A travelogue about the recent Publisher’s Invitational Painters’ Trip to New Zealand, by Eric Rhoads of PleinAir Magazine

 

Eric Rhoads with some stone giants from the Hobbit movies at a private sculpture garden in New Zealand.
Eric Rhoads with some stone giants from the Hobbit movies at a private sculpture garden in New Zealand.

They say everything is big in Texas. Does that mean everything is small in New Zealand, since it’s so tiny? Surprisingly, people seem to think New Zealand is filled with giants because the Hobbit films were shot there … but our summertime (February-March) visit to the North and South Islands had zero bugs, and certainly no giant mosquitoes. I did, however, find some in an exhibition at a Wellington museum.

What was I doing in New Zealand? Painting, of course … just me and 52 of my friends. Well, actually 15 of the 52 were spouses of painters, most of whom indulged in photography as we made our way around this country of 4.7 million people, 25 million sheep, and billions of spectacular views.

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A Bucket List Trip for Painters

The trip, which was announced at last year’s Plein Air Convention, was a “bucket list” trip for most of us, who probably would not have gone there on our own to tour or paint. But why not go with PleinAir magazine and me? It was a whole lot easier that way, and we had an incredible time.

I’d be lying if I told you the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Auckland was the highlight of the trip, though Air New Zealand made it as pleasant as possible. After a good night’s sleep, we landed in the early morning, a day and a half later than L.A. time.

Stone Guards

Cheery and enthusiastic after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles, part of the group meets for the first time at the stone guard from Weta in the Auckland Airport.
Cheery and enthusiastic after a 14-hour flight from Los Angeles, part of the group meets for the first time at the stone guard from Weta in the Auckland Airport.

Upon landing, we were immediately greeted by a giant stone guard from Weta Workshop, the makers of sets, creatures, and effects for the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies that made New Zealand famous. In fact, following our transfer flight to Queenstown, we were greeted by a giant dragon head in that airport.

Queenstown, on the South Island, was to become our home for most of the trip as we were based out of the Millbrook Resort, home of the New Zealand Open golf tournament and luxury accommodations. We started with a private welcome dinner, where the group got acquainted and I laid out the rules for the trip. Well, the rule (there is only one): No drama.

The welcome dinner at the Millbrook Resort.
The welcome dinner at the Millbrook Resort.

Painting a Winery

A group shot before painting at the winery.
A group shot before painting at the winery.

After a good night’s rest, no one appeared to have jet lag, and we set out the next morning to tour the area and the wine country surrounding the resort. We went to the Waitiri Creek Winery, where we painted while being served snacks and wine from the vineyard. We were roughing it, but I think I could get used to having food and wine delivered to all my painting excursions.

Lunch and a tasting were held at Gibbston Valley Winery, which made our paintings that afternoon at the resort surrounded by mountains a little wobbly. Then we were off to a gourmet dinner. I have to admit, the wines of New Zealand were the best I’ve tasted and the food at every meal was beyond amazing.

The Southern Alps, Land of the Hobbit

Artist Richard Lindenberg with Eric Rhoads at Glenorchy.
Artist Richard Lindenberg with Eric Rhoads at Glenorchy.

On Saturday morning we made our way to Glenorchy, about an hour south, with spectacular scenery along the way. Upon arrival, we painted on the waterfront of the Dart River in the Southern Alps. Then we boarded small jet boats that can operate in just four inches of water and sped up the river into the wilderness, where much of the Hobbit movies was filmed. The jet boats went about 60 miles per hour, darting in and out among giant rocks until we were deep into the most spectacular scenery I had ever seen.

We were in awe of the beautiful and pristine water, which we were encouraged to taste. We then landed at a spot where we were escorted into “Middle Earth,” a deep forest where many Hobbit scenes were filmed. We then made our way back through different parts of the river, and upon boarding the bus were treated to more scenery used in films like Lord of the Rings and Avatar. We capped the evening with more great food.

Part of the group ready to board the bus for a jet boat ride.
Part of the group ready to board the bus for a jet boat ride.

Sheep Shearing and Painting

We boarded the TSS Earnslaw steamship on Sunday morning. The ship was built in 1907 and has run continuously on Lake Wakatipu out of Queenstown ever since. We cruised up the lake and landed at Walter Peak, a spectacularly beautiful sheep ranch and restaurant where we were treated to sheep shearing, dogs herding sheep, great meals, and spectacular painting. And again, snacks were served to us while we painted — I could get used to this. Then more great food for dinner. (Are you noticing a theme here? We love to eat!)

A Dangerous Drop

Monday was painting in Arrowtown for some and around the Queenstown area for others, while some painted at the resort. Since we could paint wherever we wanted, I hijacked our bus and driver, pointed to a giant mountain, and said, “Please take us up there.” We wandered all the way up to the Coronet Peak ski resort and painted nearby.

We were told of a back road on the other side of the mountain that was spectacular, so the driver went and picked up a small four-wheel-drive bus, and we found ourselves clinging to our seats on a narrow road that dropped 2,000 feet just four inches from the tires. We came face-to-face with a car coming the other direction, but our driver managed to get so near the rock wall you could lick it, and the other car was able to pass. Another time we had to back up the mountain. Nothing rattles me, usually, but this did. One slip-up and we were goners. Everyone was extremely quiet for that whole ride … I wonder why.

Spectacular Fjords

Tuesday was about to be the highlight of the trip — a drive to Milford Sound, a fjord about four hours away. Ten people on our trip decided they wanted to avoid the drive, so they chartered an airplane and planned to meet us there for our boat ride on the sound. Sadly, those people missed the most spectacular scenery on the drive, and on arrival we found out the area was socked in and their plane was not allowed to land, meaning they missed the sound completely.

We, on the other hand, cruised in the most monumental scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world, ever. Giant cliffs four times the height of the tallest skyscrapers, towering waterfalls, and more around every corner. We even saw a penguin in the water. It was an amazing highlight of my life, let alone the trip.

Weta Workshop, The Hobbit, and Lord of the Rings

Early Wednesday morning we flew out of the South Island and continued our trip, landing in Wellington for one express purpose, which was to tour Weta Workshop, the world-famous maker of all the weapons, armor, characters, sets, and computer graphics for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies. I had arranged for my friend Sir Richard Taylor to meet the group and say a few words.

I’d warned everyone that he was incredibly busy and dealing with people like Steven Spielberg every day, but he over-delivered, giving the group a private tour behind the scenes, looking at things the public never sees. We even had to sign non-disclosure agreements because we could potentially see things Weta was working on for upcoming films. (And we did, but I can’t talk about what we saw, and photos of those areas were not permitted.) Richard spoke to our group and imparted lots of wisdom about the importance of supporting artists and creativity. He even let some people hold his Academy Awards.

The Roxy Cinema in Wellington, a restored 1930s masterpiece.
The Roxy Cinema in Wellington, a restored 1930s masterpiece.

I later heard that a few people on the trip hadn’t been looking forward to seeing Weta and felt it was a distraction and a waste of time, but afterward I was told that most thought it was the most important moment of a very special trip. Whew.

We then dined in the restaurant of the Roxy Cinema in Wellington, a restored Art Deco theater owned by Taylor and his wife and business partner, Tania Rodger.

Islands Off of Auckland

Thursday we landed back in Auckland, where most of the group headed to Waiheke island to paint at the Mudbrick Vineyard. The scenery and the color of the water were spectacular and gave us distant views of Auckland. Amazingly, it happened again, and my hot lunch was delivered to me while painting. I love New Zealand hospitality.

First Painters Ever to Paint at the Hobbiton Movie Set

Every tourist has to do something totally touristy, so Friday we bused out to the Hobbiton movie set. It was on a stunningly beautiful farm with rolling hills where much of the filming took place. Tourists could roam and tour the various hobbit houses, and we managed to get a group of painters inside to paint the town, so to speak. We even pulled some strings and were allowed in the back lot that was built for distant scenes. One employee told me that even employees were not allowed back there, but it provided access for some great hobbit house paintings. We were the first painters to paint the Hobbiton set.

Tearful Goodbyes

The group says goodbye. Dick Keigher, Marion Howard, and Anne Keigher (far right, Bob Schell).
The group says goodbye. Dick Keigher, Marion Howard, and Anne Keigher (far right, Bob Schell).
New buddies Kim Hoerster and Suzanne Jackson, both from Texas.
New buddies Kim Hoerster and Suzanne Jackson, both from Texas.

Following a tear-filled yet celebratory closing dinner, we all said our goodbyes. Some were flying out the next day, while others stayed on to tour New Zealand. Two brave women, Barrett Edwards and Jinx Constine, rented an RV and painted for three more weeks.

Miles of paintings done by the group.
Miles of paintings done by the group.

My Big Detective Adventure

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Rather than leaving with the group, I had a day free before needing to return to Wellington for time with Richard Taylor, so I planned an excursion to Rotorua, a hot springs town a couple of hours south of Auckland. I had been there 30 years before and had photographed a scene that I remembered as one of the most bucolic I had ever seen.

At the time I was not a painter, and I’ve wanted to return there to paint that scene ever since, so I rented a car, drove down, and was determined to find the spot. I had remembered it being right across from the hotel I’d stayed in, so I went to every hotel until I found the right place. The hotel didn’t look familiar, but I’m convinced I found the right spot — but the scene was not there.

I finally found it, about a block away. What had been an amazing winding road up a hill with giant cypress trees lining the way had been turned into a gravel pit, a cemetery, and a retirement home. Progress had destroyed what I remembered as a spot I wanted to paint. Sadly, there was nothing left to paint, though I could see traces of what it used to be. So I painted another spot nearby.

Return to Weta

The next morning I flew to Wellington to spend the next two days with Richard Taylor. I was treated to some special hands-on moments with an artist there who created masks and monsters, and I got a lesson in computer sculpting. I was also asked to speak to most of the artists on staff, and we talked about trends in the U.S., the plein air movement, the realism movement, and other things I thought were important to share. I even spoke a little about how they could market their artwork. I then got to spend the next couple of days with Richard, and we solved all the problems of the art world and brainstormed some new ideas.

When I was a kid my dad used to take us to travelogues where men would show slides or movies of their worldwide trips. (I was pretty bored.) I guess this is my version of that. Photos and memories, probably most meaningful to the people who were there.

What Painters Need

New friends and souvenirs of their trip. (L to ) Frances Pampeyan, Peachy Johnson, Veronica Brown, and Barrett Edwards.
New friends and souvenirs of their trip. (L to ) Frances Pampeyan, Peachy Johnson, Veronica Brown, and Barrett Edwards.

While we were in New Zealand, someone asked me why I do these trips. Selfishly, I said that I probably would never go to a lot of these amazing places to paint alone — it’s more fun with others. But the real reason is because we are all part of a special tribe. We need to develop deep friendships within a tribe, and there is no way one can spend 10 days with 50 other people and not develop friendships. All of us found some very deep bonds.

It’s a chance to escape life, have a brief moment of having all the details handled so we don’t have to think about anything but seeing beauty and painting. Someone points us to our meals and our rooms and everything we’re supposed to do. It’s not reality, but it’s a nice escape.

One of the other great benefits is the chance to paint for several days in a row. Many of us never get that chance, and it helps our spirit, and helps us get better. It’s good for the soul.

A Profile of Painters and Art Events

I try to do three events a year that are just painting, and one that is just touring and seeing art. The international painting trips try to mix touring and painting because we do want to paint, but we also want to see the country and sample the food and drink and get to know the people. I try to do one international painting trip in most years, and they are typically limited to about 50 people. Last year I took a group of 100 on a historic trip to Cuba, and I’ll be taking 50 people back to Cuba in March 2018. This year’s international trip was New Zealand, and next year … well, it will be announced at the Plein Air Convention, and it may be even more amazing than New Zealand.

Of course, I’m taking a group of about 50 to Moscow and St. Petersburg for an annual Fine Art Connoisseur Russian Art Trip this September. Though you can use some free time to paint, most of the trip is going to involve seeing great art and going to visit artists’ studios, museums, art schools, and homes. That trip has not yet sold out.

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I also do two other painters’ events in the States each year in addition to our two conventions. They are all about being together, staying in one place, and having rooms and meals provided so all we have to do is roll out of bed and paint. We do the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York in June for the Publisher’s Invitational (open to anyone!), and we do the Fall Color Week Publisher’s Invitational (also open to anyone) in Acadia National Park in Maine in October. Everyone paints at least two paintings a day, and it’s like summer camp for adults. All painting. All fun together. And as on all our trips, everyone becomes very close friends.

Though all the trips are “Publisher’s Invitationals” since I publish the magazines, there is no special invitation required. Anyone is welcome to attend, and I hope you’ll join us on one of our trips or events one day. I’ll list links to information below.

New Zealand was a trip of a lifetime, a bucket list trip. My goal, again, is to go to places you might not go on your own. It was spectacular, so much so that I needed at least three more weeks of painting. Well, maybe one day. I know one thing, there is nowhere else in the world people will bring me food or wine while I’m painting.

So you can learn more about our events and dates, I’ve also included our conventions for your calendar:

 

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