A group of Te Hiku taitamariki (youth) were beaming from ear to ear last week as they revealed the result of a week-long visual art project created in conjunction with one of the country's most esteemed artists.
The "Te Waka o Tūmanako" (the Waka of Hope) street mural on Kaitāia's Melba St was showcased to the public last Friday evening, representing a collaborative effort between Far North youth and Pāpāmoa-based street artist, Graham "Mr G" Hoete.
The Tūmanako project, run by the artist and his wife, Millie, travels around the country to small communities to work with taitamariki to create real-time messages of hope through visual art.
Kaitāia is one of eight small communities to be included in this round of the project.
Last week's event, hosted by Shine On Kaitāia, provided the opportunity for Te Hiku youth to create a mural representing the region's kōrero intertwined with a permanent symbol of hope for the town.
This was the second trip to the Far North for the couple in recent months, who previously attended a two-day wānanga with local kuia and kaumātua, as well as local artists and rangatahi (youth) to workshop the symbols and stories to be included in the final artwork.
"Wherever we go, we always try to weave themes of hope within these visual images within the context of the region we are in," Hoete said.
For the Te Waka o Tūmanako project, strong themes of waka, as well as kōrero regarding the three sacred waves of Nukutawhiti and Ngāpuhi, "Te Ngarunui, Te Ngaruroa, Te Ngarupaewhenua - The great wave, the long wave and the wave that lands upon the shore" were included, as well as silhouettes of the young people who worked on the mural.
Hoete, who grew up in Kawerau, said it was his own journey navigating depression seven years ago, as well as his wife's battles with mental health, that had motivated the pair to help others facing similar issues.
The couple, who also has 25 years of experience as youth workers and youth pastors, said it was the combination of all these elements that had led to the mahi (work) they do today.
"Hope was the only thing that got me through those dark days and if it weren't for that, I wouldn't be here today," Hoete said.
"The representation of this mural shows how the waka goes from the darkness into light and how the people in the boat are helping lift those drowning in the water back to safety.
"I know during my depression I often felt like I was drowning, so hopefully this image will show people there is hope even if they feel like they can't go on."
Hoete is one of Aotearoa New Zealand's most sought after artists and has received international acclaim for his stunning photorealism artwork, making him in demand with celebrities worldwide.
He is also a talented carver and was recently commissioned by Disney and Lucas Films to carve a taonga in Whakairo style for Star Wars actor Temuera Morrison.
A New Zealand Disney representative came across Hoete's Whakairo-style gumboot carving in Auckland and wanted to therefore create something similar for Boba Fett, a bounty hunter in the fictional Star Wars franchise, played by Morrison.
In spite of these amazing achievements, Hoete said it was the projects he and his wife created in collaboration with the country's youth that gave his life the most purpose.
"All that other stuff is cool, but it's being able to connect with the taitamariki and help them see their potential that drives me to do what I do," Hoete said.
"The power of visual arts helps people to express themselves, as sometimes we can't articulate how we feel, so a picture can paint a thousand words.
"The celebrity stuff really is just a vehicle and platform for the other initiatives we love to do and to show our young people that if a kid from Kawerau can do it, they can too."
"We see a lot of young people and the level of creativity in Kaitāia and the Far North is amazing - probably top of the list across the country," Millie said.
Jayden Kelly, 11, was one of the taitamariki who worked with Hoete on the mural and said it had been an exciting experience to work with someone like Mr G.
"I enjoy art, but didn't know anything about Mr G before he came," Kelly said.
"I helped with the roller and spraypainting which was the first time I have tried that, but I'd like to do it again.
"I really enjoyed Mr G teaching us new styles and how to do them, it was a great week."
Kelly's mum, Hinemoa Tipene, is the project lead for Shine On Kaitāia and was instrumental in getting the Tūmanako project to the region.
Tipene said around 30 young people helped work with Hoete throughout the week on the mural and had created a haka to perform for the artist on the day of the reveal.
"This was a vehicle to send a message of hope, an opportunity for unity, to learn new skills, to share the Shine of Kaitāia to the world, to create and build resilience, faith and hope for our youth of Te Hiku," Tipene said.
"I'm really proud of our rangatahi who showed up, the manaaki (the care) they showed Mr G, you could just tell he thought these kids are amazing and was so natural for them all.
"In the youth sector, this was one of those pinnacle goals to get Mr G to Kaitāia and thanks to my colleague Micah who is now based in Ōpōtiki and worked with Mr G there, we were able to get him to Kaitāia."
Tipene explained when Hoete arrived, he walked around town and being a spiritual man, was led by his wairua (spirit) to find the perfect wall.
"Because the first wall was unavailable, we went with the second wall which is here on Melba St, under Te Hiku Media."
This presented its challenges, however, as the wall was made of brick and therefore a removable canvas had to be placed on the wall instead.
Tipene explained the event was the first for Shine On Kaitāia since the start of the pandemic and what she predicted would be the largest of its kind for Kaitāia this year.
In addition to the mural, Shine On Kaitāia also provided a range of other activities at Remembrance Park for the week, including dance workshops with Kanikani Kids Dance and Parties, circus programmes with Circability, sumo suits, face painting, Māori games and kai (food).
"We did this because not all the tamariki could be involved with painting the mural, so we wanted them to be able to at least witness it happening so that as many people could have a connection to the wall as possible."'
Last week's reveal event kicked off at 5pm on Friday, with a blessing from local kaumātua Richard Murray and the presentation of a special korowai to Hoete from local iwi.
The taitamariki also performed their special haka for the couple and ended the evening with musical performances by a number of Shine On Kaitāia youth performers.
Major sponsors for the event were Te Puni Kokiri, He Whānau Marama Trust, Te Hiku Revitalisation Project, Building Safer Communities, Far North REAP, Te Aho Turoa, Te Hiku Covid Response, CAYAD- Te Rarawa.
Special acknowledgement went also to Hone from Stonecraft for preparing the mural wall with JD Kelly, as well as the amazing rangatahi, supporters, local organisations, businesses and volunteers for participating throughout the mural event week to make the event possible.