When Victor Te Paa started studying toi (art) at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, he quickly learned his place, and it wasn’t on the end of a paintbrush.
“When we started as students, we were the ones that prepared the kai and got everything out for the guests, that was our first job,” he says.
Victor was among the first cohort of tauira (students) to study toi at Toimairangi at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in Heretaunga, under the tutelage of arts icon Sandy Adsett.
He completed the Maunga Kura Toi degree and says during that time he learned about much more than just art.
“With Sandy, the main thing we learned was manaaki.”
“Whenever we had visitors, we’d drop our art, go into the kitchen and start pulling out all the food and making sure everyone was okay, then we could do our art. But we were constantly watching. After the visitors had gone, we’d go do all the dishes then get back into the art.”
He says Sandy also took a holistic view of art education and kept his students “in a constant state of wānanga”.
“He’d take us on a lot of noho where we had to go and restore or refurbish marae, or paint them, and through that whole practice, we learnt all of our marae.”
The approach obviously worked, as Victor is a now a successful artist in several genres, including painting and tā moko.
He says learning from an artist of the stature and mana of Sandy was an amazing opportunity.
“If it wasn’t for Sandy I wouldn’t be an artist, or a painter. Or, I’d be an artist but I wouldn’t understand so much,” he says.
“He ignites a passion in you because of his kōrero, the way he talks to you. He doesn’t just talk about the art, he talks about everything behind it. In terms of being an artist, he challenged me.”
Those challenges came every time a tauira mastered a particular technique.
“Once you started to click with something and you got really good at it, he’d shift you, and then you’d get good at that and he’d move you to something else.”
Over time, tauira would learn different types of design, such as kowhaiwhai, tāniko or tā moko or focus on things such as textures or tracing, he says, but the challenges were ever-present.
“Day in and day out, he’d come past and if he didn’t say anything that was good. Sometimes you’d do something and he’d paint over it on purpose, you never had stability,” he says.
“The coolest thing is that he’s passed that critique and analytical view onto us. I’m like that with myself now, I look at my work and I think ‘what would he say or what would people I hold in regard think’. I try to look at it through their perspective, it makes me push harder, it makes me do more.”
He’s also kept to Sandy’s kaupapa of ensuring guests are well looked after.
“It’s funny because any wānanga we go to, we all know where our places are, doing the dishes. It’s just natural, and these are the things you won’t find anywhere else other than Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.”
He says Sandy’s teaching provided tauira an excellent all round arts education, and although he has now retired, new kaiako Tracy Darren Keith, was a more than capable replacement.
“Sandy came up with a package that is second to none. As a person and as an artist he’s an amazing man. Now you’ve got Tracy is in there too. When he got the job I just laughed. I couldn’t think of anyone better.”