Upholding the mana: the beautiful mahi of the Maitapapa carver

Adrian Woodhouse, the Maitapapa Carver, began carving at 13 years old and came back to it later in life. A chef and an educator, he studied both a Masters and Doctorate of Professional Practice at Otago Polytechnic, where he is now Head of Programmes for the Food Design Institute. His carvings reveal his deep connection with his materials as well as his turangawaewae.


Where does the name Maitapapa carver come from?
Maitapapa is the traditional name for Henley which is located just south of Dunedin. I whakapapa to Maitapapa, so it is a very important place to me and my whānau. Traditionally, it was a place of significant mahinga kai gathering for southern Māori, with the wetland system a means to provide Māori with all the resources and kai needed to sustain themselves. Due to the acts of the earlier settlers, it is no longer a Māori settlement. Hence, I refer to myself as the Maitapapa carver as a means uphold the mana of my tūpuna.

What is your primary medium?
My primary material source for carving is bone; however, I have explored a few other mediums over the years, but I always find myself coming back to bone.

How did you get into your craft?
I commenced my bone carving studies at Otago Polytechnic in 1990 when I was thirteen years old, where I trained under the tutorship of Chris Chateris. Chris was my first creative teacher and the one who encouraged me to find the story in the material. As Chris proclaims within his own creative process:

“A primary source for my creativity comes from the love for the materials I use. I have a deep connection with them. When there is a relationship, nature reveals her secrets and you are able to develop an understanding of things you otherwise might not be open to. When it comes to my work there is no single meaning I can identify; the forms and patterns I use can and do have multiple layers. Then it is the viewer’s journey and their navigation.”


Chris is a beautiful person, and he also makes beautiful things in the form of sculpture. I had the pleasure of studying under Chris for three years where I learned to balance the technical elements of the craft with the process of telling stories through the medium. The most important thing I learned from Chris was to uphold the mana of the medium as well as the mana of the person receiving the carving.

In the intervening 28 years since I learnt to carve, I did not pick up my tools because of my professional life as a chef and educator. Last year, I completed my doctorate degree and as a koha to my supervisors, I picked up my carving tools again and made each of them a carving. I immediately felt reconnected with carving again and have since set up a studio in my garage where I do my work.
Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I don’t have any formal qualifications; however I worked as a chef for most of my professional life and the creative aspect of being a chef (especially the aesthetic and storytelling element) is actually the same skill that you need to be a carver. This means that even though I spent almost 25 years away from carving I was still developing my carving skills, it just happened to be through another medium.
Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
When it comes to materials, I really enjoy working with old bone which has been weathered. While most people like pearly white bone carvings, the nuanced colouring and textures of weathered bone provide inspiration for me as a carver. When I get the chance, whale bone is my most favourite medium to work with; however, I never sell whale bone as it is taonga for Māori.

Because most of my carvings are bespoke, I spend endless hours drawing sketches of potential designs as I attempt to find “flow” in the carving. When people look at a carving and say “wow, that looks amazing”, it’s because of the time spent with the pencil on paper figuring out the designs flow. In fact, I spend as much time designing the carving as I would making the carving. This means that many of my carvings are about 20 hours work from start to finish.



Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
The bit of the process that nobody ever sees or appreciates is the cleaning and boiling of bones. I usually have a small stockpile of prepared bones which I leave outside to naturally whiten in the sun and rain. It’s a messy job, and something that I don’t really enjoy doing!
What inspires you?
Without question, inspiration comes from the person or place that I am carving for. As a Kāi Tahu carver, I am drawn to my turangawaewae as inspiration. This is why many of my recent pieces have focused on awa (rivers) and have been inspired by the metaphorical nature of moving water and its relationship to cleansing, health and growth.


Is there a philosophy behind your work?
In a way I guess there is, because I never chose to be a carver. Rather, I feel I have been chosen to do this mahi to enrich the lives of others. Every time somebody receives one of my pieces it makes me incredibly happy knowing that the piece has the potential to be within a whānau for many generations. In that respect, my philosophy is situated within an acceptance that we have the ability to make beautiful and meaningful carvings which carry mana of many generations.
Describe your creative process:
Stop, listen, and look at the world around you. From this perspective you can draw upon a conceptual inspiration which then becomes a series of visualisations on the page. From there, it becomes a visioning exercise whereby you try to “see” the carving in its finished form as you draw it on paper. I normally transfer a template of the sketch onto the bone and then start to roughly shape it out. Because bone isn’t always flat, the curves in the bone provide an interesting factor on the final shape of the carving. Often the design will change in the carving process because the design needs to flow with the bone’s contours. Hence, every carving becomes unique as it interacts with the differing bone shape.


Describe your workspace:
It’s a combination of disciplined organisation and total chaos. My workstation usually represents a reflection of the work I am undertaking at the time. For instance, when I am working with whale bone, it is a precious and challenging material, so my workstation is highly organised as I work through the medium carefully. However, if I am working on a new technique or approach with bovine bone, it might be more chaotic as I am reaching for various tools as I explore different techniques quickly.
Five words that describe your mind: Organised, chaotic, divergent, convergent… inquisitive.
Your favourite feedback from a customer: Tears rolling down their face… need I say any more!
What are you currently listening to?
Sleaford Mods and The Idles, both bands speak about the social injustices and inequalities that exist in society. Deep down, I’m a bit of a punk.
What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
Alison Holst cookery books! I’m a chef by trade so I read a lot of cookery books in my youth.

What are you reading now?
I’m not much of a reader these days with the exception of the odd journal article here and there. In my down time I like to carve and brew the occasional craft beer.
Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
The people of Aotearoa and their response to Covid 19. There were a few grumpy ones out there, however all things considered we are a pretty remarkable bunch of people.


A favourite quote:
Remember to remember… It’s a quote from Tā Tipene O’Regan. How often do we forget to remember the learnings from the past.
Tell us about your pets:
I have a fat tubby cat and I envy her life. I mean, the diet of biscuits sucks but the sleeping all day thing certainly appeals to me.
If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?
Fix It Man… I repair as many carvings as I do making them from scratch. Everyone seems to have a worn out cord or missing paua shell that needs to be repaired. I love restoring someone’s treasured family piece.

What would your advice be for those starting out as makers, or in a crafty business?
My advice is that craft takes time to master, and as such, you really can’t fast track the learning process. Every time to come to your work, have an open mind because there is always something new to learn. Finally, sharing your work with your friends and family will be more rewarding than any financial gain.

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
I am a true believer in supporting small owner operator businesses. The money stays in your local community which results in a healthy community. We only need to look at the empty shops in the small towns and New Zealand to realise the impact that the big box stores have on our community make up. I realise that money is often tight for many people, but if you can, try to support local in any way possible.

What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
It’s a super exciting but I often find it really hard to let go of my work!
What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
My wife just brought me a Tim Steel pounamu carving. Tim is Kāi Tahu and that was important to me. He makes the most beautiful pieces and I know his carving will be in my whānau for many years to come. Being a carver, it was important to have a pounamu piece that displayed excellent craftmanship.
What’s in store for the rest of 2022?
Once I acclimatise to the southerly blasts of winter, I’ll head back out into the garage to carve. For now, though, I am staying wrapped up warm by the fire!


See more of Adrian’s lyrical work in his Felt shop, here »


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