Changing lifestyles

Artist Pete Wheeler takes a break in his make-shift Dowling St studio. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Artist Pete Wheeler takes a break in his make-shift Dowling St studio. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
Visiting "home" for an extended holiday, Berlin-based artist Pete Wheeler and his family got caught up in New Zealand’s lockdown choosing 
to sit it out in Dunedin. He tells Rebecca Fox about changing lifestyles.

Painting at all hours of the day and night in a Berlin warehouse, Dunedin-trained artist Pete Wheeler has lived the dream.

Now 42 with a wife, Frankie, who works in the film industry, and three children to think about, life is a bit different — he treats his painting like a day job working 9 to 5 in a studio and is looking to a future in New Zealand.

Spending lockdown in Broad Bay has only reinforced his desire to return home.

"I don’t want to raise three kids in Berlin. We’re at a point where lifestyle counts, balance between life and work, being able to have access to nature and it be affordable.

"It’s still the Kiwi dream of a quarter-acre section, which is just not possible in Berlin."

The family came to New Zealand in October last year to introduce its newest member, Maggie, to extended family and friends and for Wheeler to exhibit in Christchurch and take part in a survey show of his work held by the Wallace Arts Trust at Auckland’s Pah Homestead.

We will meet again when there is no darkness, by Pete Wheeler.
We will meet again when there is no darkness, by Pete Wheeler.

Then Covid-19 and a nationwide lockdown came along and the survey show was delayed (it is opening next week) so they decided to stay, loving living in the small coastal community.

"We just extended our stay. We couldn’t have picked a better place."

Wheeler has been living in Berlin for 12 years and describes the city as a "completely different beast" compared with what it was when he moved there.

"Because of gentrification — it’s good, it happens — everything is out priced for normal people. It’s turned into a city for young, single trust-fund kids. It’s just getting really difficult."

Wheeler, who trained at the Dunedin School of Art in the late 1990s, describes Dunedin as his "home city".

Although he was born in Timaru and grew up in the MacKenzie Country, Dunedin is where he returns to and where many of his good friends live.

"I’ve got a lot of connections here that go a way back, so it’s easy to come back here and feel at home."

Dunedin is where he first set up a studio and began showing his work in local galleries.

"I had some early success exhibiting and selling."

had to be said with a big mouth, 2018. PHOTO: WHITESPACE GALLERY AUCKLAND
had to be said with a big mouth, 2018. PHOTO: WHITESPACE GALLERY AUCKLAND

Then he heard Berlin was the place to go if you were an artist, so he thought he would give it a go.

"It was the place to hang with other artists, it was a real creative hub and cheap. It was similar to Dunedin in that you could find a space and put on a show."

Back when he was "young and silly" he had aspirations of making it big, of becoming famous. There have been highs and lows, but he has always persevered. His works have been shown in galleries in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United States.

He came back to New Zealand a couple of times in the early days, once to complete a year-long MFA at Canterbury’s School of Fine Art, but returned to Berlin each time.

"The great thing I got out of it was meeting a wonderful German girl, getting married and starting a family."

Wheeler, who has always been an oils man, said he likes the viscosity of paint and what he can do with it.

"I guess it’s how I started; I’ve never felt the need to change."

However, his love of oils does not stop him incorporating other mediums into his work when needed.

"I’ll go off experimenting, but come back to the more traditional oil on canvas. There is something inherently romantic about it."

Wheeler also likes to work on a large scale, often his works are more than 2m wide and a similar size high — requiring him to hang works created in a garden shed during lockdown on the clothesline.

However, he also does smaller works, recognising that not many people have walls big enough to display works of that size. The more domestic-sized works are also more affordable.

"I’ve always dealt with a certain style of subject matter."

That subject matter comes from life: "high and low culture, the mixing of".

Wheeler collects images — photographs, film or clippings from magazines — often using historical imagery.

"I like reaching back and pulling things forward."

In an introduction to Wheeler’s "Painting Out of Time" exhibition at Pah Homestead, Andrew Paul Wood says each Wheeler painting is a "palimpsest of layers, of vestigial pentimenti and graffiti-esque overpainting with eclectically-sourced imagery ranging from National Geographic-type photographs, to horror films, to art history, suspended between the skins of paint like the amulets in the bandages of an Egyptian mummy being slowly unwrapped by archaeologists".

A recent work — featuring the head of a World War 2 Afrika Corps soldier complete with helmet and scarf — has resonated in different ways for different people.

He has painted a series based on it, including a "really big" version which he describes as very "post-apocalyptic world, kind of Mad Max-y".

Wheeler describes his work as a job — "it’s what I do"— suggesting it can even be mundane and routine sometimes — far from the "clouds parting and sun shining through" moments a young artist might envisage.

"You need to work hard to make progress or you get stuck. It might be old school to do, but somewhere along the line it will pay off. If you are not into it, how will someone else be into it?"

But, Wheeler says, there is nothing else he would rather be doing.

"Putting pigment on a surface somehow makes life a bit better. Even after 20 years, I’m excited to get out of bed and come to the studio."

Having a family did force him to change the way he lived and painted, admitting it was not very conducive to a healthy lifestyle even though he was disciplined, working hard.

"In some ways, I’m actually much more productive."

While in Dunedin, he has set up a "makeshift studio" in a Dowling St warehouse, across the floor from Sam Foley.

Works hang on the wall with pots of paint sitting below, waiting for Wheeler to come back to them.

It is where he is in the process of creating works for a last-minute exhibition at Dunedin’s RDS Gallery.

A few of his works were included in a three-person exhibition at the gallery during April, but that was only seen through the gallery’s window due to the lockdown.

So the gallery asked him to return for a solo exhibition, which "miraculously" became possible due to all the time-juggling resulting from recent events, one of the gallery’s directors Hilary Radner says.

Wheeler and his family plan to return to Berlin next month.



Pete Wheeler, RDS Gallery, July 3-August 1
Pete Wheeler: Painting Out Of Time, Pah Homestead, Auckland, June 30-September 6.

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