National | Whakairo

Te Puia master carver hangs up tools after 55 years

One of Aotearoa’s most revered master whakairo carvers is hanging up his tools after more than 55 years.

Known for his signature durag, unmatched work ethic and attention to detail, James Rickard of the NZ  Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Rotorua’s Te Puia has created hundreds of bespoke pieces that now hold pride of place around the globe.

Among his works is the 8m tall, 6-tonne pou maumahara gifted to the Passchendaele Memorial Park Museum in Zonnebeke, Belgium in 2019 and dozens of iconic pieces throughout the Te Puia institution; a humble Rickard (Tainui-Awhiro, Ngāti Porou) credits the accomplishments with numerous hands involved over the years.

“It’s not about me. As a race, Māori have left our mark around the world. The pou maumahara gifted to the Passchendaele Memorial Museum in Belgium is an example of how, through our art, we have been able to create monuments that represent us as Māori.”

Rickard says finishing the kūwaha gifted to Singapore by the Prime Minister last week, in recognition of the enduring ties between Aotearoa and the city-state allows him to neatly tie up his time at NZMACI.

“I’ve been trying to finish up for the past seven years but there’s just never been a good time because of all the overlapping kaupapa,” Rickards says.

Rickard has been a part of NZMACI’s fabric since enrolling in the first carving school intake in 1967. Having handed down his skills to new generations he says he’s confident about the future.

“NZMACI was established with the purpose of fostering and growing our traditional art to aid in cultural revitalisation.

“I think that has been achieved. NZMACI has had a significant impact on the arts and we can be really proud of that.

“Māori are so clever in the way we adapt to new things; the momentum we have gained will continue as long as we keep adapting to new things, teaching new things.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled a kūwaha sculpture carved by James Rickard at the Gardens by the Bay's Cloud Forest on Apr 19, 2022. Photo / Gardens by the Bay

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled a kūwaha sculpture carved by James Rickard at Singapore's Gardens by the Bay's Cloud Forest on Apr 19, 2022. Photo / Gardens by the Bay

Te Puia NZMACI general manager Eraia Kiel says Rickard will be "sorely missed", having been instrumental in the school’s development.

“The magnitude of Matua’s contribution to NZMACI cannot be understated. There is a piece of him in almost every corner of this globe and he will continue to be an inspiration to us all.”

Te Puia general manager sales and marketing Sean Marsh says Rickard has been one of the enduring faces of NZMACI.

“Matua James has always taken care of everyone around him. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak or where you are in life – people have always been drawn to him and he has the special ability of being able to connect with everyone.

“We should all be aspiring to be like him, not necessarily as a master carver but a person who is always willing to give more than he takes.”

Rickard says he looks forward to heading home and contributing to a number of Iwi projects.

“Now’s the time to go home. They want to build papakainga and a marae on our whānau land, so that’s what I’ll do.”