Taking tea with master carver and sculptor Kerry Strongman is a little like embarking on a magical mystery tour. We might be sitting in a dusty workshop at The Arts Factory in Te Hana, but one is never quite sure where the conversation will take us next.
One minute he’s telling of an epic trek to a remote village deep in the Bolivian mountains, of a cave lined with amethyst crystals that fall to the ground as the villagers sing. The next he’s speaking of a Portuguese galleon that pre-dates Captain Cook and lies buried in the sands of the Kaipara Harbour, near Dargaville.
Kerry’s a man who appreciates a little magic and mystery. His large-scale swamp kauri sculptures incorporate mythological tales and ancient symbols. Three intertwining loops for the trilogy of mind, body and spirit; a double spiral to show that “life goes on, both good and bad.”
Kerry grew up in the King Country, completely unaware of his Maori heritage until the day his Nga Puhi grandfather knocked on the door looking for the four-year-old boy.
“My Mum had no idea my father was Maori. But she just accepted that I should go.”
His grandfather taught him to carve and shared his knowledge of plants and herbs. “He was an old-fashioned tohunga, a medicine man. He recognised gifts in me at a young age. I could see things that others don’t see, and help people heal themselves.”
Many of his sculptures take on a pendant form, and these he calls “Jewellery for Giants”. Standing three to four metres high, these carvings were the subject of a major exhibition in Amsterdam in 2007.
“I believe everyone is a giant, slowly manifesting who they really are through the magnitude of their achievements,” says Kerry. “These sculptures symbolize the huge things done by ordinary people. The mum who raised 10 kids, the old fella who digs the garden because he knows you can’t, the lady who turns up with scones because she ‘made extras’.
“My heroes are not the guys who climb high mountains. They’re the millions of ordinary people doing extraordinary things through everyday acts of unsolicited kindness.”
The 25000 to 40,000-year old kauri logs are salvaged from swamps around the upper North Island and left to age for a few years before “we break the timber out and see what it is going to become”. Many of the carvings take years to complete; most are now exported to private and corporate collections around the world.
His 18-year old godson – “an unbelievable carver” – Alex Webster, guides visitors around the gallery. What’s it like to learn from Kerry? “Learn from him? He’s learning from me,” says Alex, gesturing to his smartphone. “I teach him things of our time.”
As we chat, a young Japanese traveller enters the gallery and gasps at the sight of the enormous amethyst in the entrance. “You’re welcome to touch it,” Kerry calls out. “It loves to be touched.” Then he disappears into the workshop, returning to press a palm-sized gift of amethyst into her hand.
She is just one of a constant stream of visitors who pop their heads around the door to express their thanks as they depart. A few have tears in their eyes, clearly touched by the experience.
Each time, Kerry pauses mid-conversation, as if to acknowledge the giant within.
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