28 Mar 2010

Artist Don Peebles dies, aged 88

2:29 pm on 28 March 2010

Artist Don Peebles, regarded as a founding father of the post-war abstract movement in New Zealand art, has died at the age of 88.

The director of the Diversion Gallery in Marlborough, Barbara Speedy, was a personal friend and hosted Peebles' last solo showing in August last year.

She says he has given his knowledge to many artists and quietly mentored and encouraged others over the years.

Ms Speedy says the artist continued painting throughout his battle with cancer of recent years.

In 1999 the artist was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to art and in 2007 he became a New Zealand Arts Foundation Icon.

Early career

Born in Taneatua in the Bay of Plenty in 1922, Don Peebles was educated at Wellington College.

He left school at 15 and joined the Post Office as a telegram boy and studied art briefly in Florence while waiting for demobilisation, having served as a radio operator in the army during World War II.

When he returned to New Zealand, and the Post Office, he took classes at the Wellington Technical College Art School.

"One never had any idea then that you could sensibly think of art as a career in the sense that you'd be a professional, living from the sales of your work," he said of the immediate post-war period.

He said he felt art was going to have to fit into the spare moments he had after earning the "bread and butter" for his family.

He continued his studies at the Julian Ashton School in Sydney, later describing his education as academic and doctrinaire.


When the artist returned to Wellington in the early 1950s, he decided to abandon representational painting, in an attempt to develop his own language.

"I honestly didn't know that I was heading towards abstraction. I simply thought I was trying to purify my work and, of course, one day I found myself an abstract artist."

His work was not initially well received in the conservative New Zealand of the 1950s and 1960s. His first solo exhibition in 1954 in Wellington attracted bad reviews, and he was even described as a member of some obscure cult.

In the 1960s, a fellowship enabled him to travel to London where he explored constructivist abstraction. He continued with it when he returned - the first artist in New Zealand do so.

He became known for his painted relief constructions, work that combined attributes of painting with those of sculpture, using fabric, wood, and other materials.

In 1964, Don Peebles left the Post Office to teach at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts at Ilam, becoming head of teaching in 1984, and retiring two years later to paint full-time.

He is survived by wife Prudence and their three children.