Telly Tuita outgrew his art studio long ago, so he’s had to get inventive. Melody Thomas gets a tour of his Wellington work space.
“Home” means different things to different people. For some it evokes love and safety, for others uncertainty or distress. But “home” is always more than just a structure.
For artist Telly Tuita, home is the Tonga of his childhood, bathed in nostalgia. It’s in Australia, with the aunty and uncle he calls Mum and Dad. And it’s the Lyall Bay bungalow he shares with his husband Hoani, their chow chow Bella, and visitors including their daughter Molly Mae, who lives down the road with her Mums.
The pale mint whare sits on the flat between Kilbirnie and Lyall Bay, close to the beach, snuggled between the houses either side.
Telly ushers me into the lounge with his trademark bubbliness, and fetches sponge cake and coffee. The house is simple, newly renovated with walls painted grey-white, with natural wood trim, and mid-century furniture thoughtfully placed. Telly’s paintings, photographs, and collages hang on every wall, a riot of colour, pattern and texture. It’s like a cosy gallery, with comfy couches, well-tended plants and a fluffy canine companion.
Telly and Hoani met in 2016. After a chance meeting in Sydney, they fell in love via FaceTime and trips between Sydney and Lyall Bay, where Hoani was living. Telly decided to come to Aotearoa, and they bought the Lyall Bay bungalow. Moving countries and buying a house with someone is a big commitment, but Telly’s used to uncertainty. “I thrive in the unknown. I thrive in the whatever,” he says.
Telly was born in Tonga in 1980, but his Dad lived in Australia, and his Mum left when he was a baby, so he lived with extended family. Then in 1989, he was told he was being sent to live with his Dad in Australia. Telly had no idea what Australia was. He hadn’t met his Dad, had never left Tonga, and didn’t really speak English.
In Sydney, Telly moved in with his Dad, his stepmother, and her three daughters. He struggled to adjust to the huge changes, and clashed with his step-Mum.
At age 14, Telly was kicked out, eventually settling nearby with his uncle, aunt, and their sons. His aunt became like a Mum to Telly, helping him through high school and university, supporting him when he came out, taking him to his first musical and his first art gallery. Telly has immense love and gratitude for his aunty-Mum. “A big part of my success is due to her,” he says.
After school, Telly applied to art school and the army. Luckily for us, he got into art school first.
Telly finished his Fine Arts degree at Western Sydney University in 2003, but there was pressure to get a “real job”, and “artist” didn’t cut it. The day after he graduated, Telly registered for a bachelor’s degree in art teaching. He followed this with a Master’s in Special Education and began working as a special education art teacher. By the time he met Hoani, Telly was a deputy principal, but he’d never stopped creating.
“I always had certain materials lying around just in case I had to scratch that itch”, he says, but “teaching took over, and art was just going to be a hobby.”
Teaching might have remained Telly’s career, if Hoani had not suggested he pursue art full time. Telly had already converted the bungalow’s sunroom into a studio, and not having to pay for space when he wasn’t making money from art made the idea feasible.
Telly’s studio is the aesthetic outlier in the tidy house: messy and cluttered, shelves laden to near-collapse, walls splashed with paint and scrawled with creative ideation. Telly shows me a filing cabinet full of old work, photographic backdrops stashed under a rug, and stuff waiting behind the shower curtain to go to into storage.
Telly’s explosive art-making can’t be contained by the studio. Some mornings, he takes over the dining room table, executing ngatu over coffee. When it rains, Telly stalks between the house and the shed with spray cans, willing lacquered canvases to dry. When it’s fine Telly poses for photos on faux-studio sets in the backyard wearing masks, costume pieces, or sometimes just underwear, capturing the Tongpop aesthetic he’s known for.
These days, art is his “real” job. Telly has exhibited all over Aotearoa, been a finalist in various art awards, secured representation from Bergman Gallery Auckland, and participated in high-profile group shows – including Whetūrangitia / Made As Stars, at The Dowse in Lower Hutt until February 2023 – as well as delivering his hit Tongpop shows. It all adds up to a successful second career, made possible in no small part by the bungalow he calls home, and the love and support of Hoani.
“I think I was lucky to have found him,” Telly tells me, “I hope he’d say the same thing about me.”
First published in Art Zone #93