took off instead.”
Rebekah held her first solo exhibition aged 19, and it was then she realized painting could be a living. “I was showing my first proper portrait, and didn’t really want to part with it. The gallery director put $10,000 on it thinking no-one would pay that. On opening night it sold.”
Rebekah’s large-scale oil portraits and giclée prints are now in demand locally and overseas, especially Australia and the USA. She’s just shipped several oil paintings to a gallery she’s signed to in Santa Fe, a destination city for art buyers. The Santa Fe connection was made when the family holidayed in Hawai’i and met the gallery owner’s son.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from Americans, and because it’s a big country there’s a huge pool of people who like my kind of art.”
Rebekah’s kind of art is super realistic. The viewer can pick out the reflection in her subjects’ eyes, count every strand of hair, trace each crease on their clothes. “I like to capture a warmth and connection with the viewer. I like my portraits to uplift those who look at them. I love realism because I feel it’s easier to get that connection. It’s very satisfying to paint – getting the light and the details right. I work hard to make the colours harmonious and the background to emphasize the person.”
Her subjects are often folk she meets around Picton which, as a tourist spot, attracts people from all over. “I look for interesting faces, an expression I like, someone with a face that’s a bit sculptural.” After sussing them out from afar, Rebekah makes an approach. “It’s weird to go up to them and tell them I’d like to paint them, but they’re almost always excited to sit.”
She starts by getting to know her subject and taking some photos, although she often recreates the background, clothing and even her sitter’s expression to achieve exactly what she wants. Working eight hours a day, six days a week, hopefully about a month later the portrait is finished. “It’s freaky to spend so long working on something, just crossing your fingers that someone will like it,” she says. Luckily, art buyers do.
Sarah and Rebekah’s parents can’t pinpoint the source of their daughters’ talents, but partly attribute it to their decision to homeschool via The Correspondence School (Te Kura). “We learnt to get our schoolwork done so we could focus on other interests, like dance, guitar and art, making bush huts and going swimming,” says Rebekah.
“I managed my time so I could do my sewing because I loved it,” says Sarah. “I wasn’t thinking about my career, I was thinking about how much I loved making clothes.” Which is not to say their schoolwork suffered; all four children including brother Christopher (22) and sister Charlotte (19) achieved University Entrance and NCEA Level 3.
Neither sister sees any disadvantage to artistic life in a small town, a lack of easy access to fabrics for Sarah notwithstanding. “It’s lovely to live in a place that’s so serene when you’re doing something that’s quite difficult,” says Sarah. “It’s really nice to have that balance.”
At 24, Rebekah has built up impressive demand for her paintings, and sells internationally (rebekahcodlinart.co.nz). Her subjects include Ethiopian children and people who catch her eye around Marlborough. BELOW: Even Fergus, the elderly family spaniel, is in keeping with the predominant black/white theme.
OPPOSITE: Entirely self-taught, Rebekah has discovered her own ways of conveying texture and life- like detail in her painting. “For the paint on the children’s faces, I’ll patch in the shapes, then I’ll use the skin colour to paint back in cracks where I want the skin to show through. After that I’ll use a larger brush to push the white paint back in around the cracks.” Rebekah first saw Charlie [ pictured top right] on the streets of Picton. “Her hair was fascinating, although really hard to paint.”; Rebekah painted her sister Charlotte (now 19) when she was 13 and Rebekah only 17.
The Codlins – Rebekah and Sarah, along with siblings Charlotte and Christopher – grew up in Ngakuta Bay, about 15 minutes’ drive west of Picton. Her parents moved there when Sarah (the eldest) was a baby, seeking an outdoor lifestyle for their kids. They got that, spending summers on the pier, the beach, and in the water swimming and kayaking. While their busy lives keep them mostly in Picton, the Codlins return to Ngakuta Bay as much as possible.
Sarah and Rebekah enjoy tea on their deck in Picton with sister Charlotte, a hip- hop dance teacher and aspiring police recruit.