Tauranga artist’s life comes full circle

Kelcy Taratoa. Supplied images.

Kelcy Taratoa leans back in his chair in the Te Ara a Mauao building at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology’s Windermere Campus and asks: “Do you want to hear a story?”

It’s the perfect way to start the interview.

It was held the week after Kelcy opened his latest exhibition at the Tauranga Art Gallery - a site-specific work exploring the cultural significance of Tukutuku panels on the 7m high walls in the building’s atrium – and has agreed to talk about becoming a creative, his career as a practitioner and how teaching the next generation is helping his own practices.

Kelcy begins to tell the story and the glass meeting room draws closer, the sound of the air conditioning unit fades, as he draws together the strands in his considered and careful way.

“My father told me this story from his childhood experience.

“When he was little and everyone had gone to bed, he would hear my Koro Hoani, or John, saying karakia (prayer) in the dining room. The dining room and living area were separated by glass doors and he would go to those doors and peep through to watch his dad carve.

“My koro would recite karakia before, during and after. So from a young age, my father understood the art of whakairo (carving) was drawn from another space and created from inspiration that came from another place or realm.

“When my father asked his dad to teach him how to carve, he said: ‘Well stop talking then’. My dad understood from then that some knowledge of the art was passed on through observation.

“Coming back to me, I love my dad’s story because I realised that I was the same. From a little boy my learning about art was done from observation. That connectivity or sensory stimulation and how that connection forms my desire for making.”

And it’s this desire that he is sharing with the next generation of creatives. Kelcy’s day job is as a tutor on the Bachelor of Creative Industries course at Toi Ohomai.

While he says he’s a practitioner first, Kelcy wanted to work for Toi Ohomai because, just like his dad and koro, he likes to share his observations.

He says he is still able to work on his own projects and gets to share the experiences with the students.

“I am really passionate about this programme and enjoy my time with the students. One of the things that attracted me to this programme is it’s relationships with industry.

“My tertiary studies, and this is fairly consistent across most arts degrees, don’t normally have an industry component that connects students directly with industry. However, our students understand what that actually looks like, what industry looks like, what the artist world looks like and who the people are that work in it because they get to experience it.”

Kelcy says the New Zealand creative industries is a very small world, where everyone knows one another. Exhibiting at Tauranga Art Gallery provides students with opportunities to make key connections with industry.

“They say that it’s a small world but the creative industry is even smaller and everyone literally knows everyone so being able to build that community early on is huge”.

“We can only teach so much in terms of process but our students will spend the rest of their lives getting to know their discipline and getting to grips with these skills so they can use these expertly. Making connections in the industry and helping them see how it works is key.

“Our Bachelor of Creative Industries teaching team are an incredibly talented and inspiring group. They’re active within industry and their projects are exciting – which enables them to teach directly from industry contact.”

Kelcy’s own artistic path was helped by tertiary education. When he left school, with only a basic level of reading and writing, he completed a trade in painting and decorating.

He says he had always loved art but he wasn’t sure about what to do after leaving school so thought a trade would keep him in good stead.

But he always knew his soul was craving something more, something creative. He says some of his earliest memories are of him sitting at the table, drawing, and this was where he was the most happiest, the most at peace.

“I remember my dad giving me some pointers on drawing one day when I was about 10 years old. It was about line weight – thick and thin lines and the density of the line. My dad was teaching me about how to use line weight to create images that create the illusion of  3 Dimensionality”.

“These early experiences left me with this desire to be creative that has never left me, and leaving me with a desire to want to make art for the rest of my life.”

But it hasn’t been an easy road for Kelcy. When he was young, he says he quickly realised that he didn’t see the world how everyone else saw it.

“When I was a young boy, standard 3, we had art class in the afternoon. I didn’t complete my work and the next day we picked it up and we had to present our work. When I presented my work the teacher asked me: ‘Why did you make the sky blue and pink?’

“And I was really confused because I couldn’t see what she was taking about. I thought it was all blue. I ended up being tested for a colour deficiency and it turned out I was diagnosed with colour blindness. I don’t see the breadth of colour that most people experience. When I look up at a rainbow in the sky I only see two colours, one light the other is dark. I find it almost impossible to differentiate between violet and blue, yellow and bright green, red and brown. I have however learned to see colour through colour theory. It is with this understanding that I am able to see colour.”

However, true to his resilient nature, Kelcy says he has not let this nuance keep him out of the art world, in fact he has used it as a point of difference that sets him apart from others.

“I didn’t see it as a weakness and I thought this could be interesting and I realised I had to develop a system that enabled me to use colour in painting.”

So Kelcy signed up for a certificate in Art and Design at the Universal College of Learning (UCOL) in Palmerston North and this rejuvenated his love of learning.

That experience spurred him on and he completed Bachelors and Masters Visual Arts degrees at Massey University. He says learning about art was enjoyable and gave him a love for reading that he had been missing for all those years.

He says during this time at university he soaked up the advice of his tutors who helped shaped him as an artist, adding to what he had already learned from his dad and Koro, and it was this experience that he thought about when he was considering joining Toi Ohomai.

Kelcy says he was working at UCOL when he got a call from former Toi Ohomai Creative Group Manager Mary Stewart.

The Bachelor of Creative Industries course had just been set up at Toi Ohomai and Mary, who was integral in its development, was on the hunt for a new tutor who had the practical skills and a strong presence in the industry.

Mary had been given Kelcy’s name by Penny Jackson, former director at the Tauranga Arts Gallery and called him to see if he wanted to come in for a chat about the job.

As a keen surfer, Kelcy had spent some time in Tauranga, and knew he had whakapapa (genealogy) that connected him to Tauranga Moana, so says he was keen to climb Mauao and eat fish and chips at Bobby’s before heading to the chat with Mary.

“I didn’t seriously think I got the job, I just thought we were going through the interview process. I got home and a couple of days later I got a call and they were offering me the job.

“I had to walk really slowly down the hallway to think about how I was going to tell my family. My wife said it was a great opportunity, and I said they want me to start next week. My wife was really open to making the change and so we did.

“It’s been a really good decision coming to Tauranga with my whānau and making connections back to where my Koro grew up on Rangiwaea Island. My family loves it here in Tauranga, and working at Toi Ohomai has been good for me also.

“I don’t actually see myself as an academic, I am a visual arts practitioner, that’s what I do, it is my first love - I wake up every day with creative activity at the forefront of my mind. And so I teach through this industry lens. I enjoy sharing industry insights with my students, as I know these insights will aid them in navigating the visual arts terrain.

“I have shared with the students insights I’ve obtained from my grandfather and my father’s art practices. I have told them that when I visit my dad 9 times out of 10 he is going to be in his shed carving - and when my Koro was alive, I would find him in the shed carving. And so I have learned it is important to be engaged in what you love doing the most.”

The veritable Mary is not one to give compliments easy, but she absolutely gushes when she talks about Kelcy becoming a tutor at Toi Ohomai and the work he has undertaken since joining the institute. She says she doesn’t remember when Kelcy started exactly but he has become an integral part of the creative industries team and his knowledge is invaluable.

“I am not sure when he started because it feels like you have been here forever. You were quite foundational in the growth of the Bachelor of Creative Industries degree.”

“The inspiration is amazing, the passion that you brought for your work and for our students, and our communities - now that is the real gold and it was really obvious.”

“Kelcy’s connections with industry provide an authentic narrative, and this is a significant exchange. He also provides experience as a practicing artist and students have been able to come on the journey with him and he understands the process it takes to develop serious art.”

Mary says Kelcy is already a force to be reckoned with in the creative world and every day he helps to inspire the next generation of artists. She says she believes he is creating a legacy just like his dad and Koro, coming full circle with his story.  

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