From turning wood to turning heads


Many people believe that speaking in public is one of the most frightening things they could be asked to do. Rob Waanders used to be one of those people.

Believing that his life’s work was to be an artist in one form or another, Rob reached a plateau in his life when he wasn’t entirely sure what the future held. In conversation with a friend one day Rob admitted that he would really like to be able to talk to groups of people and share his love of art – but knew that he couldn’t possibly do it. Using just a little subterfuge, the friend invited him to a meeting at Spinnaker Toastmasters. She told him that he didn’t have to open his mouth all evening and alerted the chairperson not to put pressure on him to speak. So, when the time came for introductions, he was gently asked whether he would like to introduce himself. To his own astonishment, he shot to his feet and spoke for a few minutes. Brilliantly!

And he has never looked back! Recently he was awarded his Competent Communicator Award at Spinnaker Toastmasters by Dale Hartle, Distinguished Toastmaster.

Rob would recommend Toastmasters to any, and every, young person. He admits that he would rather have died than talk in front of people but now he simply cannot understand where that fear came from. He doesn’t miss a single opportunity to speak in front of groups and it is bringing great joy to his life. And he’s observed that people who have come to Toastmasters have consistently improved their employment prospects or got promotions in their organisations. Spinnaker Toastmasters Club meets at the St Andrew's Anglican Parish Centre, 11 Steyne Avenue, Plimmerton, on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month from 7.30 pm - 9.30 pm. Membership is open to anyone over the age of 18 years on acceptance of application to join. They welcome members who wish to develop their English speaking skills, especially if it is not their first language.

Rob’s current love of speaking is a far cry from where his life began. He was born in The Hague in Holland where he spent the first twenty-seven years of his life. There he met Liesbeth and they married in 1965 before they immigrated to New Zealand in 1967. They recently enjoyed a ‘second honeymoon’ and came upon this beautiful beach between Hokitika and Haast on the West Coast.

Rob studied technical subjects in his teenage years but before starting work, he had to do two years of compulsory army service where he became a staff sergeant. Following that, he did one year of practical work with the Dutch Ministry of Works as a structural draughtsman.

In those days people in Holland had to be pretty rich if they wanted to own their own home. Only a handful of people could afford to buy a house and the waiting lists for available homes were very long. So, because Liesbeth’s mother, and her brother and his family were in New Zealand, they found themselves emigrating to join them. Their two sons were born in New Zealand in 1970 and 1972.

There were special immigration arrangements between Holland and New Zealand at that time and Dutch people who came to New Zealand - mostly sheep farmers and tradespeople – spread out to all corners of the country rather than staying together in one area. They integrated well into society as a whole and became very successful. In fact, 10% of New Zealand immigrants at that time were Dutch.

The family arrived in New Zealand in November. Rob, a qualified carpenter and architectural technician, immediately secured a job picking strawberries in Levin for the first couple of months. This was a surprise as he had actually interviewed with the Ministry of Works before he came and had been told that he would find a job easily. But it was a different story when he arrived and he was told that he would have to wait five years, and become a New Zealand national, before he could apply for a position in a Government department.

Fearing that he would not easily be able to find work to suit his qualifications, he had a lucky break and was offered a job in the architectural office of New Zealand Breweries, then the largest architectural office in New Zealand. His boss favoured people from other countries and Rob felt as if he was working in the ‘United Nations’ of New Zealand. It was here that he learned his English, having arrived with only a very few words.

After working there for nine months he had another stroke of luck. An architectural draughtsman from the Ministry of Works wanted to work at New Zealand Breweries so they swapped jobs! He was advised to apply for his naturalisation very quickly and he became a New Zealand citizen in 1972.

Rob stayed with the Ministry of Works for twenty years working in a really good job as an architectural job manager. But redundancies were being offered and finally, in 1992, Rob decided to take advantage of the package.

With time on his hands, Rob took up his self-taught hobby of wood turning. Demand was high in those days so he started to do it full time. He exhibited in galleries and at exhibitions. He even set up a gallery in Pukerua Bay for a year and then teamed up with two others at Lindale in Paraparaumu. But it meant too much travel so he left.

He changed his focus to showing his work at exhibitions and in galleries, selling on commission. He exhibited in group exhibitions at the Wellington Art Gallery, the Dowse in Lower Hutt, the Bathhouse in Rotorua, Page 90 and Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures in Porirua and as guest artist in a variety of galleries and venues. His work was of a very high standard and he did particularly well with the Craft Council who only took quality work. The Craft Council Gallery was on the Terrace near the Reserve Bank and Parliament. His clientele of Governors General, Ambassadors, members of Government Departments and corporate offices, City Councils and private buyers sought the more expensive items both for themselves and to use as gifts. He won prizes for his work including one for the most innovative woodturning at the National Woodturners Exhibition and he also won two awards for wood sculptures at a National Art Exhibition.

The highlight of his career was when he was included in the Index of Crafts People in New Zealand – an elite group selected by a panel. He became well-known for the high standard of his work which was ‘a little bit special’. He has been a member of the NZ Academy of Fine Arts since 1988 and was elected an Artist Member in 1993, the first woodturner to be given this honour. In 1994 he made 40 new turnings for a solo exhibition and was artist in residence for six weeks at the Page 90 Artspace Galley in Porirua. The exhibition was held at the new gallery to celebrate the International Festival of the Arts and was opened by the Governor General, Dame Catherine Tizzard, who promptly bought one of Rob’s works.

Rob became a judge for several woodturning competitions including the 2001 National Woodturners Exhibition in Palmerston North. This was the first time he had to stand up and make a speech and he very nearly bolted! He was sitting on the VIP table with the after dinner speaker and Rob was thankful to notice that he was nervous too!

In addition to his smaller pieces, Rob has sculpted some enormous works, including this beautiful piece which weights nearly a tonne.

Recycled from an unwanted tree, Rob, with help with the heavy lifting from his son, Vincent, took several months to sculpt this work ‘Discovery by Inspiration’ in 2002. It illustrates the principle of the ‘Secret Valley’ in Pukerua Bay where it was made. Porirua man, Tony Jackman was primarily responsible for resurrecting the Waimapehi Stream Reserve out of what was once a local dumping ground. Rob hoped that his work would inspire other artists to join him in creating a sculptors’ trail across the whole Porirua region, finishing with his piece in Pukerua Bay’s Koa-wa Ngaro (Secret Valley) Reserve.

Latterly, Rob changed from wood turning to carving wood but more recently, he has started to work in stone, particularly Greywacke, a grey, earthy rock generally characterized by its hardness and dark colour. Rob says that all you need is different tools and he uses machines and grinders instead of a hammer and chisel. His faithful friend, Kim, was often around to help him and give him inspiration.

And he has started to paint his wooden carvings as well.

Rob says that most people who know him would never have believed that one day he would become a Toastmaster. He can hardly believe it himself. But he gets enormous pleasure from the time he spends creating stories to enchant his audiences and build on his artistic talents at the same time. From his beginnings turning wood, he’s certainly turning heads now, whenever and wherever he speaks.


From turning wood to turning heads

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