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LEANING INTO THE GOOD

Whether she is out in the surf, soaking up the sun or sipping a coffee at Zephyr, artist and mentor Steph Barnett seems to make the world a little better everywhere she goes. She sat down with Jack Marshall to talk about her art, work and life . . .

Few around town seem to have a warmer disposition than Steph Barnett. The artist and youth innovation mentor at Taiki-E! is generous with her smile and laugh. Life is going well for Ms Barnett, although it was not always this way.

It has been something of a winding road for the former high school drama teacher, who now splits her time between art and inspiring young people at Taiki-E!, the entrepreneurial community workspace.

Steph is driven to support youth who need a helping hand, after seeing her friends get “left for dust” by the school system in the United Kingdom.

Born in New Zealand, Steph moved to the northern hemisphere with her family when she was 10. Her parents enrolled her in a fantastic primary school that was located among several council housing projects.

“A lot of my best friends had quite a number of social challenges that come with poverty, and I knew that this was so messed up.”

Steph and her friends left the supportive school and went to high school together, where she saw her friends suddenly left far behind in the regular school system.

She knew something was wrong and wanted to be part of the solution.

“I knew that if I went into education, it would always be with that social element of supporting the kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks — because they were my best friends growing up when I was younger.”

Steph moved back to New Zealand in her early teens and a few years after finishing school began an on again/off again relationship with Gisborne seven years ago.

A lot of things ticked the box for her, with plenty of surf and a low population. There was also a man here who might have had something to do with it.

She disappeared from the Coast to study and travel, picking up a Bachelor of Arts degree followed by a year at teachers college in Christchurch before eventually coming back to Tairāwhiti.

“I always knew I'd return because as soon as I got here, I thought, ‘ohhh, this is it'.”

Working with youth who have experienced trauma is something Steph continues to be passionate about.

“That was a really exciting job and awesome mahi, but I ended up getting quite burnt out teaching.”

Struggling with the grind, Steph felt worse comparing herself to colleagues who were doing the same job but seemed to be coping with the stress.

She fell into a hole of depression for three weeks, fleeing to Wellington to be with her parents.

“I hit burnout and then did a big reassessment. I couldn't imagine walking back into a classroom in the same way after that. I didn't want to go back to high school teaching.

“I felt like there was a new path. I just couldn't see it yet.”

In the darkness, she turned to her art.

The last 100 days of her 20s were coming up, so Steph decided to stand on the highest diving board and launch herself into art and become a full-time creative. She planned to make $100 a day for 100 days, purely from her art.

Earlier this year, on January 20, Steph turned 30. The 100 days were complete and the stability from homeownership called.

“I knew that I'd struggle to get a mortgage and things without having a solid income and consistent pay cheque.”

She also missed working with young people and existing in a community space.

Then Taiki-E! came along.

“Coming on here couldn't have been more perfect timing.”

Taiki-E! can be hard to describe because it constantly changes and responds to the different people in the space, says Steph.

At its core, Taiki-E! is an entrepreneurial workspace that aims to empower the community and generally make the world a better space.

Recently, The Gisborne Herald helped publish a zine (short for magazine) created by young people called Loose Leaf, which Steph helped design and edit.

At other times she might help rangatahi (young people) open up a pop-up store (like the one in Treble Court right now).

If it can be dreamed and it's good for the community, Steph and the folk at Taiki-E! will try to make it happen.

Some might find the fluid environment exhausting. Steph does not.

“It's energising because there are so many people. You have an initiative, and suddenly you have 30 people who are supporting that initiative. It's very much for the community by the community.”

Although she has a somewhat conventional job (compared to the life of a galivanting artist), she still does plenty of art.

Her work covers walls, shop fronts and canvases all over Tairāwhiti.

“I'm doing a lot of work for music festivals and musicians, and that's something that I love because I really, really appreciate music and want to be able to support it.”

In the end, Steph's two separate paths, art and social work, have met — the young people she works with at Taiki-E! are creating some of the art she doesn't have time to make.

“I haven't got so much capacity (to create art), but there are now these young people who can start taking on some of the work — which is amazing.”

Once unable to find a path forward, Steph says she's on the right track.

“As soon as you start doing something, things start to build momentum naturally. The more you do, the more people see, the more opportunities come to you as you create the space for them.”

She said part of her success has been giving herself time to accept the opportunities.

“I think about how we have nine-to-five jobs these days, and it just doesn't leave you available for the other magic.

“It's cool when you create space and lean into the things that feel good.”

GOT IT RIGHT: Artist and youth innovation mentor at Taiki-E! Steph Barnett has travelled a winding road to get to where she is but has found her place in the world in Tairāwhiti. Picture supplied