Tom Kreisler

His art and home

HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text Katie Lock­hart Pho­tog­ra­phy Dar­ryl Ward

In the New Ply­mouth home of the late Tom Kreisler and his widow Les­ley, Mex­i­can arte­facts and fam­ily heir­looms rub shoul­ders with Tom’s dif­fuse, large-scale paint­ings.

Tom Kreisler was an enig­matic fig­ure in the New Zealand arts com­mu­nity. Born in 1938 in Buenos Aires, Ar­gentina, he came to live in New Zealand in 1952 where he stud­ied art at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury’s School of Fine Arts.

In the late 60s, he moved to New Ply­mouth with his wife Les­ley to teach art at New Ply­mouth Boys’ High School, make art and raise a fam­ily. Tom’s work was con­sid­ered strik­ingly orig­i­nal with its al­most car­toon­ish style and he’s my per­sonal favourite of the pe­riod. He died in 2002 at the age of 63. By chance, while hol­i­day­ing on Great Bar­rier Is­land, I met Tom’s widow, Les­ley. Their Med­lands bach is the one I’d al­ways wanted to see in­side. Mod­est, yet ro­man­tic, a gar­land of spinifex is strung along the bal­cony and sun-faded green paint traces the win­dows. It re­minded me of Robert Frank and June Leaf ’s sum­mer house in Nova Sco­tia that I’d seen fleet­ingly in a film. I of­ten pre­fer to imag­ine the in­te­rior of houses that I ad­mire from the street, rather than see the re­al­ity. The in­te­rior of the Kreisler’s bach, how­ever, was per­fectly aligned with my ex­pec­ta­tions. Sparsely fur­nished with sim­ple, well-pro­por­tioned use­ful fur­ni­ture, per­haps the most beau­ti­ful Teuane Tibbo paint­ing I’ve ever seen, a few Polynesian and Me­lane­sian arte­facts, wrought­iron bed­heads, beds cov­ered in plaid wool blan­kets, and col­lec­tions of old straw hats for the beach. The in­te­rior is re­moved from the lo­cal ver­nac­u­lar of ply­wood walls and retro cane fur­ni­ture, and I loved it. Les­ley and I be­came friends and when my hus­band Dar­ryl and I were in New Ply­mouth we vis­ited her in her mod­est cot­tage, with its hearty in­te­rior that speaks of a full fam­ily life. “We moved here in 1972,” says Les­ley. “We were about to buy another house when some­one told us of this one. The peo­ple who owned it kept tak­ing it off the mar­ket; I think they were look­ing for the right peo­ple. We were the right peo­ple at the right time, I guess. The only part we changed was the kitchen, which was quite mod­ern. We added di­ag­o­nal pan­elling with tim­ber from another old house and we put in the wooden floor.” Les­ley’s touches through­out the house are del­i­cate and tac­tile, with light lace cur­tains brought back from Italy, which dif­fuse light in the bed­room and bath­room. Beau­ti­ful shades of vel­vet up­hol­ster the so­fas.

Tom’s pres­ence can be felt in his large-scale paint­ings that dom­i­nate the liv­ing room. “Tom’s works keep get­ting big­ger and big­ger on the walls,” says Les­ley. “I change them from time to time. I like the mix of Tom’s works, they have a lot of char­ac­ter and the colours are kind of amaz­ing.” The house speaks not only of two very in­ter­est­ing in­di­vid­u­als but of their life to­gether – trea­sures from their trav­els, fur­ni­ture from a cul­tur­ally rich her­itage, and the wear and tear of fam­ily life. Les­ley and Tom had three boys, all of whom have ca­reers in the arts. Nick, a pho­tog­ra­pher and mu­si­cian, lives in Syd­ney, Eu­gene is an artist based in New Ply­mouth and Aaron is the head of fine arts at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Can­ter­bury and a free­lance cu­ra­tor. Af­ter teach­ing home eco­nom­ics for many years, Les­ley opened the Les­ley Kreisler Gallery which, for the past 30 years, has show­cased a lively mix of New Zealand art. “We were liv­ing in Mex­ico in 1977 and when we re­turned we brought back a con­tainer that was cus­tom built to the size of an old pew Tom found in a squat across the road from where we lived. We filled the rest of the crate with Equipale chairs and var­i­ous arte­facts and ob­jects that caught our eye,” says Les­ley. These ob­jects in­cluded folk art from the Day of the Dead, in which Tom was very in­ter­ested, and the tra­di­tional Mex­i­can fu­neral ce­ram­ics of danc­ing dogs that he painted in ‘Danc­ing Dogs’ (1984). Tom grew up in Ar­gentina, the son of Aus­trian refugees who es­caped the Nazis. When he was 13, his par­ents sent him to school in Christchurch where an un­cle and aunt legally adopted him. The hand-painted Vi­en­nese cab­i­net and trunk at the front door of the New Ply­mouth home are pieces Tom’s fam­ily brought with them to New Zealand. Other items I ad­mired through­out the house, such as the daybed in the front liv­ing room, have their own in­trigu­ing sto­ries. Tom had seen the daybed on some­one’s front porch and wrote to ask if they would sell it. He re­ceived a re­ply 11 years later say­ing the own­ers were ready to sell. There’s ro­mance in the gath­er­ing of the home’s con­tents – from the road­side, shared trav­els and from fam­ily. Soft tones set the back­drop for the jux­ta­po­si­tion of folk fur­ni­ture and big, car­toon­ish art works. The home speaks of in­di­vid­u­al­ity, of lives lived richly and with cre­ativ­ity.

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