Alex Sands of Sands Carving Studio on honouring Māori taonga

Sands Carving Studio

Davinder (left) and Alex Sands (right) from Sands Carving Studio. Image supplied.

Alex Sands is the founder and lead carver of Sands Carving Studio based in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton). The well-respected carving studio honours the carvers’ Māori heritage in creating contemporary and traditional Taonga – carved works of wearables, weaponry and sculptures. Sands Carving Studio is the culmination of Alex’s life passion for Māori carving; sourcing, exploring and creating in the indigenous materials of Aotearoa, creating pieces that are a reflection of Alex’s heart, divine inspiration and that honour Māoridom and ancestral lineage, traditions and values. Alex is of Māori descent (Ngati Kahungunu o Te Wairoa) and European descent from England, Scotland and Ireland.

In July, Alex partnered with the Waikato Women’s Refuge for their annual Saving Rose charity event, which saw Alex and his expert team push themselves to create a unique collection of bespoke taonga. Key focal pieces included bespoke sculptures and adornments embodying the essence and mana of a chiefly figure. Not your day to day pieces, these one of a kind taonga spoke of wealth, prestige, authority, strength and pride. Creating over thirty taonga with a combined value of a quarter of a million dollars, the pieces were shown as part of the gala dinner’s fashion show in partnership with NZ fashion designer Annah Stretton, as well as several pieces being donated on the night for their live and silent auctions.

We caught up with Alex to find out more about his passion and how he’s honouring Māori heritage in creating sacred taonga for the people of Aotearoa and afar. 

You have been carving since childhood, what first sparked your interest?
It was an article in National Geographic where at the age of six, I saw photos of the excavation of the Tutankhamun coffin which really inspired me. The intricate and delicate details in the images captivated me. I was also inspired by the jade creations of the world having spent a small amount of my childhood in China and the jade creations of my Māori heritage.  When I was nine I started creating my own intricate small pieces with basic tools, files and small chisels.

Sands Carving Studio

Taonga by Sands Carving Studio.

Your team recently produced a large collection of bespoke taonga for the Saving Rose Gala Dinner. Can you tell us a bit about the collection and where you drew your inspiration from in creating such a large and unique body of work?
It started with Annah Stretton’s vision for a unique fashion show that honoured the Māori organisation who support a very disadvantaged community. Annah saw the show needing large taonga moving away from more traditional works of art. Taking this idea we went large, extravagant, rare and unusual but also very traditional in a sense of archaic in style. We worked incredibly hard on the collection creating truly unique taonga, aiding to create a memorable show and successful evening. We’re planning to exhibit the key pieces from this show upcoming, to enable more people to see the unique pieces that were created.

What have been some of the proudest moments of your carving career to date?
It’s hard for me to think of moments where I’ve felt proud as with carving it is a constant journey of learning. There are however many times where I’ve felt humbled through witnessing the works of great masters in their art.

Sands Carving Studio

Taonga by Sands Carving Studio.

How has your upbringing, culture and identity shaped how you approach your mahi and business?
I’ve been very fortunate to have been supported by my parents, meeting the right mentors who have taught and educated me firstly through the tool, then through the art form and then through pocket money.  Later on I went back to school to hone my drawing and carving skills, but most importantly learnt how to make a living from my passion, the balance of production and art form, and the courage to approach customers and put myself out there as an artist and manufacturer.

Where do you see Sands Carving Studio in five years’ time?
Prior to the pandemic, we supplied thirty-five galleries and retail stores nationwide with taonga, employing a strong team of nine expert carvers from around the country. Like many businesses it’s been tough going for us and a constant push to adapt. I’m hopeful things will improve pandemic wise and in future I’d love to see Sands Carving Studio opening our own retail store in Hamilton, supported by a strong online presence as the leading provider of taonga in New Zealand.

Adornments, weaponry and sculptures made by Sands Carving Studio are available to view and purchase online at sandscarvingstudio.com as well as leading galleries across the country. Alex is also available for commissioned and creative bespoke pieces.

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