Art collector Kate Gillespie with a bronze sculpture by Ray Haydon. Behind her is a painting by Judy Millar entitled ‘Same Old Paradise’. Photo / Babiche Martens

How Interior Designer Kate Gillespie Uses Art To Bring Her Home To Life

The interior of designer Kate Gillespie's home is brought to life with a diverse collection of New Zealand art

There’s an artistic surprise in every nook and cranny of interior designer and avid art collector Kate Gillespie’s Auckland villa. Tucked inside the front door hangs a pint-sized, luscious red Lisa Reihana work titled Stars, given to Kate by the artist for being a New Zealand patron at the 2017 Venice Biennale — the year Reihana exhibited.

Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (Pakaka) security guard figures modelled on his brother are on duty there too, opposite one of these floral photographs, part of The Consolation of Philosophy series in which images of bouquets are titled after World War I battlefields where many of the all-Maori Pioneer Battalion fought and died.

Even in the colourfully-tiled powder room, which features bold peach and sage Puzzle tiles by Barber Osgerby, art reigns in the form of two ceramic sculptures by Koji Ryui.

‘Fade Out’ by Emily Wolfe. Photo / Babiche Martens

It’s difficult to make your way from the front door to the light-filled kitchen and living area without stopping to inspect the art more closely and to chat with Kate about the stories behind each work.

“I’m always paying off something,” Kate says, laughing, referring to her ongoing love affair with contemporary art. Her interest was spawned at Victoria University, where she completed a double in law and art history. Upon graduation she had a stint on the gallery floor at New Work Studio in Wellington and began buying the odd print, and ever since Kate has been an enthusiastic gallery goer and collector.

READ: How To Build An Art Collection That You Love

Her first significant purchase, almost 15 years ago, was an Ans Westra hydrangea photograph. Another Westra picture takes centre stage in the living room, it’s a black and white photograph of a Ma?ri boy learning to tell the time on a chalkboard. The photo has, however, been appropriated and scribed over in marker pen with the work’s title, What’s the time Mr Woolf, by Michael Parekowhai. It’s one of Kate’s favourite pieces and references Parek?whai’s childhood experiences which were impacted by his Maori and European heritage and race relations during the 1960s and 70s.

Wall mural by Flox. Photo / Babiche Martens

The appropriation of a Westra image is apt as Kate explains that the Dutch-born photographer made a name for herself documenting Maori communities in New Zealand in the 60s. Her work drew a range of responses, from great acclaim to censorship. Many Maori felt Westra presented an outsider’s perspective of their culture, and had also illustrated an unfair view of Maori living conditions.

Conversations sparked by art are ones Kate enjoys. Her understanding and appreciation of contemporary art has been fine-tuned through various courses and memberships. She has attended the Art Today course at Te Tuhi Centre for the Arts in Pakuranga for the past four years and highly recommends it to other art goers.

Art Today courses are year-long discussion groups covering current events in the art world, along with artist discussions and class trips to galleries. Kate says the course has been vital to her confidence in understanding art in 2019 as being no longer exclusively something to “look at”. According to her tutors, “Art may be a painting or a photograph, or it may be a journey, or a conversation with a stranger. It may be experienced in a darkened room or be heard but not seen at all.”

Michael Parekowhai’s Kapa Haka (Pakeha); cube sculpture by John Edgar. Photos / Babiche Martens

Kate also belongs to the Contemporary Benefactors group — a tier of philanthropic supporters for contemporary New Zealand and international art at Auckland Art Gallery. Contemporary benefactors enjoy behind-the-scenes talks, studio visits and collection tours in New Zealand and abroad. Kate says she has learned a great deal through this network and has enjoyed meeting artists at dinner gatherings and at various studios.

Her collection is a result of a good amount of research and inquiry. Kate regularly visits galleries — at least once a week — and keeps an eye out for emerging artists and works that come up for sale on the secondary market. Close relationships with the owners of auction house Art & Object and local galleries are key for getting the heads-up on new works available.

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The walls of the villa range from rich darker tones in green and charcoal on the ground level to mid tones in greens and earthy ochres on the other two levels. “I just love colour, especially designer Katie Lockhart’s range of paints. I’ve discovered art looks really good on coloured walls.”

In the bedroom, a hydrangea photograph by Ans Westra hangs above the ‘Hillhouse’ chair by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Photo / Babiche Martens

When Kate moved into the villa more than a decade ago, all the walls were white. She wanted to get away from the “art gallery look” so instead, in the living space, went for Lockhart’s ‘Holdaway Green’, a colour that brings out the mid tones in her Judy Millar abstract painting and suits the cool tones of her Oliver Perkins blue sculptural painting. The hue also tones harmoniously with a Francis Upritchard wooden figure in the corner, a piece that is a little unsettling for Kate’s children.

Sharing a passion for art with husband Mike has its advantages. The two often plan trips around artistic experiences, and gifts to one another often come in the form of art. Mike’s Christmas gift to Kate last year was a spectacular Joe Sheehan sculpture that sits on the kitchen bench.

‘Night’ 2015 by Johl Dwyer. Photo / Babiche Martens

Made from a hunk of Argillite from the South Island, the sculpture at first appears an untouched rock, but on closer inspection, carved tiered steps and a tiny, perfectly symmetrical green house appear at the top of the rocky mountain. The house is dwarfed by the scale of the stone and could point to the insignificance of human presence compared to the millions of years it took to form this sedimentary stone.

Kate leads me up the stairwell of the villa past a vibrant mural she commissioned Hayley King, the artist behind Flox, to paint for the family. The colourful stencilled and spray-painted work of native New Zealand flora and fauna at first seems incongruous with the rest of her more serious collection but Kate complements the mural further up the stairwell with a more playful grouping of smaller artworks in contrasting shapes and colours — a Julian Dashper vinyl on drumhead work and an Yvonne Todd self-portrait — Kate says the artist made herself up to look like Christina Onassis.

In the living room hangs a painting by Oliver Perkins above a sculpture by Francis Upritchard. Photo / Babiche Martens

“Apparently that’s about five layers of fake tan right there”, says Kate of the troubled-looking face with smudged eyeliner. At the top of the stairs a lush Kirsten Carlin painting in purples and yellows is just as sculptural as it is painterly.

READ: Inside The Waiheke Home Of Abstract Artist Gabriella Lewenz

The top level of the house, where the master bedroom, en suite and adults-only living room are located is painted in Hessian — another Katie Lockhart colour, this time a warm tone in a pinky brown that brings out the best in the works hung here. These include a large-scale Milan Mrkusich and a soft painterly interior scene by Emily Wolf, a Kiwi artist living in London who often paints small details of domestic interiors — curtains, chairs and fading wallpapers in eerie, empty houses. In the corner of the bedroom the Hillhouse Chair designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1906 sits under the Ans Westra hydrangea photograph, a chair Mike had always been drawn to.

‘Is That Man, That Mountain, Taranaki’ by Tony Fomison; on the kitchen bench is a sculpture by Joe Sheehan. Photos / Babiche Martens

“He used to sketch pictures of this chair as a child, but it turns out it’s a bit too small to actually sit on,” Kate says.

She has succeeded in bringing a vast array of artworks, colours and elements into harmony in this modern family home, a skill honed through the three-year Nanette Cameron School course in interior design at Te Tuhi Arts Centre in Pakuranga. When she’s not adding to her own collection or supporting art institutions, Kate offers interior design consultations and art purchasing advice through her own business, Aesthetic Consulting. Her last pearl of wisdom to art enthusiasts, “Buy what you love, not what you think will fit in your home, you can always create a spot for those works you fell for, even if it means repainting a wall.”

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