Preparing the needle and the inks.
Today is the day for the final major design: the ngahere, the bush, the rain forest that blankets the West Coast where we roamed as children, and drips on the mists of Maungapōhatu. John has designed something typically Pule, with stylised trees that could be human – or other – beings. This is where his inimitable genius is at play and it will be Christine’s greatest challenge, so intricate and yet so bold. I have decided to try some colours that will reflect both the natural world and the human culture: dark greens for the bush, and blues and yellow for the Ngahere rugby league colours of my childhood. They will reflect on the red and black of the Blackball bridge, a memory of the emotional local derby that took place every time we played each other, whatever the grade: peanuts to seniors. It also recalls to me that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the two teams were forced to combine because of falling numbers of players, and so the name Waro-Rakau came sweetly into being: Coal and Timber, the twin life bloods of those tough communities.
Blackball 7th Grade 1960, South Island champions. I’m 3rd from the left, middle row, between Kevin Williams and Ken Meadowcroft.
So Christine prepares for the work and we discuss the colour choices; she is happy to use colours as most of her clients want black, black, black. We begin as usual, just after 1pm, with karakia and then the serenade by Whirimako Black, easing us back up to Maungapōhatu and another stretch of the bush we both know. First comes the outline of the pattern, made to guide the finer pen line that the needle will follow.
The outline: getting the proportions right to encircle the arm, before the final line to be followed is drawn.
The big needle bites and I close my eyes for the cutting of the outline she has drawn for it to follow. This time, from the start, it seems a little harder to bear – not because the pain is so much greater; rather, I am just tired. Not tired from lack of sleep (the last two nights I have slept long, deep, unbroken slumbers), but from the accumulated work of having my body ploughed by needles, I think. Last week’s heavenly bodies are still healing, and there remains some angry colour around the topmost stars. I let Whirimako wash over me as the journey begins again.
Ko te pūtake: the base root of the forest ink.
I realise that this will be a challenge, so settle myself physically and mentally to run with what is happening, to stay in the moment and be still. For a long time it seems, we are both silent, the chatter of the machine filling the space with its own reo, its language of art and injury. Along the way, Christine tells me that she is very pleased with my demeanour – “you are doing so well” – compared to some who come and wriggle around, making her work difficult. “They’re not ready, they shouldn’t be here”. All this is strangely comforting; I tell her that many years of manual work have taught me somehow to bear difficulty and keep going, as when I was a shearer and plagued with back pains that in one instance rendered me unable to stand back upright.You couldn’t walk off the board or stop: too much pride, too much stubborn refusal to be seen as a quitter. But who knows what our threshold for pain is – until we reach it?
In the master’s hands.
I’m constantly reminded in this process that I am in my body, this amazing creation that I take for granted, working ceaselessly for me with little recognition and few if any thanks. How often do I thank my knees that they are still folding and unfolding as hinges in my legs, even now enabling me to sit down and stand up without a second thought? I can feel my left knee now, however, with its torn ligaments, about to go under the surgeon’s knife in a week’s time. So there will be no return session here next week; a fortnight to finish off.
The pattern outlined, ready for the colour brush.
It takes us about two hours to get this far, and now, the greens and blues and the yellows are prepared. I wonder how far I can go today, resolving to take it slowly and see what happens. The light outside is slowly weakening, as Christine alters the angle of the lamp and goes to work on the trunks of the trees. It is a very different feeling to the single needle that traces the outlines of the pattern. I know I am in the forest now. All sorts of images flit and tease as I hear the reo over and over, somehow drugging the pain, stilling the nerves that have almost had enough: “Tamakaimoana” Ngāti Huri”, Whirimako sings, reciting the hapū, the clan names of the Tūhoe rohe pōtae.
Te Ngahere Pule: John’s forest rendered by Christine.
As I begin to fade, the thought comes to me that this experience is the art itself; that this process, not just the finished product, is art as a verb, not a noun. When somebody says of a painting or a poem, “what does it mean?”, that is a different question from, “What was the making of it?”. There is the art of experience and the art of the result of experience; I think we sometimes place so much emphasis on the latter that we lose all consciousness of the former. To understand creativity (and not just its products), we need to see ourselves as creators, as children of the moment – which if taken now, is an eternal moment, endlessly repeating. Simply because our time inside Time itself comes to an end, does not mean we have lost that divine image William Blake knew so richly. I try and get some of this across to Christine, as the last of the blues and greens are applied. She gets it.
The arm so far, yellow to come.
But now, I realise my humanity is insisting I pause for a rest, so suggest to Christine that we stop here for the day, after three long hours of hard work and concentration. She agrees – she is tired too. When I return, we will finish the ngahere, adding the yellow to the blue and touching up a few places on the right arm. It’s time to karakia and say haere rā to Whirimako, “he korokoro tui”. What an impressive and affecting ballad and jazz singer she is; reminding me that the sweetness and the power of te reo Māori survived only through sheer stubborness and courage. The government, until the 1970s, did everything its power to let it die – that is, they did nothing to support Māori and the rest of us in becoming bilingual.
So, we go for scones, a cuppa, and chats with the tamariki, before I head for home exhausted, to an early night. My arm is certainly stinging, it knows a forest has been planted here today – one no government can ever sell to foreigners.
The next day, John Madden’s Blackball bridge in the background.