Hayley King aka Flox: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

Hayley King is a celebrated New Zealand artist who goes by the name Flox. Best known for her aerosol and stencil work and her charming images of native birds, King also has a sharp business acumen and her brand has grown and evolved to include private commissions, murals, live painting and an ever-expanding range of products. www.flox.co.nz

Mum and dad met at teachers’ training college and, once they’d finished, they moved to Kaitaia in the Far North to teach, so that’s where I was brought up. I have fond childhood memories of camping and going to the beach, of kicking around with the neighbourhood kids, riding around town on BMX bikes, going to the dairy to buy lollies. It was simple rural living.

Because there’s not a heck of a lot to do in a small town, you have to find stuff to do. But if you can find a thing to do, and entertain yourself, it can spark future passions. I played full-on squash from the age of 10 till I was 20. I started playing because my dad did, and he’d drag us kids along to the local courts. A bunch of us ended up playing and me and two other girls became national reps. We trained every day and went to Auckland most weekends for tournaments. We lived and breathed the sport, which is how it turned into something more serious.

When we made the national women’s junior squash team, we went to Rio for the junior world champs. We stayed at Copacabana Beach in a high-rise, but we were so focused on the game we didn’t see much of the city. I was number three in junior squash at that time, and I had a world ranking of 44, and I was very competitive and driven. I also loved the adrenaline and commitment. Squash taught me a lot and it shaped me into who I am today.

When I was in seventh form I moved to Auckland to go to Western Springs, but it was a big culture shock. I felt like such a country bumpkin at Springs, it was as if all my peers were five years older than me, but I caught up pretty fast and found my niche and made cool friends. My main reason for moving, aside from making squash easier, I was really determined to do arts subjects like painting, print-making, art history and design which weren’t really options in Kaitaia. The teachers at Springs were awesome too. We’d call the teachers by their first names and it felt like more of a peer relationship than a teacher/child relationship. It was the first time I’d been treated as an adult and was a really useful transitional year. I also learnt how to survive in the big city.

In 1999 I turned 19 and I dropped squash. It was an overnight decision. I’d been so committed but I made a clean cut, and once I made the decision that was it. I was on to the next thing, and the next week I’d enrolled in art school at Unitec. I didn’t have huge expectations about what I’d come out the other end of art school with, but when I graduated in 2003, I just knew I wanted to paint, to be creative and make stuff. I also knew I survived on momentum, that I needed to keep painting and grab opportunities rather than wait for things to happen. Although back then art school didn’t have much focus on professional development, it was a bit more fruity than that so after art school, I put myself through a business course, and that’s when everything snowballed.

Nothing relatable to where I am now happened while I was at art school. That didn’t happen until after I picked up a spray can for the first time then, once I started doing street art. when I started cutting stencils and painting with spray, and exhibiting under the name Flox, that’s when opportunities arose and things fell into place.

Flox came from flocks. Flocks of birds. I started painting birds around 2004 and they really connected with people and I rolled with it. New Zealanders have such a love affair with our birds. They’re part of our national identity, so I started blending nature and art nouveau with the arts and crafts movement – which is heavily decorative with lots of layering – and that bled into the aesthetic I’m known for today.

Street art was born out of the graffiti scene and those artists can be staunchly protective of their culture. There was quite a big division back to when “street art” became a thing, and I was lucky to be there riding the wave. Today there are so many crossovers between the different subcultures and because New Zealand is such a small scene, artists mostly have a lot of respect for each other and healthy competition helps us thrive.

I’ve never wanted to be pigeon-holed as a certain type of artist, and whenever there’s been a fork in the road, I’ve taken both forks. I’ve wanted to do it all. I aspired to be a fine artist who had exhibitions in galleries while also doing street art, making T-shirts and limited edition prints. I’ve brought outdoor murals inside. I’ve created artworks for homes, cafes and commercial spaces. My philosophy from the very beginning was to keep all doors open. Over the years I’ve become a bit more careful about what I say yes to, and I’m in a position to say no if something doesn’t align with my values. I’ve also learnt to watch my workload, to balance work and life to protect my mental health. But in the beginning I just said yes to everything.

My work is very labour intensive – stencil cutting is a labour of love – but because I didn’t listen to my body, and sometimes I’d cut for hours and hours at a time, after 15 years of intensive repetitive work, it finally caught up with me. My body seized up and in July 2018 I got really sick. It began with a spiral of daily migraines, and at its worst, I’d be in a neck brace lying on the floor of my office trying to work. Eventually, I was diagnosed with facial myalgia which is like having a migraine in your face. At one point it was suggested I had a brain tumour and I had MRIs and CT scans, although I now know it was nerves, and damage from stencil cutting, so I’ve changed a lot of my processes. I work smarter now, and I make the most of all the amazing new technology.

But the silver lining to that hideous sequence of events, I now work as a duo with Ross (Trustme) Liew, who pitched in and painted for me when I couldn’t. Working with Ross has taken my art to a whole new level. We paint much bigger murals, things I could never do on my own. Our two styles work really well together, and we’ve created a collective new style. I’m pretty good now, but if I’ve had a big week, or done too much cutting, it might creep up and I’ll take it as a signal to take some time off. But it’s actually been an amazing period of growth. Business is booming – because people can’t travel, they’re spending more on their homes – and, even though I’ve had to come to terms with the fact I’m not invincible, I’m a better person for it.

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