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Carving treasures from prison

A prisoner demonstrates his carving skills on a pātū, following the pencil-drawn lines
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A Māori carving project at Rimutaka Prison in Upper Hutt is connecting prisoners with their heritage, while helping the community outside.

Largely overseen by one of the prisoners, the programme seeks to give carved messages of encouragement and inspiration through its free work, much of which adorns public buildings in the wider community, including schools and community organisations.

Up to 45 men at a time are working on various carvings. The prisoner who oversees the project says the finished work is good for the men’s self-esteem, even if their work is anonymous, and also for learning about Māori heritage they may have.

Belmont School in Lower Hutt is a recent recipient of a carving made at the prison. The symbolism of the contemporary design for the school waharoa (gateway) combines history and local geographical features with the importance of knowledge.

Principal Robin Thomson with students, from left, Rachel and Brooke Puki; Rico and Lachie Amner with Te Kōtuku, the school’s new carved gateway. The tōtara (signifying strength) for the carving came from Lachie and Rico’s family farm in Taihape

Requests for carvings from the community come in and the group looks to see what they can do, says Murray Todd, residential manager at the prison.

 A 50 year legacy

The prison has a proud history of prisoners being taught to carve, going back 50 years. The late Jock McEwen, a master carver, started teaching in the 1960s.

Prisoners (when the prison was named Wī Tako) attended his carving classes, held at the former Petone Technical Institute (now WelTec).

Jock’s daughter-in-law Mary McEwen wrote his biography, Te Oka – Pākehā Kaumātua. She writes that his aim was to instil a personal sense of self-worth in each man and his Māori heritage, and for them to learn about their whakapapa and culture.

Over the years, Jock’s classes also included technical institute carpentry students, prison officers and former prisoners, and they created most of the public carvings in the greater Wellington region.

The largest are the two pou inside the Michael Fowler Centre. Prisoners did most of the carving.

Other projects were at Pipitea Marae and Government House in Wellington; marae in Porirua and Upper Hutt; and many central and local government buildings in the Hutt Valley.

The next generation 

In the late 1990s one of Jock’s former pupils took over teaching carving at the prison.

In 1996 Jock’s carving mantle was handed over to Dave Te Hira (Te Rarawa/Ngāti Ranginui), who worked another 13 years mostly in the Māori focus unit at Te Whare Whakaahuru (Rimutaka Prison).

Dave’s focus was using Māori culture to encourage, challenge and hopefully
bring about positive change in the men.

Community carving projects give the men an opportunity to learn a new skill, and discover more about themselves and others.

Residential manager Murray Todd and Te Omanga Hospice chief executive Biddy Harford, with the carving done for them at the prison. Photo: Corrections

Today, carvings are created in several units for a wide audience including community organisations, schools, as special projects, and for notable guests. Some of the men’s work is travelling around the world in the form of bone-carving pendants.

Carvings by the current group include one for Te Omanga Hospice, depicting the traditional path of departed spirits as they leave the earthly realm.

This year the group made a carving for the new Te Awakairangi Birthing Centre in Lower Hutt.

In 2013 Upper Hutt Library received a carving from the prison to take pride of place in its foyer.

A year later Newlands College was gifted a two-metre carving to go above the entrance to its whare.

Belmont School’s contemporary gateway

Last year the group carved a waharoa (gateway) for Belmont School in Lower Hutt. That one is a contemporary design, based on the carvings of Te Atiawa, the tangata whenua. The principal carver hopes the group’s work everywhere will inspire young people to take up carving – he started carving at school, and continued at college.

Belmont School principal Robin Thomson says there was always a plan for a carved waharoa when new fencing and gates were erected. The school didn’t want it to be a token gesture, but a genuine representation of everyone to show they are valued for who they are.

The lead carver works on the Belmont School carving. Photo: Corrections

Belmont School traditionally served families in the nearby Western Hills, but these days also draws students from across the Hutt River. The result is a much more ethnically diverse school community.

The process to design the waharoa began about five years ago with a discussion on what it meant to be at Belmont School. The person who was to carve it moved away, and a replacement carver was found.

Te Kōtuku – The White Heron

The Belmont carving is named Te Kōtuku, representing the school’s white heron icon, a symbol of pure wisdom in Māori tradition. The amo (upright) to the left represents Te Awa Kairangi (Hutt River), and the amo to the right represents the path that ran across the mountain ridge called TukuTuku.

The maihi (cross brace) represents the white heron, and the raparapa (gable ends) represent wingtips. Traditionally these would be fingers as waharoa are usually carved for an ancestor. However, the site of the school was beneath the waters of the river until the land was uplifted in the 1855 earthquake. So the carver chose to make the waharoa a manu (bird) rather than a person.

The carving design on the face represents the puhoro, symbolic of wind and water currents, to show the kōtuku soaring high.

The ngutukākā represents the kākā beak, symbol of intelligence and curiosity. The carver has linked the design to form Te Puawaitangi, which captures the essence of aspiration and co-operation.

The carver lashed the green ropes to represent pounamu. This is because children and knowledge are the greatest treasure, just as pounamu is a great treasure.

We think he’s captured it pretty well,” Robin says.

“It’s given our school and its community a taonga that is very, very special. It’s a tangible representation of all we believe.”

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