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Discovering the art and joy of writing

Saturday 9 July 2022 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Weekend


Discovering the art and joy of writing
The Sadaraka-Gardiner sisters Hinania (left), Reihanii and Vaihere, enjoy “Can you see what I see?” written by Nanette Lela’ulu. Photo: SUPPLIED/22063008

Artist Nanette Lela’ulu authored and published her very first book – a little book with a big message titled “Can you see what I see?”, sharing her inspiration and journey navigating through the uncharted waters of writing and publishing.

Of Samoan descent, Lela’ulu has lived on Rarotonga for 11 years, exhibiting her paintings on the island and overseas for 30 years.

She has written poetry since an early age and had several stories which she started, but, this book “Can you see what I see?” is the first she has finished and taken all the way to print. 

Lela’ulu says people are often unable to see other people’s perspectives and understand their experiences or feelings, and she wanted to explore that idea through a picture book.

The concept of the book is that it is boundless and without gender or cultural restrictions it is able to explore differences in a very subtle way, says Lela’ulu.

“… and explores through a lyrical narrative the power of listening, and concludes that while our views may always differ, there are ways to see how others see.”

Lela’ulu was inspired to write the children’s book when she assisted the late Paddy Walker OBE (a former International Peace Ambassador and resident of Rarotonga) with her last Peace Bird book.

She started writing the book just after her father sadly passed away five years ago. 

“The first writing was incredibly lecturous,” says Lela’ulu. “Then one night several months later it came to me that it needed to rhyme and so I lay down and finished it that evening in one go, now there is a playful humour that supports the message.”

The new book ‘Can you see what I see’ by artist Nanette Lela’ulu. Photo: Supplied/22061501

“Can you see what I see?” is a collaboration between Lela’ulu and Chloe Marsters, an Auckland-based artist of Cook Islands descent.

The book is beautifully conversed between Lela’ulu’s words and Marsters’ interpretive illustrations.

Although Lela’ulu is an accomplished artist she wanted to find someone else to illustrate the book, “because I wanted another perspective on my words”. She commissioned Marsters to do the illustrations, a process that took another year. 

“I love Chloe Marsters bold lines, there is a depth to the view that she takes with her work,” says Lela’ulu.

“At that point Chloe hadn’t really explored colours as her main tool is her ink pen so I decided to do the colouring for her illustrations, which meant I needed to learn how to use photoshop on my computer.”

This turned out to be a very slow process, taking her months to complete one illustration “because I had no idea I could select entire layers so I was painstakingly colouring each segment of her images bit by bit”.

Completing the colouring in of the illustrations last year Lela’ulu then started the process of sending the book to her designer friend Katy Yiakmis, who is an award winning book designer for several books including Robert Oliver’s Me'a Kai cook book. 

Together with Yiakmis, they completed the design look of “Can you see what I see?” last September and sent it off to the printers. 

Engrossed in the new book “Can you see what I see?” written by Nanette Lela’ulu. Photo: SUPPLIED/22063009

Making her debut as an author, the book journey came with and without challenges.

“The spoken and written word have always been an important part of my paintings and the exploration of meaning behind what I have tried to portray through any work,” explains Lela’ulu. “So it wasn’t a large leap to start writing, in fact I find writing so much more liberating than painting.”

“Painting is such a solitary process; I have loved working collaboratively with Chloe and Katy. It’s been a learning and exciting process for me.

“The biggest challenges were the awareness that I wanted the message to be in the book but not to feel condescending or arduous. I wanted it to be fun and more like an ‘ahh’ moment when you get to it.”

Another trial was trying to learn photoshop, which she managed to achieve.

And the task of communicating with the printers when she had no idea “about paper weights, etc., so there was a lot of blindly walking and learning along the way”.

A lot of these challenges are beyond an author’s experience, in that usually a publisher would take care of the other parts of publishing a book. But because she chose to publish through her ‘Bloody Mosquito Publishing’ company, it meant learning to wear many hats, explains Lela’ulu.

The book was launched at LBV in Muri last month and can be ordered online at

Lela’ulu has paintings in prominent collections, such as the Tribaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia, the Museum of Ethnology in Frankfurt, Germany, and portraits in the James Wallace Collection in Auckland, New Zealand. She has also illustrated several books for Huia Publishing, Little Island Press and Cengage Group.