Real Life

Wellington artist Hedy Ankers’ spiritual journey

The acclaimed Kiwi ceramicist tells how her sister's ghost convinced her to pursue a career in the arts

Growing up, Hedy Ankers didn’t believe she had a creative bone in her body – but the past few years have proven how wrong she was!

Now in her sixties, the self-taught Kiwi-Samoan artist is gaining recognition for her elegant ceramic work and has twice been a finalist for New Zealand’s premier drawing award, the Parkin Prize.

She is also the trophy maker for the annual Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Aotearoa Awards, given to those making it easier for people of all abilities to enjoy and participate in arts.

Hedy’s journey is an inspiring one. A mother-of-three and grandmother-of-three, she didn’t grow up feeling particularly creative.

“I was instead very withdrawn, having no confidence or belief in any creativity,” she tells.

It took the tragic passing of one of her sisters for Hedy’s true path to reveal itself to her.

“Her death was such a shock to me and, on the day, I had a further mind-blowing experience where Sis spoke to me, from the other side.

“She asked, ‘What are you not doing that you know you should be doing?’ I just broke open because I knew the word immediately – a resounding bell of the word ‘art’.

“Before me, there appeared a double rainbow and I burst into sobs, knowing she had come to give me this message.”

Art lovers nearly didn’t get to see Hedy’s beautiful creations

In the 1940s, Hedy’s English- Norwegian father Captain Derek Ankers and her French- English Samoan singer mother Audrey Tibbo, met, married and moved to Kawerau. Hedy was the sixth of many children, nine of whom survived infancy.

“I was a middle child who realised, ‘Holy smoke, this is a busy house, and I’m quiet and observant, so I observed. I’ve done my life by osmosis – I absorb, absorb, absorb and then express. Both my parents were educated and creative, so our house was saturated with culture and full of artefacts.”

Her dad’s sister was the Hollywood movie star Evelyn Ankers, so a love of performing came from both sides of Hedy’s family. She speaks warmly of getting “the essence of being Samoan” from mum Audie, who would go out eeling and fishing at night.

Aunt Evelyn was an original Hollywood scream queen

Hedy describes Derek as a prankster with a tortured side who, like many men, returned home from World War II emotionally broken and with drinking issues. When she was six years old, Hedy’s parents separated and she moved with her mum to Auckland.

By then, Hedy had had her first spiritual experience, which started a life-long interest in the humanities and later Buddhist meditation.

“I was about four years old, and the only way I can describe it is that a tree and I were in communion,” she recalls. “I just knew that I now understood something about the nature of things and that was such a strong compass needle. I’ve never lost it.”

She also recalls her Samoan grandma Teuane Ann Tibbo, then in her seventies, painting artwork after artwork after waking from a dream, declaring, “I have to paint Samoa.”

Grandmother Teuane’s artwork is in Te Papa

Fascinated by the paintings, Audie sought advice from one of her art school tutors, acclaimed artist Pat Hanly.

He declared Teuane’s paintings were special, as did other artists who saw them, which immediately led to exhibitions, dealer representation, and museums and collectors around the world acquiring Teuane’s art.

But Hedy was not tempted to start making her own art, saying she lacked confidence and self-belief because of the strict climate of a 1950s and ’60s childhood. “Even at school, you’d get a whack. All that smacking and violence, I was like a rabbit in the headlights. I could see the insanity of things – for example, ‘Let’s whack her and tell her we love her.’ In my heart, I knew things were all wrong.”

As an adult, Hedy married, was widowed, remarried and divorced, becoming a solo parent. She moved the family to Wellington because her daughter had enrolled at Victoria University. Undertaking formal study for the first time, Hedy completed a Diploma of Publishing and found work with a publishing company.

Through a friend, she had already been introduced to Vincents Art Workshop, a free community-based art provider for the public, but she still had no confidence whatsoever with anything she made. By now in her late forties, Hedy was also in counselling. “This combination of counselling, art and meditation helped me to understand that what had happened to me had shredded my psyche.”

Now a member of and tutor at the Wellington Potters’ Association, her ceramics are on sale at Te Papa and the shop Vessel. It means she’s joined her famous artist grandmother Teuane at the museum.

“I am a grandma who, like my grandma, started late in life,” smiles Hedy. “I really like that Grandma is in the collection at Te Papa Tongarewa. Things have come full circle, but Grandma’s still the matriarch because I’m only in the shop!”

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