Cliff carvings inspired 'art genius'

00:23, Feb 18 2013
Jono Randell
ROCK OF AGES: Jono Randell in front of his gateway carving at Kelburn Primary School.

Jonathan (Jono) Peter Randell: b Pahiatua, July 31, 1952; m Vicki Lewis, 2s (diss); p Ana Apatu ; d January 27, 2013, aged 60.

Sculptor and carver Jono Randell was part of a small team of volunteers who cut, chiselled and carved solid rock to create large, stylised Maori figures, on a cliff face on Lake Taupo.

Thousands of tourists each year take a 20-minute boat journey from Taupo harbour to Mine (or Okuta) Bay to visit the carvings - known locally as the Maori Rock Carvings.

The carvings are promoted by tourist operators as a "must-see" when visiting Taupo, with some going so far as to misleadingly refer to them as "ancient Maori" carvings.

In spite of the attention the carvings receive, little mention is made of Jono, and his cousin, Greg Matahi Brightwell, the project leader, who worked over two summers from 1978-80.

They gathered a team around them - sometimes coercing strangers to lend a hand, Jono's uncle, Huia Randell, said.


The pair secured a small QE2 Arts Trust grant to pay for equipment, but their labour was unpaid and they survived on the generosity of family.

The project was criticised from the outset by locals and hapu.

A Taupo councillor complained "outsiders should not be cutting into our rock". He later came to like the artwork.

The tide turned after Ngati Tuwharetoa paramount chief Sir Hepi te Heuheu lent his support.

Jono, while not Taupo born, was of Ngati Tuwharetoa (as was Greg) and Ngati Raukawa descent.

His father, Jimmy, had built hydro dams in the region, and the family had land at Jerusalem Bay, where they had holidayed since the mid-1950s.

During the carving, Jono camped at nearby Jerusalem Bay and would walk to work - a return trip of 14 kilometres - or row a small dinghy around Whakamoenga Pt to start the day's work.

There was no power source and the carvings were fashioned using cold chisels and mallets. Scaffold tubing was erected to work the high rock face.

At the end of the project half the tubing was lost overboard when the barge carrying the steel took on water and sank off the point.

The hardness of the rock face soon blunted edges on the tools, and regular sharpening with a hand-driven grinder was required.

The carvings tell no single specific story of Maori mythology.

The focus point is a large face 20 metres high, rising out of the lake water, depicting Te Arawa high priest Ngatoro-irangi.

Elsewhere, there are numerous figurines carved into rocks near the shoreline, such as taniwha, and Hauauru, or the west wind, with his flowing beard and hair.

Over the years waves have smoothed out the figurines near the water edge.

Ana Apatu, Jono's partner of 25 years, said the cliff's location was ideal for a large carving.

"It was a beautiful natural rock face, a huge blank canvas right on the lake edge," she said.

The lack of acknowledgement coupled with the huge popularity of the carvings caused tension after the project ended, she said.

"At one stage Jono wanted to cover the cliff face in tarpaulins to prevent tourist operators cashing in."

Jono discovered an artistic flair, and also a love of Mexican cooking, while at secondary school in Los Angeles.

He began sketching, then turned to carving under his cousin Greg's intuitive eye when work began on the rock carvings.

"He was schooled in the traditional methods but he was an art genius in his own right," Greg said.

Jono went on to become an accomplished sculptor and carver, without formal tertiary art school training.

Income was always "a feast or a famine".

A carved waharoa, or gateway, at Kelburn Primary School, as well as commissioned sculptures at Huka Lodge, and numerous exhibitions are testament to his skill.

Jono tutored carving at Rangipo Prison - encouraging inmates to exhibit their work - and at the Learning Connexion in Wellington.

He was involved in projects in Levin, Otaki, and Sydney.

Jono's gift was his knack of bringing out creativity in other people.

His aunt, Pauline, believed Jono's artistic creativity was "deep in his soul".

"He was an educated boy, very well read, he liked history, especially Maori history, and he was also a very good conversationalist.

"He could hold a conversation with anyone, from prison inmates to academics. He was very strong in his beliefs."

Before his death from cancer, Jono and Ana were working to transform 2.5 hectares of land near Hastings into a native tree sanctuary.

Jono had wanted his tangi to be low key without a minister.

Word soon got around and 150 friends and family arrived for his tangi at Jerusalem Bay in late January. MIKE WATSON

Sources: Ana Apatu, Huia Randell, Pauline Lee, Greg Matahi Brightwell.

The Dominion Post