Traditional carving helps artist overcome drug addiction

By Tamara Poi-Ngawhika

By Tamara Poi-Ngawhika, Te Rito journalism cadet. 

Kaiwhakairo Nick Henry carves ancient swamp kauri to connect to his whakapapa and the traditional art form is helping him turn his life around.

“I take a rakau that's been in the ground for thousands of years and focus on creating a new life out of it. I love creating taonga for people and feeling the awhi and love that they share when I create pieces for them. It uplifts me,” he says.

The Te Rarawa carver was released from prison three years ago, after serving 15 months for drugs and as assault-related offences.

He was taught the skills of whakairo in jail. His time at the rehabilitation centre, Hope House in Ngataki, supported his newfound passion. He says rehabilitation and his dedication to carving are helping him rid his life of drugs and reconnect with his taha Māori.  

‘I never thought I could change’

“I learned a bit from a couple of tutors while I was inside. When I got out, I ended up in rehab in Ngataki and they had a piece of kauri up there that they hadn't finished. So I offered my skills and they let me finish it. It actually helped with my rehabilitation and helped me with my wairua.”

“There's a possibility that people can change,” Henry says. “I've been an addict for 30 years and I never thought I could change. But know, with the right help and support, it's possible.”

Today, Henry is making a name for himself by turning swamp kauri into works of art.

“Over the past six months, I’ve done close 30 to pieces; from small taonga whalebone carvings and whale tooth carvings to larger carvings. I've had a lot of work in 21st keys. I feel like I have a really strong connection with what I'm doing. And it just shows in my mahi.”

Whaikairo has changed Nick in all aspects of his life and it’s made him a better role model for his nine tamariki and five mokopuna.

“When I create my mahi, it creates an income as well,  so it takes care of my whānau. When they're in need now, I'm there for them. In the past I’ve been in prison and away from them and I wasn't there for them to help them in their journey of life.

“In my journey today, I’m loving sobriety and the people around me.”