Miriama Grace Smith (Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Toarangatira and Ngāti Porou) comes from a family of artists – her mother, Briar Grace Smith is a filmmaker, and her grandmother, Patricia Grace, is one of New Zealand’s most cherished authors and poets. We spoke to the Wellington-based artist about her work, including the illustrations she created for Britomart’s Greening the City project, which can be seen in the Atrium, the Pavilions and on the construction hoardings along Customs St East.

Melinda Williams: How did you first start working as an artist?

Miriama Grace Smith: I think I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always wanted to be an artist, ever since I was a kid, and my mum and whanau kind of pushed me to pursue what I loved, which was always art. I’ve loved art pretty much since I could draw.

You create art across a wide range of mediums, from – just recently – the roof of a Mini Cooper, to fashion design with Moana Road, to wall murals, illustrations for books, The Spinoff and the Unite Against Covid-19 campaign to name just a few. What draws you to working in such different media?

I quite enjoy working in different mediums and I like to keep learning how to work in new mediums… I think I enjoy being able to switch between different areas because I find that if I focus on one thing for too long, I get bored. So I think that’s partly behind why I do it!

Despite the difference mediums you work in, you have a recognisable style and themes that recur. In your own words, what are the most important themes that you try to explore in your work?

For me, something that’s inevitable is that since I’m Māori, my culture comes through in my work. Where I can, I like to share our history and stories. I guess as well, I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older, what comes through is being Māori and living in this time. I like the idea of showing some aspects of being a modern Māori. Especially in my fashion design, there’s a street style that comes through, and that has to do with the influence of living in the now, as a Māori.

You’ve created some beautiful illustrations of native trees for our Greening the City tree-giveaway project. Can you tell us a bit how you went about that?

When I was approached to do the illustrations I was flicked through some images of illustrations that I had recently done for Wellington NZ as part of the DreamGirls Collective that I’m a part of. We were asked to do some illustrations that we’d put around the city. So that was sent to me as an example of what Britomart was hoping for with the trees illustrations, that kind of style. And that was actually a style that I was wanting to do more of and develop some more. So I really enjoyed being able to work in and develop that style of illustration.

On your portfolio website, you have a short essay about you and your brother talking about how humans have become so advanced that we now live ‘outside’ of eco-systems. Eco-systems now primarily adapt to what humans create, we no longer adapt to the eco-systems we live in, like every other species does, though there’s a point where we will have to. I thought that was a really great and simple way of expressing the problem at the heart of today’s environmental issues. Is the idea of kaitiakitanga important within your work?

Probably throughout my work since I started to paint when I was a teenager, I liked to show that idea behind my work. I see it as our duty as human beings to protect our environment, and I try to show the reasons why and how we can do that through my work. I think that’s really important. I especially like to show the idea of us not thinking we can just take from te taiao, the environment, without giving back. It’s really important that the balance is there, that shared aroha and reciprocal relationship that we should have with our environment.

Well, that leads well into the next question, which we’re asking everyone who’s involved with this project – for you, why do trees matter?

I love trees! I love nature. For me, they matter a lot – without them we wouldn’t be able to breathe, to grow food, we wouldn’t be able to survive. I feel like I do have quite an important relationship with them. Every day I take my dog out for a walk along places lined with trees in Wellington. I need to be in an area that’s close to nature. I don’t think I’d be a very happy person if I lived somewhere that didn’t have trees near me.

Finally, where else apart from Britomart can people see your work at the moment?

Mainly I share my work on my Instagram site, @miriamagracesmithartist. At the moment, myself and the Dreamgirls Collective – we’re three women artists from Wellington – we’ve just finished up creating an artwork for an exhibition called 'Here & Out' at Toi Pōneke Gallery in Wellington. It’s got works from nine woman street artists from around the world, and I feel pretty stoked and grateful to be a part of that one. I’ve never seen an exhibition like that before, so I think everyone should go see it if they can. And the most recent work I’m doing at the moment is a mural for the Boon St Art Festival at Waikato University.