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Carving like a Tongan

Carving like a Tongan

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Carving has been a fascination of mine for many years.  Around 2007 I spent some time with Jason Stone, the son of Willard Stone, who was the in-house artisan at Gilcrease Museum for many years. On our trip to Hawaii this past November, I was reminiscing on the plane ride there about that time and was inspired to sketch some drawings of sculptures similar to Allen Houser and Jason Stone. But after a few hours and maybe a whiskey or two, I ran all out of creative juice.

Soon enough our plane landed, and we were off to Kehei to begin our long awaited sabbatical  (doctor’s orders! Well kind of anyway.) We were staying in a beautiful property owned by our friends just a block or so from Kalama Beach Park. It’s not hard to get inspired to be healthier  when you’re staying in paradise. So I got up every morning (or most mornings) and jogged down to Kalama and ran along beach by the ocean. After a few days of this, I noticed a house on the way down to the beach that had wood carvings in the front yard surrounded by mountains of huge logs. Extruding through all of this was a roughly shaped chainsaw sculpture of dolphins.

After a day (because I just couldn’t stand it), I grabbed my sketchbook and approached the home with the big idea I would show the sculptor of the residence my sketchbook, and he would teach me how to be a carver. But yeah right, like that was really going to happen. As I approach the home, a very large Tongan man with tattoo sleeves walked out the door. His expression at first said, ‘What are you doing in my driveway?’ I quickly introduced myself and told him that I was an artist that had always wanted to learn how to carve traditionally like himself. Then he said, “Oh you are artist? Let me see and grabbed my sketchbook”...and then after looking it over he said, “Oooh you good bro. You come here at 9 a.m. in the morning and I show you how to carve.”

I have to admit I was a little taken back that he actually agreed, but it worked out exactly as I had envisioned. The next morning after my jog, I was waiting outside his home eagerly anticipating what he would teach me.

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“Hey James, how are you doing today bro?” he said.  “Hey Keli, I’m doing great, looking forward to learning,” I replied.

For the next few hours he showed me the basics of shaping with a chainsaw. The next day was my turn. “Hey James! I help you make a piece for your family…big turtle you, mother turtle your wife, and little turtle your baby,” he said. So he just picked up an old sharpie off the ground and quickly sketched out some stuff on a big ol’ piece of monkeypod that was about 4 inches thick, started up the chainsaw, and said, “Here you go you. Cut it out.”

To be honest my first thought was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, right? I don’t know how to do this. I’m going to screw this thing up, in addition to the fact that I’m in swimming trunks and flip-flops!” Going through my mind the entire time was, ‘Take it slow. Don’t screw this thing up.’ So I spent the next few hours blocking out the bay shape. Keli approached me and said, “Oh nice job with that. It was a little deep, but don’t worry bro; I can fix it.” So he took the saw from me and made the minor adjustments needed to really capture the essence of the turtle family.

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After a few minutes, he turned off the saw and said that this was an okay time to grind. Well, this process would take me another five days. I wasn’t quite the master Tongan carver that Kaylee was. During these few days, we spent quite a bit of time together.

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Well come to find out, this guy really was a Tongan carving master! See, he was taught by the master carver of Tonga, and what’s more, his father-in-law at one time was sponsored by the government of Tonga to be their official sculptor. This really deepened my appreciation that he had taken the time to teach me. I felt quite honored that he had spent so much time helping me and allowed me to work with him. He said, “James, I teach you as a friend.” That meant a lot to me. I was honored to be given the opportunity. During this time I really came to appreciate Keli and his family. They are humble, caring individuals that work crazy hard and are extremely talented in making sculptures each day to feed their family.

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Well, my last day came, and I had the whole thing shaped and sanded, but none of it had been chiseled. I arrived at his house at 8 a.m. that day. I wanted to be there early because I knew that there was a lot of work yet to be done. After waiting about an hour there, he still hadn’t shown up, so I texted him, and he said they wouldn’t be there until the end of the day. My first thought was, ‘Man, I really need to finish this. We still had chiseling to do.’ So, what was I going to do? Well, I looked around and found a few of his tools  laying on the ground. I grabbed a pencil and just started to mimic the designs that he had sketched for my turtles. I found a small V chisel and a kiawe wood mallet. I thought, ‘What’s this thing?’ Within about 30 minutes, I was really starting to get the hang of it, and before long, hours had passed and I was almost done as if I had gotten into a trance and just gotten in the zone. The next thing I know, I looked up and Keli is looking at me with a big smile and says, “I knew you were a Tongan carver. Is this really your first time?” And I said, “Yeah.” I promise you, he said, “Bro, you better than most of the guys here on this island!” I kind of thought that was just a big tall tale, but it was flattering.

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Well, our time was up and Keli gave me a big hug. We shared contact information and have continued to remain in contact, but from this point, we were off to our next island, Kauai. We lugged around this huge piece of monkeypod for the next few weeks, and then onto Oahu, and then all the way back to Green Country in Osage County. I just couldn’t get this experience out of my head. It really moved me. The first thing I did when I got home was get on Amazon and buy the exact same set of chisels that Keli had. Next I had to get my chainsaw running in tiptop shape, and finally find something to carve. Well, when you live in an ancient oak forest, wood to carve is abundant. Since then I’ve carved two sculptures and have about 100 ideas in store for making some wood sculptures to sell. Even in Oklahoma, you can carve like a Tongan.

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Isikeli Havea Links:

https://www.facebook.com/isikeli.havea?ref=br_rs


https://www.isikelihavea.com/

 

 

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Carving like a Tongan