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Cup half full

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Stevei Houkāmau is an uku artist and the Manager of Visitor Experience at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua. She talks about being inspired by the mahi of Indigenous communities, the role of music in her work, and the magic of artist made mugs.

What materials are integral in your work?

Other then the obvious uku (clay), I would have to say spray paint, masking tape, linseed oil and feathers. I love to take materials not commonly used in pottery and utilise them. Sometimes this is due to availability and also what’s around you.

Who are your biggest influences?

I am influenced by a lot of different artists and art forms, but one of the biggest influences over the last six years has to be my native artist mates from the US. I have had the pleasure of working with amazing indigenous artists both here in Aotearoa and overseas, and the inspiration and sharing of stories, experiences, and challenges is not only inspiring but also healing for all. We also support each other in our own challenges within our own communities. The work that native uku artists produce is breaking traditions but also honoring them, breaking down walls and challenging thinking. The connection and knowledge we all share is priceless.

How do you price your work?

I still find pricing hard at times, especially when I feel that I can still refine and push my work further. Manos Nathan gave me advice a few years back that I still use today. He said, ‘No matter the size of the work, if you personally love it, then that should be your highest priced work because that piece resonates on a personal level.’

What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

My UE Boom for sure – music is a must. Although I need to keep it pretty lax as anything upbeat leads to broken uku and tears. But seriously, I find it hard to make work and get into a flow when carving without music playing. Music and my creativity go hand in hand.

What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?

Because I work in Porirua but live in Wellington, I am in my car alone a lot. When I was thinking about this question, I realised that my alone time in the car is problem solving time and brain storming time for works that I want to create or am in the middle of creating. I always have the music blaring, and when I’m not solving the great mysteries, I’m singing along to some tunes.

Do you collect anything?

Hand made cups from artists. It’s an affordable way to have examples of artists’ mahi. I have cups from indigenous artists from America, Hawaii, Aotearoa and Costa Rica. There is honestly nothing better than drinking from a handmade, hand painted or carved vessel.

Who is your favourite NZ artist and why?

John Pule is my all time favourite NZ artist. I love how provocative his work is and the vibrance of colour. You can look at his work over and over and see new things every time. I totally fangirled John Pule at his opening at Pātaka a few years back; I took a copy of his book and made my mate (who was the mayor at the time) introduce me to John so I could ask him to sign it. He even drew a pic in it for me!

Money is no object. Which priceless artwork do you buy?

It would have to be a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting. I have a Mitchell Crew inspired shopping bag that I treasure. Basquiat’s work has always been a personal favourite.

What were you like at 15?

OMG – at 15, I was sport crazy and completely focused on my goal to play softball for New Zealand and ultimately play softball in the states. I was training every day in the gym after school, playing softball in the summer, and basketball and soccer in the winter. I was also studying graphic design and wanted to be either a sign writer or a product designer. Looking back at that 15 year old me, she would never have guessed that she would be a full time uku artist one day. I did reach those sporting goals, though, and I’m grateful for the skill sets that those experiences gave me.

Stevei's solo exhibition He Kākano is at Pātaka Art + Museum until November


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