Spirit Wrestler Gallery (Vancouver, Canada)

Tāne Mahuta • God of the Forest


  • Medium: kauri
  • Size: 24.5 × 10 × 12 inches
  • Reference Code: KC130301

The idea for this work came to me while watching the gymnastics in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I was fascinated at the suppleness of the gymnasts and the ease in which they contorted their bodies as if they were made from some kind of synthetic material. The grace and precision of their routines although just minutes long, could only be achieved with great strength and flexibility which obviously came from years of specialized training and dedication. That in itself was inspiring and so I put pencil to paper and began designing a piece that would somehow capture these traits.

I finalized a design and was eager to see the sketch translate into 3-dimensional form. After working on the piece for sometime, I then for some unknown reason started to lose momentum and enthusiasm. Now I figure that this was mainly due to the wood itself, firstly not being quite the dimensions I needed and also the structure of the grain was inconsistent making it difficult to carve. I set the piece aside to work on something else and endeavored to rework it later when my mind was fresh again.

A few months went by and the piece got pushed further into the corner of the workshop and eventually became out of sight and therefore out of mind. Occasionally the thought of finishing it briefly came to my attention however I always seemed to other things to do, and so it remained half done and sat gathering dust in the corner.

Twelve years later Nigel Reading from the Spirit Wrestler Gallery came and stayed with me at my home in Rotorua and we discussed possible ideas for the Wero exhibition. Nigel spotted the piece in the shed and at that time my family and I were only weeks away from moving to Australia. He said to me “I really like that piece, it’s got good form and real potential. Why don’t you take that with you and finish it so that you have something to work on when you get there” and so that is exactly what I did.

Australia has lots of nasty creatures that will either bite or sting and in some cases can be deadly. The size of some of the insects is quite unbelievable and I found this out one morning walking down my street when I came across a massive grasshopper on the neighbour’s fence. Amazed at its size I stood and studied it for a while and then thought to myself “wow! that looks like my carving and so from that day it’s had the nickname Grasshopper.” The grasshopper encounter actually helped me to visualize the overall look of the piece and inspired the surface patterns and colours I would then use.

When I completed the piece I sat it on the workbench and thought back to the original concept and how the journey it took over all that time had quite literally transformed the sculpture into what was there in front of me. I could see in it an array of references that had inspired or influenced me over the twelve years it took to mature. I could even see how I had resolved and improved certain aspects as I developed as an artist over that period. Such an interesting story and the fact that it described a big chunk of my carving career warranted a special title. Normally the concept and title of an artwork comes to you at the beginning but because this work was unique in that it evolved and transformed over such a long period of time from its original concept I had to think carefully about it.

I finally came up with the title Tāne who in Māori ideology is god of the forest. He is responsible for all trees, birds and insect life that make up Aotearoa’s magnificent wilderness. This I felt was a fitting name that best described the finished form and all it entailed.

—Todd Couper

Todd Couper

Todd Couper


Ngāti Kahungunu

(1974- )

Todd attended Te Aute Boys College in Hawkes Bay from 1987 to 1991 and quickly excelled in art. In 1995, he completed the Diploma of Art, Craft and Māori Design at Waiariki Institute of Technology in Rotorua; he majored in woodcarving/sculpture and graduated with honours. It was during this time that he met Roi Toia, who was teaching there. Roi, impressed with his talent, invited Todd to apprentice with him. They continue to work together, but Todd has forged his own style and direction in carving, with commissioned pieces residing in collections in the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands. He participated in Kiwa: Pacific Connections (2003) in Vancouver, Canada.