Tucked behind one of Hokitika’s plush Jade retailers is a small studio displaying curious paintings on stones. In the centre William Steyn has his work bench. He can be found most days creating designs of kiwis, nikau trees and other images from what he describes as the "South Island’s epic West Coast".
William Steyn hails from South Africa. His personality and softly-spoken accent are as endearing as his simple stone paintings that are a hit with tourists. I also enjoy his sense of humour.
He is one of many outsiders, mostly craftspeople and artists, who have settled in Hokitika in recent years.
But as William says, "For an outsider, being accepted on the West Coast is not so simple. Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting until the last Coaster dies who can recall your arrival."
The acceptance of his art work was fast tracked when one of his designs was selected for the cover of the West Coast and Buller telephone directory soon after his arrival.
He grew up on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, a landscape of stones and home for the bushmen and ancient rock paintings of the San people. But if that expansive Southern African environment was to inspire him, that would await his finding an adopted home in New Zealand.
In the meantime he gained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Pretoria University and became an editorial cartoonist and graphic designer.
He immigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland in 1997. He says his wife Lindy, a New Zealander, had the real job.
"I stayed at home working on an exhibition. I was experimenting with painting motifs on big stones. On opening night most of them sold."
After three years in Auckland, William and Lindy toured New Zealand looking for a place to settle. Hokitika was discovered and they stayed. "It was raining," recalls William wryly.
"We had enjoyed the green pastures of the Waikato and the beautiful Coromandel. The North Island was green and happy. When we drove around the South Island I found epic landscapes of mountains, forests and plains
"In reality the South Island is small but it seems massive. Landscapes have complexity and variety. One cannot help being affected by nature in the South Island. And walking on the stony Hokitika beach I thought My God I have a whole living here."
His motifs of kiwis on stones have become the flavour of the decade. In a simple way his designs superbly represent New Zealand for visitors – and locals. He can manipulate the kiwis into rows or clusters. He can make them run around the stones.
"The flightless kiwi is a strange creature. I enjoy creating a caricature of the kiwi. I can’t not have fun with it."
William Steyn also has fun meeting people. ``I sit in my stone painting factory, located in a remote part of world, and at the end of day I have had a nice chat with someone from Poland, someone from California, and someone from Gore.
"Japanese people have an appreciation for detail, and a reverence for nature. They see essences in things even when, to me, they are just humble stones.
"It makes life interesting. Over the last six years I have learned more about the human condition than during the preceding 40 years. It’s like working in a laboratory studying people behaviour. I learn about national stereotypes. It’s fascinating."
The nicest New Zealand people, he says, are from Southland. "They are so open." People from Wellington are "more flashy."
Of West Coasters he is tactfully less forthcoming.
But I recall calling on him after one of the famous Hokitika Wild Foods Festivals. It was the one year when the popular event promised to be rained out. Of that there was little doubt.
Hokitika turned on a balmy autumn day – a rare occasion when weather forecasters were wrong.
William, gazing out of his studio window, his attention caught by wispy clouds hovering above the mountains, summed it up philosophically:
"Well, it not only proves that God is real, it also proves God is a Westcoaster."
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