Is art in our DNA or is it learned? Is it both?
Rachel Helyer Donaldson talks to three artists from the Culy family about their drive and talent.
In the 1940s, two Wellington sisters married two brothers, starting a highly creative clan. Jacobina ‘Bini’ Charlesworth married David Culy on Boxing Day, 1941. After the war, their younger siblings Shirley and Gordon married too.
Bini made sculptural busts, while Shirley went to art school. A mother of six, she eventually found an artistic outlet with the Port Nicholson Handweavers. Gordon Culy was an electrician, and his brother David was a talented craftsman whose mid-century furniture designs endure today.
The Culys had 10 children between them, many of whom went on to study art. In 2020, the family’s artistic ranks include Shirley and Gordon’s daughter, Dunedin jewellery designer Ann Culy; her nephew, Wellington photographer Harry Culy; and his second cousin and fellow artist Billie Culy. Is this coincidence, or is art simply in their blood?
Dunedin jeweller Ann Culy knew she wanted to be an artist from age eight. Her grandmother, Jacobina, taught watercolour and was a “big influence” on Ann. Her mother Shirley, meanwhile, was the artistic “driving force” in their Lower Hutt home, working as a florist on the family table-tennis table and weaving at her loom.
“It was a big family environment of making and doing,” says Ann, 68. “We were encouraged to go to galleries and do lots of work from home. We all learnt weaving and made ponchos!”
The Culys were close-knit. The fortnightly get-togethers of the “Hutt clan” with the “Seatoun clan” were dubbed “Culy hooleys”. One is still held every December.
The family has a distinctive look – “the eyes are very strong” – and the connection runs deeper. “It’s mostly the way we live. You can go into one of our houses, in any generation, and we’ll feel comfortable. It’s a style of living that’s very inclusive, creative, and vibrant.”
Ann and two of her sisters, Jill and Joy, studied at Ilam School of Fine Arts. Ann majored in sculpture, graduating in 1974. Her aunt was also a sculptor, but working in 3D was Ann’s particular passion”.
She exhibited regularly and taught art at a Fielding secondary school. In the early ‘nineties she moved to Dunedin and discovered jewellery. “It was like falling in love, a perfect little world for me. I still get that thrill, when I get to work and sit here.”
Since 1995 she’s run her own workshop and gallery, Lure, and exhibits annually. Her work – rings and earrings mostly made from gold or silver, and sometimes studded with precious stones, using ancient techniques – have a primeval, organic quality.
Ann’s two sons ended up in science careers but various nephews and nieces are forging creative paths. They include illlustrator Tane Williams, fashion stylist Katie Melody Rogers, and jeweller Tim Booth.
“All of us have our creative streaks. We are all makers and do-ers. It’s so fantastic seeing the younger generations come through, and seeing all these threads.”
It seems the drive to create has always been there. Previous generations were involved in furniture restoration, jewellery, and architecture. Ann’s great-great grandfather Joshua Charlesworth was a prolific turn-of-the-century architect, best known for designing the Wellington Town Hall.
“Most of it is environment, and encouragement. It’s also down to strong women. There’s a very strong tradition of women artists, coming all the way through.”
Shirley wanted so keenly for Ann to fulfil her artistic talent, she thinks, because she hadn’t quite been able to. “She felt I was living the life that she would have loved to have lived.”
Photography is a “compulsion” for Harry Culy. “I have record things around me, to just do it, and then use those pictures to figure out what I’m trying to say.”
Harry is not snap-happy, although he works intuitively, he says, and often takes several hundred photos per project. His new show Mirror City, at Jhana Millers Gallery in Wellington, comprises 14 images edited down from more than 500. But, because he mostly uses a large-format camera and a heavy tripod, each image is considered: the laborious process involves taking one photo at a time, ducking each time underneath a hood. “It’s a lot of physical effort to take just one picture.”
Where did this need come from? His immediate family were not artistic, he says. His dad, John Culy, is an economics adviser; his mum, Mel Bogard, is a teacher and lawyer. Harry studied science and maths at school. Skateboarding was his thing, and he headed overseas, to Melbourne, Sydney and London, working in hospitality and as a landscape gardener to pay the bills.
The skateboarding scene’s creativity – in its magazines, photography, and videos – showed him a different world. But he was usually in front of the camera, performing skateboard moves in videos. In terms of his own photography, it was living in Sydney in his early 20s, that he started taking polaroid portraits of friends. “That was what started me down this road.”
Eight years ago, he began a diploma in photography at Massey University in Wellington, eventually gaining a Bachelor of Design (Photography) with first-class honours. This year he completed his Master of Fine Arts through Massey. Harry, 34, has exhibited widely in Aotearoa and Australia. Recent exhibitions include the group shows News from the Sun at Wellington’s City Gallery in 2019-2020.
He’s particularly inspired by places where he has a personal connection. The images often reflect a degree of discord. For example, his ongoing series Rose Hill, named after his maternal grandmother’s Hawkes Bay farm, draws on childhood memories. But after living abroad he felt a disconnection to a landscape that was once so familiar. “You come back and realise that New Zealand is actually a weird place.” Mirror City focuses on his hometown of Pōneke Wellington and its young people, late teens and 20-somethings, in that “transitional phase of life”.
His wider family were influential, too. His Dad’s cousin, Brian Culy (Billie’s dad), a photographer and filmmaker, and his wife, Leanne Culy, a painter and textile artist, both inspired him, as did Ann’s “amazing” jewellery. He remembers his grandmother Shirley’s weavings as “beautiful, colourful, abstract compositions”. He was bewitched by painted portraits of his mum and her siblings at his maternal grandparents’ farm.
“Maybe, subconsciously, this played quite a big role. It kind of feeds into you.”
Harry’s eldest sister, Sallie Culy, who has an intellectual disability, has a talent for sketching. Untrained, she makes work that is raw and distinctive. “She draws her experience, in a unique way.”
Ultimately, he thinks, his parents gave him a way of seeing. “My family is curious. Whether it was through books, or nature, or whatever, they taught us to be curious about the world.”
“It is kind of unusual isn’t it?” says Billie Culy of her family’s artistic streak. “It goes so far back, I think it’s in our blood. It’s so deep, it’s kind of magical. [Creating work is so important and it makes us who we are as a family.”
Knowing that art could be a viable career was “huge” in terms of her own confidence. Since 2016, Billie has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions at Wellington’s Precinct 35 and Hastings’ Parlour Projects, among others. She’s collaborated on a T-shirt range with Kiwi designer Maggie Marilyn, and PM Jacinda Ardern follows her on Instagram.
Billie, 26, is the daughter of Brian and Leanne. Her older sister Jacobina is a talented photographer, too, and the Culys’ Napier home is filled with art by successive generations.
Leanne’s birth mother, Margaret Herne, was a painter, potter, and art teacher. Heartbreakingly, she died in a car accident shortly before Leanne tried to find her. Billie says Margaret has influenced both her mother’s work and her own. There was a shared love of plants. One of Billie’s botanical still lifes, Love-Lies-Bleeding, features a vase by Margaret. “You know there’s that connection, without having actually met her. It’s that blood thing.”
Billie is now back in Hawkes Bay. She and her partner, political researcher Henry Lyons, came back to New Zealand from London in March.
She’s sharing an art studio with her mum but staying with her sister, and enjoying time with her three-year-old nephew Sonny. Making dioramas, which look like tiny versions of her still lifes, have eased the “weird limbo phase” of lockdown. “It’s been nice making something with my hands, for a change. It’s quite therapeutic.”
Billie’s known as a photographer, but for her it’s just one tool. “I love putting things together and capturing them, creating layers.” Her mum taught her “a crazy amount” about painting. Why has her family gravitated towards art? “It’s just in us. But I have learned to channel it.” This ability, being able to channel creative talent into making work, is what differentiates artists from those who are simply creative, she said.
Home and family have always been a creative spur, and then leaving New Zealand last year gave her a “different kind of inspiration”. She wants to return to London when it’s possible.
“You get a different perspective on the world and people. Leaving has been really helpful for my work, and I will hopefully do it again.”