Grow­ing up just out­side of Pic­ton proved in­spi­ra­tional for these two 20- some­thing sis­ters – an artist and fashion de­signer


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 (re­bekah­codli­ 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.

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