Meet the man with commissioned pieces residing in collections all over the globe.

Todd Couper slips on his glasses and skillfully positions the glow of a luminous lamp.

Night time is when most of his work comes to life.

The portable radio croons, and his bare hands work away at a slab of wood in a vice, with slow and careful precision. Each slither of timber surrenders to his knife's delicate graze.

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From a humble Pāpāmoa garage, he is creating world-class contemporary Māori carvings (whakairo), sometimes spending nearly 300 hours on a single piece.

This is work that takes time but - eventually - it will defy time too.

When not being used, the sharp silvery tools he uses to etch and whittle grooves, gouge cuts and chisel corners are put into a pouch or lined up in a row like dental instruments.

He has a large textbook of working drawings, done in pencil, which are the first stage in bringing his ideas or concepts into the "physical dimension".

They are then scanned and enlarged to scale, and transferred onto the wood ready to be carved.

The majority of his carvings have been produced on commission for overseas clients in Canada, the United States and Europe, meaning few pieces stay in New Zealand.

His most expensive carving was commissioned for the Roundabout travelling exhibition. Titled Wakaora, it sold for $60,000.

Night-time is when most of Couper's work comes to life. Whakairo takes time and patience. Photo / John Borren
Night-time is when most of Couper's work comes to life. Whakairo takes time and patience. Photo / John Borren

He also makes incredible works in bronze. An imposing eagle head, twice the size of his own, is one piece he currently has at home.

It took him 287 hours to carve the original out of wood; then a mould was taken and cast at a foundry in Auckland. The eagle is No 8 of 10 in an edition.

He has learned skills born of patience; saying woodcarving is a form of meditation for him.

He's been represented internationally through the Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver for 15 years, becoming good friends with the director, Nigel Reading, and some of the First Nations' (Metis and Inuit) most prominent artists.

His work is revered in Canada as North Americans can relate to it.

He's exhibited at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery numerous times, including with Tauranga's Rex Homan and Rotorua's Lewis Gardiner in 2014, for the Wero exhibition.

His first solo exhibition, Toi Mauri, was held last year at Tauranga Art Gallery.

An American private collector, who owns more than a dozen of Couper's works, flew to New Zealand to support him at the opening. One of the pieces she owns is his Spirit of the Boar totara carving.

"I don't really have a favourite piece, but that was the most personal to me, just because of what it represented," he says, due to its connection to the land and hunting.

The piece is in honour of his hunter-gatherer father, Bill.

"My dad, he just didn't want to let that one go."

It's a humbling accomplishment for the boy from Wairoa, who grew up hunting, fishing, diving and drawing.

For as long as he can remember, he's had a pencil in his hand. He would accompany his nan, Mary Marshall, to Taihoa Marae, where she performed in kapa haka, and he would sit with his neck craned, copying the kowhaiwhai (rafter panels) of the wharekai (dining room) while waiata wafted around him.

At home, he would draw dogs, horses, boars, ducks and stags on repeat. If he couldn't be an artist, he jokes that he would be a "professional hunter".

Today, he is still that smalltown boy, but taking on the world.

When he's not in his garage, decorated with antlers, fishing rods and hunting photos, he's making the 4.5-hour journey back to Wairoa, to head into the bush for a day's hunt, or longer when the stags are roaring.

Couper's 'Spirit of the Boar' totara carving. Photo / Spirit Wrestler Gallery
Couper's 'Spirit of the Boar' totara carving. Photo / Spirit Wrestler Gallery

His lack of pretension is beguiling. He is gracious, and appreciative of publicity as someone who has, until recently, kept a low profile locally. Dressed in a Hunting & Fishing fleece top, track pants and socks and slides, he's down to earth.

After leaving boarding school Te Aute College in Hawke's Bay in 1991, he went on to do the Diploma of Art, Craft and Design Māori at Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua.

Here he learnt about whakairo.

"Once I was introduced to whakairo I knew quickly that this was something I wanted to pursue," he says.

He remembers the first day he arrived at Waiariki Polytechnic as a teenager. He walked through the quiet art blocks, scanning all the hung art. "How am I supposed to do that?" he feared.

Today, he keeps the first carving he ever did, hanging in his garage - it was one of the designs of the poupou (wall panel) for the wharenui (meeting house) at Waiariki Polytechnic.

He put the carving in his exhibition in Tauranga last year, to encourage and reassure rangatahi (youth) you have to start somewhere.

It was in his final year of study when he met the man who was to become his mentor, Roi Toia, who was then the carving tutor at Waiariki.

It took Couper 287 hours to carve the original eagle of wood, and a mould was taken and cast at a foundry in Auckland. Photo / John Borren
It took Couper 287 hours to carve the original eagle of wood, and a mould was taken and cast at a foundry in Auckland. Photo / John Borren

After graduating in 1995, Toia invited Couper to work alongside him in his workshop at his home in Mourea.

They ended up working together for nearly 17 years as fulltime artists, creating their own individual artworks. An emphasis on a flawless finish became their trademark and springboard to an international career.

Carving continues to be Couper's "bread and butter", and, now working alone, he's passion-driven but misses chewing the creative fat with Toia on a daily basis.

He's recently become friends with famed street artist Graham Hoete, otherwise known as Mr G.

The two connected on the social media platform, Instagram, and quickly learned they lived just around the corner from one another in Papamoa. They now catch up for coffee and to stoke each other's creative fires.

"He's inspiring me to push the boundaries because he's that type of guy," Couper says of Hoete.

"He wants to learn some carving patterns that he can add to his work, and, vice versa, he's teaching me things about his practice that I can incorporate into my work as well.

"He's really got me fired up to get some cool and innovative ideas happening."

Couper, 44, was born creative and gets it from both sides of his whānau. His dad is a good drawer and mum, Dianne, is skilled with embroidery, sewing and flower arrangements. Her cousin is renowned Māori artist Sandy Adsett. Couper's nan was a good painter, and his only sibling and brother, Dan, is a talented ceramic artist.

The majority of Couper's art has been produced on commission for overseas clients in Canada, America and Europe. Photo / John Borren
The majority of Couper's art has been produced on commission for overseas clients in Canada, America and Europe. Photo / John Borren

At his single-storey Papamoa home, there isn't a vast amount of his art on display because as soon as he makes something "it's gone".

"If I had kept everything, I wouldn't have enough room for it anyway.

"This is the most I've ever had - these couple of works," he says of the bronze eagle ($16,500), a Tane Mahuta figurine made out of kauri ($27,500) and a print on the wall, titled Manawanui ($1500). All three are holding court in his light-filled lounge.

"They're always for sale, but it's just nice to be able to enjoy them myself, for a little while."

He currently has two carving commissions locally. One is a fantail, and the other New Zealand's native parrot, kākā, for Papamoa East's Tom Lynch, of Foris Eco-Tours.

The kākā is in its beginning stages. Made out of matai; its round head is already silky smooth. You can't help but stroke it like you would a cat.

Once he's finished carving the outside, he'll hollow the inside, creating a refined shell-like piece. It also slows down the process of cracking by removing moisture.

A carving piece will "outlive all of us" if looked after properly and kept out of sunlight.

Another example of Couper's work. This carving, made of kauri, is titled 'Koroua' (wise old man). Photo / Spirit Wrestler Gallery
Another example of Couper's work. This carving, made of kauri, is titled 'Koroua' (wise old man). Photo / Spirit Wrestler Gallery

He works mostly with kauri, tōtara, mātai and black maire. "I've got anyone and everyone on the lookout for me," he says of sourcing native wood.

Surrounded by tapu beliefs and traditional customs, whakaio weaves stories.

"Before the written language, that's how the stories and history were told and retained," he says.

He is a contemporary carver but always mindful and respectful and feels a "sense of duty" to represent the art of whakairo with precision and integrity.

He brings it into a modern forum using both Māori and First Nations carving tools and interpreting things in his own way.

He uses paint, ink and inlays to highlight his woodwork.

For as long as Couper can remember, he’s had a pencil in his hand. Drawing is his first step in translating a concept or idea into a physical dimension. Photo / John Borren
For as long as Couper can remember, he’s had a pencil in his hand. Drawing is his first step in translating a concept or idea into a physical dimension. Photo / John Borren

In 2012, he and wife, Ange (who he met in his late-teens in Wairoa), and their children, Baden, 15, and Callai, 10, moved to Brisbane where he spent 12 months as an artist in residence at Southbank Institute of Technology.

Now back home in New Zealand, he continues to explore the art of the whakairo but being an artist in New Zealand will always carry challenges.

"Most Kiwis, if they've got extra money, they'll buy a new car or a house. They're not going to go spend money on art, and if they do, then what sort of art form do they like? They might not like what I do, so then you're narrowing your market down again.

"That's another reason for going overseas," he says. "The amount of time and effort I put into a carving, I can't just let it go for next to nothing," he says of his 22-year career. "It's hard for people to understand that."

If he's explaining to someone that a piece took 200 hours to complete, he'll use the analogy of watching Coronation Street 200 times in a row.

"As carvers, we have got to stand behind our work and the quality that it is."

He is somewhat dictated by the market, creating pieces he knows are going to sell and steering clear of anything too confrontational or political, especially for overseas.

"They sometimes don't see the beauty in a strong warrior mask, or they just flat out don't understand the work."

It's for this reason he focuses a lot on birds, animals and sea creatures as they're universal forms.

The last piece he did was the Butterfly Orcastra, a red admiral butterfly, mixed with a killer whale, which is prominent in First Nations culture. It sold in Canada for $14,000 within six days.

To get in eight hours of solid carving, he works mostly at night. He takes his youngest to school, helps her with her pamphlet run after school, and cooks the dinner. Wife Ange works in downtown Tauranga.

He doesn't mind working when everyone else's lights go out.

What's left behind when art sells are just records in the form of photographs. He never does the same thing twice, unless it's a bronze edition.

If someone wants the same piece, he responds: "'I'll do you one better". And that's being honest too. As an artist, you're always wanting to do better, and challenge yourself both practically and conceptually.

His wish is to inspire young creative minds to believe in their artistic abilities, and follow their passion just as he has.

"I hope to continue my journey as an artist for as long as my body and mind will let me."


# Want to see more? Go to: www.toddcouper.com