Tutor Profile: Darren Ward

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Meet Darren Ward, a creator, a hands-on maker and the Creative Technologies tutor at Te Auaha

Darren Ward teaches both the Applied Media and the Toi Māori component of the Creative Technologies programme at Te Auaha. His classes integrate digital design and technology using laser cutting, 3D printing and CNC routers with hand tools and model making. With 25 years’ experience as an engineer Darren says ‘making and fixing things, whether it be repairing machinery or fabrication, has always been part of what I do.’ He enjoys creating new design briefs of an applied nature and the construction phase of the student’s digital learning process.

Why is Te Auaha a unique place to study?

Purpose-built for creativity, the students have many opportunities to collaborate with complimentary programmes, in turn enhancing their own work. Darren explains that his students created a dystopian city using laser cutting technology. They developed a motion picture short by collaborating with the Film School using a green screen and a drone camera to create an eerie background.  They also worked with the music students who created an atmospheric score.

Talking about the facilities, Darren is proud of the space. Describing the Digital Fabrication Lab as a dream come true, ‘it has everything I could have asked for’. Students design digitally with physical outputs via the best possible technology. They have everything required to create industry-standard outcomes and many of our graduates have been employed by Weta after seeing the quality of their work.

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Tell me about a recent school project with a Māori component. What was involved?

Darren took his students to Te Papa and explained the fundamental concepts behind a wharenui (Māori meeting house) and what it represents to Māori life. ‘We discussed the narrative of who we are as a people, how we arrived, how we existed. Our connection to the spirit world, land and people. They learnt that a wharenui is a place of storytelling.’

The brief was to create a physical wharenui, at scale, using laser cutting technology. Every piece started with an illustration which students transposed digitally. Students created 3 design elements inspired by their own story based on these Māori concepts.  They based their ideas on what connects them to their home land and translated that into 3 designs; a tukutuku (lattice-work panel), a kōwhaiwhai (painted scroll designs) and a pou (carved figures).

‘Additionally we recorded their pepeha (a way of introducing yourself in Māori) in the recording studios at Te Auaha. I had the idea to transpose their physical wharenui into virtual reality software so they can share it with everyone.  When you approach each pou you will hear their pepeha in their native tongue.’


What careers have your students gone on to pursue?

A group of graduates now work at Weta, one is responsible for merchandise, sculpting models and miniatures for The Lord of the Rings. An international graduate works closely with Sir Richard Taylor travelling to China on a regular basis to help with negotiations. Graduates have gone on to be graphic and game designers working around the world. Some have started their own businesses in the creative industries. ‘Overall they’re determined to succeed, I keep in touch with them and they continue to share their successes with me.’


I believe [that] not only can the physical and digital go together, the past and future can cohabit the same space.


Tell me about your mahi outside of the classroom?

Darren is commissioned every year to make the graduation taonga (prized treasure) for the Māori Law graduates of Victoria University. He has been approached by Kapa Haka groups to work on their performance weapons and merchandise. He tries to find time to pursue his research and work on personal projects. ‘I’m curious about pushing something that is traditional into contemporary spaces, that’s where I’m heading.’

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Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?

Feeling jaded after 25 years in engineering ‘I didn’t want to retire a grumpy, old, burnt-out engineer. I was working in dirty environments covered in oil and I thought it was time for a change. My wife was supportive and I couldn’t have done it without her. I chose to study Māori Art and Design at Whitireia. I then went on to study under the wing of the renowned Puketapu-Hetet family for four years.  I didn’t know where this journey was going to take me. I took a leap of faith and I’m glad where I landed.’


Success can be a slow burner but it’s worth it.


What advice would you give to a young artist following in your steps?

Darren encourages his students to have many strings to their bow.  Having something to fall back on ‘to keep bread and butter on the table and the lights on.’ He describes an artist’s work life as cyclical, ‘when it rains it pours and when it’s dry, it can be as dry as a bone’.

‘I tell my students that just because you have a day job doesn’t mean the dream is over. There have been times when I had to jump back into my trade as an engineer to get over a hump but I always kept my passion alive. I’d say keep chipping away at it, keep your stream of revenue consistent and never give up. All it takes is a couple of bad transactions to rock you. Success can be a slow burner but it’s worth it.’ Art makes the world a better place.