Artist Carin Wilson's hiltop studio

By Claire McCall

A spiritual home is slowly taking shape on a Northland coastal block in the hands of a Maori sculptor and his wife

Artist Carin Wilson's custom-built studio and living spaces at his Langs Beach home, north of Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens
Artist Carin Wilson's custom-built studio and living spaces at his Langs Beach home, north of Auckland. Photo / Babiche Martens

In the warm dark of a Northland late summer evening, the thick air is ruffled by the silent swoop of a morepork - a swift surprise to the ample puriri moths flapping in the light that beams from Carin Wilson's hilltop studio.

"The sea and the call of the ruru are the sounds that define the night here," says Carin.

It's been almost four years since the furniture designer and sculptor moved to this coastal block near Langs Beach with his wife, Jenney. Four years and the living quarters are still an ad-hoc assembly of forms that touch the land lightly.

This makeshift arrangement is of little concern; the Wilsons are patient souls whose plans are slowly unfolding. They see getting grit under their nails as a fringe benefit of the privilege of property ownership.

Says Jenney: "It's my belief that if you so desire, you should be able to build your own shelter. That fundamental right has been eroded by bureaucracy and regulation."

Their platform for this privilege is a north-facing site 400m from the ocean. Across the water, the eye follows the white crescent of the Ruakaka coastline to the Whangarei Heads.

The attraction to this particular 4ha was instant and gut-felt. "We barely got past the drive when we looked knowingly at each other," says Jenney.

For Carin, there's a sense of arrival. It's the end of a journey that shifted up a gear when he elected to use his law school training to support Ngati Awa with their Treaty claim in the early 1990s.

Stepping back into such a personal history opened his eyes to how well Maori society was functioning before the arrival of Europeans. "My people were shifted from Matata to the land of another tribe close to Whakatane."

This dislocation had a terrible impact. "I found a letter my grandmother wrote to the government officials at the time, pleading with them to restore natural justice."

For Carin, the experience translated into a silent yearning for a spiritual home.

"It takes time to know a place, to understand every ridge and the shape of its foliage, to know where to plant or when to catch eels."

Doing much of the work themselves offers this rich engagement. "I'm pretty motivated. Why give the fun to someone else?" asks Carin.

The property, which the couple call Pukeruru (meaning "little knoll" of the "morepork"), is set out rather like a marae. A central grassed area - the "atea" - acts as a natural welcoming point. Its expanse and 360-degree perspective is a magnet for visitors who breathe in the beauty of the regenerating bush and the ocean-lapped horizon.

In this context, the buildings dotted around seem almost incidental. Several are so tucked away they are virtually invisible.

The studio, though, is plain for all to see. It was the first priority. The couple levelled the knoll for this steel-framed, ply-clad structure that houses the mechanics of making a living. A century-old bandsaw from Belgium inhabits the main part of the concrete-floored studio, kept good company by a table saw.

Several hundred wood-working tools neatly line the walls.

A bathroom and roomy kitchen with finger-jointed rimu cabinetry form part of the floor-plan.

Jenney was instrumental in the kitchen's design, which seeks to embrace family who often come to stay. "It needed to accommodate more than one person. I have split sinks, so as not to be crowded, and everything in drawers at a height that even the children can reach."

This "whanau first" approach is what drives the pair. "If you have a beautiful place like this and you don't share it, what's the point?"

The problem of limited sleeping space was solved in a novel way. With great sleuthing ability, Jenney sourced a couple of South African safari tents online. "I love that you're only separated from the elements by a few millimetres of fabric, but they're incredibly comfortable and the grandchildren adore them."

The tents are nestled into the bush on decked platforms softened by oriental rugs; although no herds of majestic wildebeest sweep by, their very nature encourages whimsy and adventure. Beneath the canvas top, a black teardrop chandelier hangs above the queen-sized bed; books and magazines are stacked on the bedside tables. On deck in front of one tent is a Stargazer recliner, a 1989 prototype that Carin made from densified pine. Lying here as the cicadas whirr and the sound of sea meeting sand rises, is a luxury to be cherished.

Not so luxurious, but equally joyful, is the labour-intensive aspect of owning this slice of paradise. Planting natives and a citrus grove, erecting tents, painting and building maintenance are integral to the deal.

Carin's favourite project has been to build a gabion wall. "As soon as I saw that method, I wanted to try it. For me stone is essential on a site. It anchors it."

Hauling 40 tonnes of quarried rocks into the steel-framed baskets and then stacking them on top of each other, a little like Lego for adults, certainly brings more connection to the land. It took Carin six months to complete.

This project could be seen as a folly but harks back to the fortifications of a pa and encloses an arena where worlds of possibility exist.

The gabion wall is on a lower level of the section. Back on higher ground, a pavilion provides protection from the elements. It has no-nonsense concrete-block walls on three sides and doors opening seaward.

Carin was pleased to be able to punctuate the walls with steel-framed windows donated by a friend. He offset them to emphasise their charm.

The insignia for his furniture designs, a casual sofa, originally a drawing by Gideon Keith, has been fashioned from steel wire and affixed to the back wall of the pavilion.

The lure of lounging here of an afternoon has been known to draw Carin away from the gainful work of making and sculpting. "I love to read on the day bed," he admits.

Throughout the property are examples of Carin's creative endeavour. On the deck in front of the pavilion is a six-metre table made from an oak tree that was, of necessity, felled in Pat and Gil Hanly's Mt Eden garden. "They hated the idea that it would just be chopped into strips for firewood so I took along my portable chainsaw and cut it into long slabs for the table."

In the mezzanine of the studio is an example of the chairs that Carin designed specifically for the Wellington Central Library. Its curvaceous back is in laminated kohekohe. The chair is named "Kura Kowhatu" after the proverb of the young novice who was made to sit on a rock and suck on a pebble while the teacher held forth. "When you're sucking a pebble you have to stay awake," laughs Carin.

There's no chance the couple will be caught napping with this particular on-going life lesson. There's far too much to do. In the pipeline is the main house which will be linked to the studio by a gallery where Carin can display his work.

A plan for the distant future is to construct a whare from raupo reeds. "Raupo has air-pockets so it is a natural insulator," Carin explains. "A whare built of raupo whispers to you when the wind blows."

With increased urbanisation, this type of essential engagement with the elements is lost to the human experience. At Unitec, where he teaches, the students explore how traditional Maori building and design techniques can be integrated into a modern context.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to keep on with. At the entrance to his studio, Carin has carved a motto to live by: Toi Te Kupu, Toi Te Mana, Toi Te Whenua. "It's the first time I have felt confident expressing the full meaning of this Maori reference [in my home]," he explains.

In developing this land and encouraging his children and grandchildren to hold on to it, these words are ever more significant. They mean: "The strength and permanence of a people is in its relationship to the language, its mana and the land."


- NZ Herald

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