A Bonnie wee home

By Beth Rose
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #42
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A childhood spent off the grid and surrounded by native bush has been reimagined in a Churton Park townhouse. Photographer Bonnie Beattie has created a homage to her upbringing and her artistic heritage in an unassuming home.

Small, modern and secure, these numerous almost identical two-level town houses are built for practicality and convenience, and have their own pool, tennis court and gym. Who lives in a house like this? Appearances – as they say – can be deceiving.

Bonnie and her husband Kyle Beattie, a website and app creator, started renting here six years ago when they came back to New Zealand after a year in Kyle’s home country of Zimbabwe. The initial attraction was being able to arrange their tenancy while still overseas, whereas it usually requires a face-to-face interview with the landlord. 

The couple have since enjoyed the security and stability of their little rental and have no plans to go anywhere until they buy somewhere of their own, which they say is a few years away yet. “Churton Park developments leave covenants on bush land, so there are places we can go walking. And we have access to doctors, pharmacist, supermarket and a café,” says Beattie.

This all sounds neat and tidy, but the Beatties also hold creativity and individuality dear, and there are obvious limits on scope for personalisation and dramatic expression if you don’t own your home: the walls must stay where they are. An artistic mind, however, finds ways around them. Paintings of nature, nostalgic family photographs and bright still life compositions own the rooms.

Beattie’s early family life was lived self-sufficiently off the grid, at Helena Bay, near Whangarei, with her mother, stepfather, sister and two brothers. Her stepfather, John Robinson, built their house, on 390 acres of bush, and it was surrounded by a further 500 acres of Department of Conservation land. Recalling the decade at Helena Bay is making Beattie laugh. “There was no fridge,” explains Beattie. “I realise how unusual it can sound but for me, it’s completely normal.

The beloved homemade house no longer exists.  The next owners lost it to a house fire – in its remote location, there was nothing that could be done, and it burnt to the ground.

For her Masters’ degree at Massey University, Beattie produced an abstract “reconstruction” of her family’s home using old photographs, framed and re-photographed. The essence of this work is also what makes her and Kyle’s townhouse in Churton Park a home.

Her own artwork sits alongside bought and made curiosities, mirrors and frames made by her father Craig MacDonald, and vivid watercolour paintings by her mother Elaine Stewart. “My Mum’s paintings are of native trees and birds. She doesn’t paint traditional watercolours; her work is saturated with colour.” At first I mistook the paintings – including intricate close-ups of leaves and seeds – for more photographs.

Images of people and nature are hung along the walls in carefully chosen frames form an exhibition that tells her personal story in things, places and moments. In the wedding photos, the photographer becomes the photographed.

The couple got together more than 11 years ago in Rotorua, where they were high school sweethearts. Now, they are newly-weds. They were married six months ago in Beattie’s old family stamping ground of Whangarei.

The wedding photos show an arid, exotic scene untypical of New Zealand. The most obvious flora, cacti, and the Mexican-style setting contrasts starkly with the climate of the Wellington they now call home.

As with many freelance photographers, home is also where work happens. The second of the two bedrooms is her office. “I mostly do product work, photography for companies and brands, quite often with artists and interior designers,” says Beattie.

Ceramicists Paige Jarman and Wundaire (Felicity Donaldson) have both worked with Beattie on styling their work. A stack of their pottery is still sitting on Beattie’s dining table, where it has been photographed.

Beattie keeps a blog of her work, where both professional and personal projects feature. It includes images exploring the Rotorua house of her grandmother, from whom she says she’s gathered much inspiration. 

“My Grandmother sells life-insurance. Her job isn’t creative, but she has travelled all over the world and her house is full of interesting things that she’s collected. I’ve always wanted to be an artist, and seeing all her things made me want to travel and I thought, ‘How can I do this professionally?’”

Beattie lived with her grandmother while attending Rotorua Lakes High School. During her fourth form year, the school built a darkroom and employed a photography teacher. Those years were perhaps especially formative for Beattie, as it was here she also met Kyle.

When the couple eventually decide to up-sticks from the little Churton Park townhouse, they’ll in effect be taking their carefully crafted nest with them. Both are keen on the idea of a mid-century home where their collection of deco furniture and brightly complementary furnishings will find a fit.

Their life is lived in multiple eras simultaneously. Photographs reflect the past, but the colourful accessorising and the art collection together give their home a modern vibe. Visitors are drawn into their story, by the visual reality and by Beattie’s enthusiasm to share it verbally with their visitors.

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