Introduction

My life-changing journey into the world of bone carving and Māori art began in 1977 when I purchased a bone carving for my wife Julia. At that time it was a very unusual medium to see for sale and I was intrigued by what I saw as its stylised sea horse design (see below). These mysterious creatures have retained a sense of magic for me since, as a young boy, I first found one wriggling against my toes after hauling some floating seaweed into the family dinghy at Colac Bay on the edge of Foveaux Strait. For some reason the medium of bone also fascinated me, so I decided I would like to make similar things, and began looking for material and tools to try and do so. Although I had no art training, since science and maths were the subjects that interested me at school, I had always enjoyed making things like children’s toys and small bits of furniture in my shed. Many years earlier, while a teacher in Riverton, I had also worked in my spare time with Mac McCabe of Fiordland Souvenirs, collecting pāua shell and preparing it for his skilled team to create jewellery. Pāua and its colourful opalescence greatly appealed to me, and for a while I took a break from teaching to work with Mac. I learned the basic skills of carving with machine tools from Mac, and absorbed his interest in abstract design. So when I found a piece of bone on Nelson’s Boulder Bank while on holiday, I began carving. I had no aspirations other than doing something for the fun of it, though looking at my first attempts makes me wonder why I persisted. Thankfully Julia and others encouraged me, so I persevered, and after a few years attempted my own version of a sea horse based on that first purchase (below).

 
 Bone carving of a stylised sea horse (carver unknown

Bone carving of a stylised sea horse (carver unknown

 An early sea horse carving of mine

An early sea horse carving of mine

 

Around the same time I became involved with the Māori community in Wainuiomata, and received such warm support and guidance from them that a developing love for Māori art surreptitiously dictated the direction in which my own carving would go. I gratefully acknowledge that my journey into the Māori world has been possible because of the positive attitude created by my mother. I had heard the word ‘Māori’ used in a derogatory manner towards my friend when I was just seven years old and asked her what it meant. Although my parents had little contact with Māori, the experiences they did have were enriching and her positive explanation meant that I was eager to find out more. Once I began carving I wanted to know more about it. Research from books and in museums opened my eyes and my mind to the richness of the bonecarving tradition that exists in Aotearoa. The pared-down stylisations of the oldest carvings, attributed to the moa hunter period, are classical models which have had a significant influence on my work. The whale-tooth carving below from the Otago Museum in Dunedin has been exquisitely photographed by Scott Reeves for the book Kāi Tahu Taoka and reproduced here. The carving has suffered much damage over the centuries, but the power of the face remains potent and awe-inspiring.

 An ancient whale-tooth carving from the Otago Museum

An ancient whale-tooth carving from the Otago Museum

When I look at some of the intricately carved pieces from the past, I marvel at the skill and perseverance of their creators who had only the most basic of tools. Some of the few surviving bone artefacts suggest a similarity in style between bone and wood carving traditions. This opens another door into the great wealth of Māori art, which offers a carver a lifetime of inspirational motivation. As I researched these subjects, I discovered that there were also traditions of crafting treasures from bone in other parts of the world stretching back tens of thousands of years. My exploration of those traditions and their influence on my work is covered in Chapter 6. A valued experience has been the opportunity to view the extensive Māori collection of Te Papa Tongarewa and see a large number of skilfully crafted treasures, which, like the wahaika below, have a presence that extends beyond their form. The support I have received from those museum staff who are the kaitiaki of these treasures and are proud to talk about them has also been of great benefit. However it has been meeting with Māori artists and storytellers, who have shared their knowledge and encouraged my work, which has given life and meaning to my ambition. They have brought me into a world that has been beside me all through my life, yet I had little knowledge of it, and even less understanding. The first art works I saw by Cliff Whiting of Te Whānau a Apanui inspired me, and the more I got to know him and realised the depth of meanings his works embody, the more my respect and admiration grew. Through his patient guidance, and that of many other Māori artists who befriended me, I discovered that carvings have unseen attributes through the stories they tell, the ideas they embody and the circumstances of their creation.

 A wahaika from the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa

A wahaika from the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa

Over the past three and a half decades I have been entrusted with a wealth of information that my informants wished me to share with a wider audience because it would help give a greater understanding of Māori culture and an appreciation of why it is indeed a treasure. I am very fortunate to enjoy support from Sir Tīpene O’Regan and many other respected Māori leaders and artists, to whom I owe an unpayable debt for the trust they have put in me, the respect they have shown me and the guidance that they have patiently and freely given me. There is also a lot of information with which I have been entrusted that is not my place to make public, and I have made every effort to respect those confidences. Taonga are given personal names, which are normally reserved by their owners for a fitting occasion, so I have included them in this narrative only where appropriate. This book is a multi-faceted, illustrated account of my journey into the world of bone carving. Because I have had no formal training in art I have had no expectations or goals other than enjoying what I tried to do. Neither did I have any knowledge of Māori culture even though I lived alongside it for most of my life. This has put me in the wonderful situation where everything I learn and all that happens to me become moments of magic. I have found that my art has built bridges that have facilitated my journey between cultures, and hope that this book will give a glimpse into the treasures on either side of those bridges. A great number of people have given me help along the way, and where I have been able to weave their names into the story I have done so. But they are just a few of those whose unstinting assistance and loving encouragement have made this journey one worth sharing. Included in the book are carvings of interest from a variety of sources, but unless otherwise indicated the pieces depicted are pictures I have taken of my own work over the past 30 years. It is my hope that this glimpse of bone art will also help to give an insight into wider Māori culture, for as I have discovered, a traditional culture is defined by its philosophy: that philosophy is expressed as stories in its mythology, which is represented in a visual form through its art.

Clea Pettit