Egyptian edifices, Maori ancestors inspiration for twists and towers of sculptor's unique urban art

Visit Ihaia Crookes and sparks are likely to be flying.

Be patient, it takes a while for the figure hidden under the Darth Vader mask to spot a hovering visitor and down his welding torch, it's a third arm to him, he's addicted to creating sculptures large and small.

The area outside his Koutu home's overflowing with what one who's well-schooled in these matters calls 'urban art', towering pieces cut from industrial steel.


"I am fascinated by the ancient Egyptians, that's why I make things so big, to me they are like scarabs, the guardians of this place."

Step inside and it's into a darkened Aladdin's Cave of pieces depicting another passion, helix art, fashioned from tubing.

For those left scratching their heads, Our People's not ashamed to admit to no previous knowledge of this art form either; Wikipedia defines it as "a three dimensional smooth space curve".

Ihaia is used to being asked to shed light on the highly personalised helix works he creates by contorting steel tubing. The finished product carries the twists and turns of a corkscrew; from this he fashions whatever his creative mind dictates.

"It [helix] is not a new shape, it's similar to DNA, like a wire rope but that's solid, whereas what I've created is hollow, bendable."

How he achieved this outcome falls into the `strictly classified' category. "Not even the Asians know how to do it."

In 2004 his invention was officially entered into the Register of Trade Marks, since then it's been provisionally patented in his name.

Ihaia presents us with an exercise book crammed with a mind-boggling array of calculations. He may not have been an A-plus student at school "I couldn't wait to get out of there", but he is blessed with a combination of a mathematician's figuring skills and the acute inner eye that makes him an artist who's very much one of a kind.

Ihaia took his figure work to a computer-savvy mate.

"When he pushed the button it drew a helix, I knew I was onto my future."

He's been perfecting the technique since work-related stress got the better of him at the century's turn.

"It reached the stage I'd shake every morning, the doctor said it was time to step back, that is when I clearly saw this [helix tubing] in my head. I began to think I'd flipped, but knew I had to do something with my vision, began to figure out how to make it lighter yet more useful, things like big, twisted columns for buildings to replace flat beams, balustrades, lamp posts, furniture.

"I was investing all my time and money in it, I thought it would take two weeks, it took seven years to get it reasonably perfect."

The first manufacturing machine he "dreamed up" weighed four tonnes, today's version tips the scales at 40kg.

Other artistic outlets drew him, in 2003 he was crowned inaugural winner of Rotorua's Wearable Creations 'n Colour Awards.

The two-piece outfit he designed featured a dress woven from 200m of plastic strapping, for the accompanying cloak Ihaia fusion-welded 500m of black polypropylene strapping; conveniently he was working for a strapping company.

Let's examine the background of this creative 60-year-old.

Born on a remote spot on the East Coast, he grew up on a sheep station at Waihirere, "the land of my ancestors, my mother's people are buried in the hills".

He was 16 when he entered the army, training as a sapper (field engineer); at 20 he moved into a fitting and welding apprentiship at a Palmerston North chemical plant.

"Then I did this tiki-touring around Oz but it was not my place, it belongs to some other people, I belong here [New Zealand]."

In 1989 he was passing through Rotorua when his sister told him a job was going as a maintenance technician at a local strapping company.

"I got the job on the spot, stayed 15 years."

It was at the 10-year mark that the stress kicked in but he stayed on, honing his helix skills outside the workplace.

"I got to the stage I didn't know how to go any further so took my work to the stream at Waihirere to be inspired by my ancestors."

When he was younger and suffering bad headaches it was the place his mother took him to be healed, he swears he's never had a headache since.

"With the helices in my hand I said 'what else can you do for me?' My hands flipped over, the helices fanned out, I froze, nearly threw them on the ground but after that I knew I had to make them into sculptures that I could call art."

Ihaia accepts not all share his helix enthusiasm, that so far his work hasn't reaped him big bucks.

"I went to the American Embassy, they thought I was a crack pot."

He approached a Pennsylvania inventions company. "I had to keep feeding them money, they wanted me to give my secrets away so I stopped."

Last year he turned to his outdoor sculpturing, his initial piece a 4m pillar topped by a cauldron, decorated with koru cut outs.

"This girl I had a relationship with wanted a cauldron so I made it for her, called it the Eternal Flame but then we broke up, it's made out of love and love lost."

A towering piece topped by twin dangling chains marks his mother's death . . . "it signifies the breaking of the whanau link".

His output since has been non-stop but Ihaia has a problem, the house is his sister's, she wants to sell it.

He's hopeful the council may buy a piece or two for the city's sculpture trail.

"I don't want to take credit for being clever, I think somebody else is guiding me, helping me. I can relate to the geniuses who people say are mad, the thing is you can't keep all this creativity in your head or you really would go crazy."

Born: Waipiro Bay, 1956
Education: Ormond School, Ilminster Intermediate, Boys' High (all Gisborne)
Family: Daughter, 26; new partner. "It's a bit of a scandal, she was married to my younger brother, they divorced 14 years ago."
Interests: "Making things, youth's not on my side anymore so I'm trying to make as much as I can before I can't do it any more." Fitness.
On Rotorua's arts scene: "Quite good, but there's nothing really exceptional here."
Personal philosophy: "If you don't do anything you won't get anywhere."