Contemporary Maori Sculpture: Kemp and Nathan


The hinterland of Rotorua is home to two sculptors who are creating unique cultural environments. Both are contemporary Maori sculptors; contemporary New Zealand artists contributing not only to the New Zealand arts scene but creating arts tourism venues and exhibition opportunities for themselves and their colleagues.

My 2017 visits with Bay sculptors Joe Kemp and Trevor Nathan were highlights of that year. Both Kemp and Nathan are accomplished, award-winning sculptors whose work can be found in private, corporate and public places.

One of the particular privileges of contributing to ARTbop is travelling around the Bay of Plenty and meeting local creatives either exhibiting their work or working in their “home studios”. I am always mindful of the openness and generosity of local creatives in giving up their time and sharing their creative spaces. I often wonder if it would be so easy if I lived elsewhere.

My decision to visit Kemp and Nathan was prompted by an earlier visit of ARTbop contributor and photographer Lee Switzer and I to the Rotorua Sulphur Lake  Sculpture Trail. This is an ongoing sculpture and public art project within the centrally located Government Gardens, Rotorua. It’s become part of the diverse “Rotorua Experience”.

The heart of the Bay of Plenty is an area of forest and lakes. While some names like Rotorua and Rotoiti are well-known others are not. From North-West Tauranga I drive to Rotorua over the “Tauranga Direct Road”. While road has improved since the first time I drove its steep and winding pathway into the central Bay of Plenty it’s still a road to be wary of. On that first occasion I came face to face with a very large truck and trailer unit. And while regular users like to Bathurst drive the route I prefer to avoid the “rush hours”, travel slowly or use the less tortuous coastal road and end up driving past Rotorua’s “international airport”.

My map reading isn’t up to Boy Scout standard so I’ve organised to see Kemp and Nathan back to front. If I had been more alert to the paper-based distance and placements I’d have been able to complete an interesting circuit of the region through Kawerau and back up along the Bay of Plenty coast. Instead I have to double back.

The morning roadway steam rises and foliage leans towards me. It reminds me that I am in or close to the land of Tuhoe – children of the mist. It’s an almost eerie introduction to the first sculpture exhibition space.

I arrange to meet Joe Kemp at his Lake Rotoma property.  The Kemp family have lived for sometime on the hillside close to and overlooking the water.  There’s evidence of the creative occupants’ activities at the front of the house. When I arrive a chainsaw wielding Kemp is working.

The sculpture park-gallery is at the rear of property.  It’s been developed by the family over the years in what must have originally been the bush-covered bank behind the house. It’s clear it is a family project: one of the most enduring images I have is of the beautifully raked patterns created by Mrs Kemp on the winding gravel paths

Kemp’s gallery-park is essentially a bush walkway in which sculpture by himself and others is harmoniously displayed. It’s calm, it’s quiet and there is an almost meditative feeling. Kemp tells me one overseas visitor was moved to tears by the dark beauty of the place. Many others feel the obvious emotion of the environment.  The Kemp’s have called their gallery “Te Haa – First Breath” and I suspect many of us take a deep breath when we enter its magical pathways.

We sit outside the gallery building where more work is displayed and Kemp recounts his childhood, his upbringing and his pathway to creativity. Who would have thought “running out of gas on the other side of the lake and chipping at pumice” would be such a dramatic life event. Kemp discloses other skills and talents. He is an accomplished businessman whose art has provided a doorway to a different and fulfilling lifestyle. Kemp has always placed a realistically high value on his finished work and sought and obtained “big prices from the start”.

Although Kemp says his wood “falls out of the sky” he has a particular and long-standing source for his raw material. I ask how he decides what he is going sculpt: the wood tells him: “it speaks to him”.

There is a small cafe on the roadside by the Lake and I sit and drink tea as I absorb not only the beauty and value of the work I’ve seen but the kindness and the gift of time I have just been given.

Travelling back towards Rotorua I’m conscious of not being late to my visit to Trevor Nathan on the rural outskirts of Rotorua City; Tikitere.  Once again I am visiting a sculptor at what is his home, gallery and developing sculpture park. Like Kemp, Nathan has arrived at his current creative occupation by an indirect path: he was a formally trained graphic designer.  

If I had to make a comparison I would say that the Nathan Family project is more of what would be considered a traditionally European-style sculpture garden. Kemp has used the existing bush, enhanced it and created an environment you literally enter. The Nathans are aiming for that botanical garden, English lawn, tree and water parkland. 

It’s a particularly hot afternoon as we walk the Nathan property and the sun is like stage lighting on what must have been an arduous development process. Nathan and his wife initially bought an overgrown, weed-covered low-lying piece of land. Through sheer hardwork they have cleared it, drained it and developed a landscaping and planting programme with an associated emergent display of sculpture. Like Kemp, Nathan displays not only his own sculpture but the work of “friends” and associates.  Again I realise the privilege I am being given by this talented and busy person.
Nathan has a specific gallery building on the property. It’s almost urban in its style and presentation. And, Nathan’s work across all materials is internationally sophisticated and stylish. The polish of his style is exemplified by his 2016 award-winning sculpture “Synergy” which forms part of the Sulphur Sculpture Trail collection. Taken out of its New Zealand context it would be difficult to know the ethnicity, identity and cultural affiliations of the creator of much of Nathan’s work though he acknowledges his bi-cultural background.    

There is also a significant working area and a large, separate workshop-atelier.  There is a sculpture in process. Like the property development itself, it’s hardwork. But it’s fascinating to see the actual rough base material from which the final silk-smooth art object will appear.   I ask if I may take a piece of the rough chipped stone away with me:  It’s now visible in my home.

Meeting successful artists such as Kemp and Nathan always confirms to me how much of creativity is sheer hard work and dedication. The wider community often perceives “artists” as having a less ordered, “cruisey” life. Nothing could I think be further from the truth. While many artists have teaching or tutoring roles they are essentially self-employed and subject to that mantra “if you don’t work, you don’t eat”.

At the moment we have international tourists “coming to New Zealand”. What we should be aiming for is international tourists “coming to the Bay of Plenty” and then “coming back to ….” 

The endeavours by the Kemp and Nathan families are and will further contribute to the local economies. What a fabulous day out for Tauranga and other Bay residents. The Sulphur Lakes Sculpture Trail, a visit to the Nathan sculpture park, the Kemp sculpture environment, back along State Highway 30 through Te Teko (or divert to Kawerau) and up the coast road.

You can see beautiful images of the work and gallery settings of Joe Kemp and Trevor Nathan on their respective websites:

Joe Kemp:

Trevor Nathan:

You can also see Nathan’s 2016 award winning sculpture “Synergy”  on the Creative Rotorua website


Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.

AND WHILE YOU’RE HERE take a look at our recent content:

Another successful Fair at the Black Sheep Whakamarama!

Another Birgitt Shannon video of the Affordable Art & Artisan Fair at the Black Sheep Whakamarama

Auckland based poet, musician and student, John Adams

New Poetry by Auckland Poet and Musician John Adams

The treasures on display in the vintage boutique created by Cindy Prior in rural Te Puna

Rosemary Balu’s video of her visit to Cindy Lou Vintage Shoppe in Te Puna (you can also read an extended text article about this visit in the February edition of the Lizard News)


 A collaborative community project between ARTbop and the Black Sheep.  If you would like to exhibit your original art and/or artisan product you can contact Birgitt on

NEXT FAIR IS SUNDAY 25TH FEBRUARY 2018 11am to 3pm at the Black Sheep – see you there!

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