Virginia Winder: An artist and their garden
Oil paintings are a big focus of a New Plymouth gardener. Virginia Winder discovers a textured garden and a house filled with art.
There's a wild side to Tony Rumball.
In person, the retired farmer, gardener and artist comes across as quiet and laid back, but when he wields his palette knife, oil colours at hand, his world comes alive with flamboyant paintings.
On June 10 and 11, people can visit his New Plymouth studio during the Taranaki Arts Trail.
They will find a garden that follows the contours of a hill, a 4-hectare tract of native bush protected by a QEII National Trust covenant, a house filled with his artworks and a busy studio.
There's a strong artistic flavour in the garden too.
Not only has he planted for shape and colour, there are colourful adornments everywhere. There are half-round fence posts splashed with bold hues and columns painted in bright colours.
The columns are part of a steel culvert. "We didn't have a use for it at the moment, so I cut it in three and painted it. It's still usable," he says, evoking thoughts of some distant archaeologist being baffled by colourful drains.
To create these eye-catching works, Tony has wrapped them vertically and horizontally with electric fence wire (not attached to a power source) and painted the bits in-between using about 20 different test pots.
These have been topped with pots sprouting Carex testacea, so they look like a crazy palm trees from a children's book.
Below these, he's planted swathes Chionochloa rubra, a tussock grass that is brushed by the wind. Among these he's put in a lot of maples, to help keep Lotus major at bay. "It's good cattle fodder, but hard to control in tussock."
The maples also let the light through six months of the year when they are bare.
Among his beloved maples are other deciduous trees, including oaks, cornus, elms, ashes and beeches. He enjoys watching these trees change with the seasons.
Although he can't see a link between his art and the garden, Tony unknowingly plants like he paints. There are swatches of yellow daisies and red-pink geraniums, hedges of coprosma and pittosporum and a strong line of nandina "Firepower".
Hebes clipped into balls, also add a creative flavour to the garden.
"That's to have a bit of interest when the deciduous trees are bare, you can look out and see the shapes and things."
The Queens Rd property, also bright with orange canna lilies, is still growing. "As a typical farmer, I keep pushing the edges out."
He's cut down ake ake to put in more maples, but there are still many native plants in this area, including nikau, ponga and ti kouka (cabbage trees).
Standing on one of the hill paths, next to a Magnolia grandiflora dotted with large cream blooms, Tony talks about the history of this place.
"This is the family farm – we returned to here."
When Tony and wife Pam retired from their Midhirst dairy farm 12 years ago, they decided to move to New Plymouth and build a new house on the land that his father cared for.
"Sixty years ago he did things like fencing the bush and he also planted a lot of native trees. He was very conservation-minded."
In this lush bush, kohekohe is the dominant tree because it was never felled. "The undergrowth was eaten out when he took over it. He saved the bush in that respect."
Backing up his father's efforts, Tony and Pam got the QEII covenant put in place two or three years ago. The bush, which flows down to the Waiwhakaiho River, also contains the Raukawakawa pa.
Tony's dad saved an even larger block of bush on Umutekai Rd in Hillsborough, which also has a covenant on it.
Back on the hillside garden, across from the bush, there are native trees planted for family. He put in a rimu for daughter Kate, a miro for grandson Aidan and more for others.
Lemon, lime, persimmon, macadamia, feijoa and avocado trees all thrive in this micro climate. The feijoas do particularly well.
By the driveway is a berry enclosure that keeps rabbits and pukeko away from the mostly blueberries.
On top of the hill are cabbage trees that Tony loves for the statement they make on the horizon. Up here are uninhibited views of Mt Taranaki, except for cloud, Paritutu and the chimney and the rush-hush sound of the Waiwhakaiho River. There are also water tanks up here, about where his dad once had a silage pit.
Down the hill near the back of the house is an outdoor bath. Tony heats the water in an African cooking pot he got from the Trade Aid shop. He uses cabbage tree fronds as kindling and then adds wood and sometimes coal.
"It takes a couple of hours to get going," he says. "It's especially good at night in the winter."
Inside, Pam has painted the kitchen chairs different colours and added cushions made from bright op-shop jerseys. They complement Tony's paintings, which adorn the walls – everywhere.
He's painted about 300 oil works on stretch canvases and several thousand watercolours on paper. There are also folders filled with A4 pictures and puzzles drawn for the couple's three kids when they were young and his ever-present moleskin notebooks filled with pen and crayon sketches and musings.
"We built a new shed called the bike shed – it's full of paintings and the dog," Pam says.
They do go on biking expeditions, but painting is a huge part of Tony's life. He spends a couple of days a week painting and every Tuesday goes to an art group at Stratford.
"Someone said there was a polytech class going in Stratford and I went along and enjoyed it. That was just over 30 years ago and the group has stayed together."
In the early years, the group's tutor was Tom Kreisler. "He had to be the world's best art teacher."
He had a huge influence on Tony and his work, which has a great freedom to it, with colours blazing across canvases.
"That was the beauty of the Stratford group, there was no time to fuss around. There were cows to milk… it was a rush, so you moved fast," he says.
The majority of his works have begun with still-life offerings. "Some get unrecognisable, but they start off there. That's the beauty of the group – all sorts of things are brought," he says.
Bobby calves, frozen hapuka heads, bikes umbrellas – the list is endless.
"Tom Kreisler would bring things that didn't fit together like and old tyre and a pinecone, but it was really good for your art."
Tony doesn't use turps or brushes to make his paintings. A palette knife is his tool of choice and he uses oils to create luscious works. "You can get chunky and you get the brilliance of the colour."
And we're back on Tony's wild side.