It’s the first time I’ve ventured up the gravel driveway to Toi Hauāuru Studio – I’ve driven past the flags on the Main Rd between Lorenzen Bay and Greenslade Roads countless times and thought I must visit sometime.
I’m glad I finally made the effort, local artist Simon Te Wheoro’s workplace embodies toi Māori o Whaingaora (Māori art of Whaingaroa), and is a must for locals and visitors to get a feel for art that is steeped in the history of this place.
Simon can whakapapa to Ngāti Māhanga (whose ancestral lands extended from Raglan Harbour to the West Bank of the Waikato River), Ngāti Te Weehi (principle iwi of the Aotea Harbour) and Ngāti Tamainupō (from Waingaro) on his father’s side and Te Aupouri on his mother’s side.
“I get most of my inspiration from these genealogical links,” he says.
Working in paint, stone, wood and ink, Simon weaves references to Whaingaroa in his artworks and everywhere you turn there’s something on the go at Toi Hauāuru.
Mostly, his stone sculptures have been carved in Oamaru and Hinuera, but Simon recently got his hands on some Takaka stone from a demolished parliament building and he’s enjoying the challenge of working in the harder stone.
It was a sculpture carved from the Takaka marble that was chosen by Te Papa Store buyer Tania Tupu during the 2019 Raglan Arts Weekend.
Titled Kotiate (club blade), the piece will head to Wellington to be exhibited around October November this year with a couple of Takaka carvings he is working on currently.
“It’s always a satisfying feeling knowing that what you create is admired by the public and having sculpted Takaka marble which will be returning to where it once stood is amazing and a great opportunity to showcase my Māori creativity. Being of Ngāti Māhanga, Whaingaroa, Raglan descent makes me feel a sense of pride knowing my work is being created in the shadows of Karioi maunga and is going to Wellington.”
When he works on a bespoke sculpture, Simon will incorporate the stories of his ancestors with the stories of the person who is commissioning the piece.
“I acknowledge and pay homage to my whakapapa, to the region, the iwi and the hapu. When someone purchases an expensive work, they are acknowledging where you grew up and where you’re from and they are acknowledging you.”
Simon often works collaboratively with other local carvers and worked alongside Iti Stafford, Kawharu Greensill and Kelvin Le Lievre on the soon to be unveiled Rangitahi bridge sculptures that acknowledge the four spiritual guardians of the area.
Born and bred in Whaingaroa, Simon attended Te Rōpū Aroha Ki Te Reo at Raglan Area School before heading to Te Wharekura o Rakaumanga in Huntly for his bursary years. He was encouraged by a teacher at Rakaumanga to apply to Māori Visual Arts school Toihoukura in Gisborne.
It was here that he learned all aspects of toi Māori including tā moko (tattoo) and sculpture under noted kirituhi (artists) Derek Lardelli, Patrick Takoko and Simon Lardelli.
He was meant to be finishing a tā moko when I make a time to interview him, but they postponed and, on a whim, I decided to take their place.
This isn’t my first tattoo but the experience is like no other I’ve had before. From emailing Simon a brief, to seeing how he had interpreted my idea into a design of significance and beauty – this was no chose a tattoo from a book experience.
Simon takes his craft seriously; he shares the significance of the motifs, relates it to stories of the area and begins every tā moko with a karakia to acknowledge the elements and origins of tā moko and bless the journey of both the practitioner and the wearer.
Plenty of tourists rock up with designs they’ve poached from social media and Simon will turn down the job if it doesn’t feel right.
Protecting Māori intellectual property is important; Simon can create beautiful tā moko designs with toi Māori elements but he won’t copy the designs that are of significance to particular tribes and other cultural identities.
Passing on his knowledge to burgeoning young artists from the area has become another aspect of Simon’s kaupapa (values) as he guides them on their toi Māori journey.
“I remember what it was like starting up. You go from being in an art school creative bubble to being isolated in your own space.”
Simon says the support he receives from his mother Kerry Te Wheoro and partner Jamie Haenga holding the gallery fort while he gets on with creating continues to be invaluable as he forges ahead with his art journey.
And he credits father Andre Te Wheoro, a tailor who started up his own clothing factories in Melbourne and Raglan, for his creativity and work ethic.
“He was hardworking and as kids we helped out in the factory (Tui Clothing at Kokiri).”
Toi Hauāuru used to be a home kill back in the day and Simon knew a gallery on the main road into Raglan was an ideal location for his studio.
“It was closed for some time and I saw the opportunity and potential here.”
These days as you head up the drive you might see Simon in action on some of his larger stone sculpture being carved under a gazebo.
Step into the gallery space to view his paintings, sculptures, carvings, uniquely customised t-shirts, stickers and accessories, plus weaving from other local artists.
Out the back of the studio is a covered area for wood carving and at the back of the property is the tā moko (tattoo) room.
It’s worth making the time to immerse yourself in Toi Hauāuru, you won’t be disappointed. Just check for the flags next time you’re driving past.
Toi Hauāuru Studio, 4338 Main Rd, Raglan, is open Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm – email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.