In the world of whakairo – the traditional Māori art of carving in wood, stone or bone – Aotearoa has a hidden taonga, or treasure. As a tohunga whakairo, an accredited teacher of carving whose work is acknowledged by Toi Iho – the registered and globally recognised trademark of quality and authenticity of Maori art and artists – Rangi Wills is well versed in telling stories through his gifting.
Yet, in as much as his craft reflects journeys, the Lord is also at work in Rangi’s life personally – leading him on a profound faith walk since he returned to the Lord and placed his trust in Jesus. And, with a heart that his story would – in turn – bless others, Rangi agreed to share some of it.
“Every ‘cut’ represents a story. One of the most powerful things in life is someone sitting down and sharing their journey with you. That then encourages you on your own.
“I – for one – can say I wouldn’t be who I am today in Christ if it weren’t for all the elements of mine.”
It’s a profound opening statement from Rangi Wills. As we begin, we pray about the aspects of his story he shares, and the way the Lord would have him relay them.
While that beginning thought may have been referring to the process by which Rangi approaches whakairo – the traditional Māori art of carving in wood, stone or bone – it’s also a thought which reveals his heart as he thinks about where the Lord has brought him.
He came to a personal relationship with Jesus about seven years ago in his 40s.
“As I’ve been trusting God when sharing my story, I continually purpose to be open and honest about what He’s brought me through. And, doors have opened.
“They’re opportunities to share Christ with others which only the Lord could orchestrate. People often tell me that hearing how Jesus has been at work in my life has impacted them.
“That’s my greatest desire now. I pray that as I hand – and submit to – Him every area of my life, hardships, struggles and all the wonderful blessings and giftings I know are from Him, He’ll redeem and use everything for His glory.”
“So, how did you first come to know about Jesus?” I ask.
“I grew up in church,” Rangi – who was born on Auckland’s North Shore and is of Tainui descent – replies.
“I suppose what it comes down to is – as with all of us – I made mistakes along the way. Those, ultimately, led to me drifting away from church, and God. I think because I felt unworthy really.”
There’s a key revelation Rangi says God has made him aware of since returning to Jesus – and it’s powerful.
“Simply put, when I was younger, I knew a lot ‘about’ Jesus, but I didn’t know Him in the sense of having a personal relationship with Him. That’s the difference.”
Yet, even at a young age, amongst a background of difficulty and the choices he was making, he says he can see God’s grace and mercy at work.
“At 16, I got kicked out of school for smoking marijuana,” he recalls. Ultimately, opening that door in his life saw Rangi addicted for 27 years.
Looking back on this chapter of his life now makes him “…so grateful” for where the Lord has brought him, and where He is leading him.
Later this year, it’ll be 12 years since Rangi was set free from his addiction to marijuana.
He purposely says, “…the Lord delivered me…” because he’s aware the process of completing rehab back then was definitely a step God had His hand on.
“Along that road, I fell over many times, if you will,” Rangi says.
“Each time I took steps back, I’d say in my heart, “…this is the last time…” But, when it wasn’t, I’d think, “…what on earth am I doing?”
We pause briefly to discuss whakairo – or carving – and, creativity.
I ask how he first got introduced to the art form and where his love of carving comes from.
“Well actually,” Rangi replies, “…not long after I was kicked out of school, one of my friends noticed that my maths book was full of drawings. He suggested I come along and give carving a go. Because I was already passionate about drawing, it sounded cool.”
So, Rangi completed a two-year apprenticeship under Bill Rawhiti.
Now, more than 30 years later, Rangi says something profound.
Since coming to Jesus, he’s aware whakairo is a gift God gave him, and one the Lord’s been nurturing in his life over all these years.
Rangi has now likely carved “thousands” of pieces – ranging from intricate work with cuts smaller than a 10 cent piece, to large stone and wood pieces.
As mentioned, whakairo encompasses working with wood, stone and bone – Rangi has mostly worked with bone.
Though, he’s gifted when working with all three – and the nature of the specific project dictates how long the work takes.
“I think the hardest part of the process is actually drawing the design onto whatever you’re carving into,” he says.
Rangi’s work has previously been featured at Te Papa in Wellington and in the World of Wearable Art And Classic Cars Museum in Nelson, among others.
I ask what’s likely the most unique work he’s completed.
“Probably a Fender Stratocaster guitar.”
He carved the entire body of the instrument based on the story he was told.
These days, he sells his pieces mostly through word of mouth, or at Auckland’s Gallery Pacific – but in the past Rangi has also travelled up and down New Zealand in a house bus, selling his carvings at each stop.
I ask how coming to a personal faith in Jesus has been reflected in his work and the type of projects he accepts.
“Great question,” he replies, “…because it has changed for sure.
“Creativity comes from God, so of course I want to be intentional about honouring the Lord through the gift He’s given me.
“These days – as someone tells me the story they want depicted – I always commit the whakairo to God, prayerfully considering what I can create which might ultimately point them to Jesus. As I walk in relationship with Him, my heart is to reflect His heart.
“Practically speaking, a personal step I feel the Lord has had me take is to stop making weapons, or patu.”
“That’s, in part, due to some of the carvings that are usually on them,” Rangi says.
In their place though, the Lord has been nurturing a passion in Rangi for carving pulpits – one of which he made for his home church – and crosses.
Rangi says within Maori culture there’s an innate awareness of the significance of ‘threes’.
So, whenever possible with new carvings, his desire is to represent the Trinity – God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit in his work.
Storytelling is the essence of whakairo, and, in a moment of vulnerability, Rangi said his life story – and some of its difficulties – have also played a part in informing the way he approaches his craft.
That said, even in his own life, whakairo has been “…really, really therapeutic.”
“On your journey to a personal relationship with Jesus, Rangi, what was the catalyst for seeking the Lord?” I ask.
“And, were there key moments in which you could see God’s hand prompting you to come to Him?”
“Certainly,” he says, mentioning the first of what he’d call three key ‘factors’ as the Lord began drawing him.
“Firstly, there’s no doubt that on one occasion, in a natural sense, God saved my life.
“I was walking along a roadside in Whanganui, carrying my belongings in a bag on my back.
“Somehow, I lost my footing and fell down into a gully. I remember it being about a six second fall to the bottom.
“I knew ‘about’ God at this stage and I cried out as I fell, “Lord, please save me!” And, He did. I ended up landing on my bag and walking away pretty much uninjured. That shouldn’t have been the case. I don’t know how I survived, apart from it being God.”
Secondly was the decision to enter rehab – at Auckland’s Higher Ground in 2010 – to “…change my life and be a better man.”
“I was tired of walking the same path of addiction and wanted to leave it behind once and for all.”
While at Higher Ground, he said he was told that just three out of every 30 people get clean and stay clean long term.
“Those were – at that time – the best statistics in the world. It’s undoubtedly been God bringing me to where I am today.”
Since completing rehab, Rangi has also become a tohunga whakairo, or teacher of carving, because it’s “…important the love of this art passes on to the next generation”.
Rangi’s work is also acknowledged by Toi Iho – the registered and globally recognised trademark of quality and authenticity of Maori art and artists.
He first received that accreditation when he was living in the South Island, and, to his knowledge, at the time he was one of only a handful of carvers in the area to have it.
Now, with God, Rangi also sees it as an opportunity to share his journey – and Jesus – with those he meets thanks to whakairo.
“It’s pretty special when you have the opportunity.”
The third catalyst in him taking a step towards God, he says, was the desire to be a better man for his wife, Natalie-Jayne. They married in 2012. Natalie-Jayne was raised in the church, and Rangi says her faith has been key to pointing him to Christ.
“She’s just amazing.”
“It’s as though, when I asked God to make me a better man, He gave me my wife.”
Additionally, Natalie-Jayne and Rangi have now been part of their church family – Bridges Church in Cambridge – since 2014.
They first started coming along to a free ‘clothing exchange’ initiative, and there, they’d enjoy cups of coffee and tea and connect through conversations with others.
It was the missions-minded approach to the gathering – Rangi says – which was instrumental in helping them get involved.
Rangi committed his life to Jesus that same year – and he and Natalie-Jayne began regularly coming along to Sunday services.
“How important is it to have people in your life who point you to Jesus?” I ask.
“It’s absolutely key, he replies.
“To be connected once again to a Christ-centred church family is awesome. I’m also so blessed to say my Pastor is one of my mentors.”
On most days of the week, Rangi is in an office at church, praying, listening to sermons and reading and studying God’s Word.
His passion for the Bible is growing day by day, he says.
“When you spend time in the scriptures, you can’t help but be changed. Psalm 119:114 says, “You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in Your Word.” (NIV).
“It’s so true. God sustains us. I intentionally spend time in prayer, setting aside time first thing in the morning when I wake up, or when I’m driving somewhere in the car.
“It’s such a blessing that God invites us into a personal relationship with Him. It’s important we come to the Lord with the good stuff as well – thanking Him for His blessings, rather than just coming to Him in the tough times, or when we ‘need’ things.”
Rangi adds that the story of David has been impactful when it comes to bringing things in his own life before the cross.
“To me, one of the key things we see in David is that whenever he comes before God to ask for forgiveness, we see a deep sense of remorse because that sin offends God.
“As we know, David most certainly didn’t live the perfect life – but he was wholeheartedly sincere when it came to realising he made a mistake. And, scripture tells us he was a man after God’s own heart.”
“In my own journey, a key lesson which came out of rehab was the importance of honesty. In our walks with Jesus, my heart is to remember we’re all on individual journeys.
“I’m aware that I’ve made mistakes, as we all have. But, I love Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (NIV).”
As our chat ends, Rangi has one final encouragement.
“Seek the Lord. While I wasn’t walking with Jesus I always thought, “..it’s okay. There’s time to come back…” But, honestly, we don’t know how long we have.
“So, share Jesus with others. Be bold in telling your story of what He has done, remembering it’s not your job to ‘convince’ anyone to come to Him. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts and leads. Just step out.
“I pray that my story – even in some small way – shows people that Jesus is real, He’s alive, He loves us and that – no matter where we are right now – He’s calling them into a personal relationship – and walk – with Him. Just as He graciously did for me.”
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About the author
Jeremy Smith is editor of, and one of the writers for, Authentic Magazine.
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