THE sweet serenade of a woman singing in a foreign tongue coupled with the faint pounding of drums in the distance attract my attention as soon as I walk past the entrance.
The still morning air further accentuates the repetitious melody, heightening my curiosity. Leaving the crowd behind, I trace a narrow snaking path. The music gets significantly louder with my every step.
A few minutes later, a large single-storey building comes into sight. A large signboard at the side announces it as the National Wood Carving School. My heart skips a beat as I’ve always been fascinated by the intricate artwork that feature prominently in traditional Maori structures and objects.
In the bright, spacious interior is a solitary person hunching over a section of a gigantic piece of wood, nearly three times his height. Not wishing to intrude, I stand close to the entrance and observe him from a distance. Judging from his movements, it soon becomes obvious that the man is a wood carver.
The minutes tick and finally the man looks up and gazes in my direction. Then, to my utter delight, he smiles and gestures me to come over. I make short work of the distance, expertly manoeuvring past the wood blocks and half-completed sculptures that lie in my path.
Setting his chisel aside, Clive Fugill takes a break from his labour of love and welcomes me with a warm and firm handshake. It turns out that this 68-year-old New Zealand native is the longest serving employee of this school. Unlike his peers from the first intake in 1967, Fugill remained true to his calling and stayed on.
Referring to himself by the term Tumu whakarae — Maori for master carver — Fugill confides that the life-changing event that steered him towards his illustrious carving career happened when his bushman father brought home some native timber and sent him to the woodshed with a pocket knife.
“I was naturally delighted at that time. I was willing to do anything as long as it did not concern my studies,” Fugill adds, before confiding that he was a slow learner and was never really good at his lessons. “Before that incident, I actually aspired to be a painter or artist as I spent most of my free time drawing.”
His father soon noticed his son’s natural gift and presented him with his first set of carving chisels in 1962. The gift excited the 12-year-old to no end. Fugill began carving traditional Maori weapons guided by reference books from the school library. “I chose to carve instruments of war as they were very ornate and had outstanding artistic value.”
After completing school in 1966, Fugill was faced with a problem when he tried to enrol in the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) which, among others, oversees the running of the National Wood Carving School. Pausing briefly, he stares at me intently in the eye before saying that NZMACI was reserved strictly for the Maori people and he had a difficult time convincing the interviewer as he didn’t look like one.
“My father is of Maori descent while my mother was from Scotland. As a result of mixed parentage, I look very different from other Maoris. Finally the interviewer relented when my father rushed home and returned with an old family photograph showing me posing with my paternal grandparents,” adds Fugill, sharing that he felt very nervous waiting for the result of his application.
“Those were one of the longest days of my life. Although my application was accepted, the fact remained that I was only half Maori and I feared that would greatly diminish my chances.”
Finally, a telegram arrived on Christmas Eve telling Fugill that he had been accepted. “It was the best Christmas present I had ever had. From that moment on, I started believing that the sky is the limit as long as I dared to dream and have the passion to see me through my endeavour.”
On Jan, 15 1967, Fugill joined six successful applicants as NZMACI’s batch of pioneering students. During those early formative years, young Maori carvers were only encouraged to produce souvenirs that were then sold to tourists.
For the past 51 years, Fugill has played an integral part in reforming the syllabus taught in the school as well as helping graduating students gain useful skills to help them in their work. Many of the former students remain indebted to him for passing on what has been taught in the correct form.
Today, apprentice carvers get the opportunity to learn all the different types of carving in all tribal styles in Maori culture before they complete their three-year diploma course. During that duration, Fugill does his best to impart his motto to his students: “In life, no one on the planet knows everything. Life is a continuous learning process. Be inquisitive and never stop learning. Do not worry about the things you know; only worry about those that you don’t.”
NZMACI was so indebted to Fugill’s dedication that a reception was held last year to celebrate his 50 years of service. The surprise luncheon held in his honour came complete with a haka (traditional Maori dance) performed by Fugill’s current and past students.
He was presented with a patu onewa (a traditional stone weapon made from the prized greywacke stone) carved by pou whakairo (lead tutor) from the neighbouring National Stone and Bone Carving School, Stacy Gordine.
It seems that Gordine chose to make the patu onewa as she knew that Fugill didn’t have it in his personal collection. “I began collecting traditional stone weapons when I was nine. It happened when I had the opportunity to view a large private collection during a school trip to Dargaville. I have been captivated and inspired by the beautifully crafted pieces ever since,” recalls Fugill.
Noticing my interest, he invites me to go on a tour of his workshop. While showing me the various carved pieces, which range from decorative panels to life-sized sculptures, Fugill briefs me on the early history of NZMACI.
The original carving school, Te Ao Marama, opened its doors in 1927 on the shores of Lake Rotorua, at Ohinemutu. Founded by Apirana Ngata, then Member of Parliament for Eastern Maori which included Rotorua, the school focused on reviving the waning traditional Maori arts and crafts.
Unfortunately, the school closed just 10 years later, in 1937. It succumbed to the economic recession that hit the country hard. The situation was made worse by the onset of Second World War in Europe. International trade came to a virtual standstill during that period.
Suddenly, Fugill’s narrative is interrupted by the arrival of several young men clad in similar shirts. Introducing them as his students, Fugill proudly asks them to show me their works which are primarily inspired by the great ocean-going waka (canoes) that brought the first Maori people to New Zealand.
Their pieces are intricate and decorative as well as functional. While admiring the elaborately-carved canoe prows and meeting house posts, I discover that the carvings are used to tell stories about great warriors and ancient myths. They are also used by the Maori as a way of recording history.
Looking at the men hard at work, it becomes clear that wood carving is laborious task that requires lots of patience and diligence. Leaving the group behind, Fugill guides me back to his place. There, he completes his tale about the NZMACI.
A NATIONAL INSTITUTE
Thanks to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute Act which was passed in 1963, a new carving school was set up in the Te Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley. Some four years later, the 1967 New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute Amendment Act elevated the local school status to that of a national institute.
His expression brims with satisfaction as Fugill reflects upon NZMACI’s enviable position today. From its humble beginnings as a single carving school, the institute now runs a stable of world renowned Maori cultural centres.
These include Te Wananga Whakairo (National Wood Carving School), Te Rito (National Weaving School), Te Takapu (National Stone and Bone Carving School), and The Foundry (a workshop in bronze casting).
Before leaving, Fugill gives me the opportunity to view several of his prized carving tools. Maori master wood carvers favour tools made from the attractive and durable greenstone. Furthermore, carvers find that these tools give them more control when working on commonly used kauri and totara wood acquired from towering forest trees.
Sensing that I’ve taken too much of his time, I bid the master carver farewell and thank him for his hospitality. I’m certain that the remainder of my trip in New Zealand, especially when I visit the various historical Maori sites, will be even more meaningful, thanks to the knowledge acquired today.
New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute
Te Puia, Hemo Rd PO Box 334, Rotorua 3040, New Zealand.