How Donna Cross preserves memories in her Breaker bay build

By Sarah Catherall
Photographed by Adrian Vercoe

Featured in Capital #80
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Donna Cross loves her late husband’s things. She talks to Sarah Catherall about making their home her home.

Scott Kennedy’s spirit lives on in the home the late artist built with his partner, Donna Cross, 30 years or so ago. The house, across the road from wild Breaker Bay, is filled with his sculptures and paintings, his favourite things and found objects, and his collections of books and toys and other treasures.

Donna, an illustrator and designer, has added her own mark to the property since Scott passed away from cancer eight years ago: she has repainted, added a dining room and entrance way, renovated the kitchen, and turned an upstairs open space into smaller rooms. She has also set up a gallery where she displays and sells Scott’s art and holds regular exhibitions on behalf of other artists.

She says: “I love having Scott’s art and things around. But I’ve also set out to regenerate the house. It has to be my home while honouring Scott’s art and presence.’’

Scott and Donna were together for nearly 40 years after meeting at the Wellington School of Design. Scott specialised in sketch-style figurative illustrations and was an artist and sculptor. Today, book covers and many examples of Scott’s art, and found objects like the bottles he collected across the road on the beach, are on display around the two-storey house.
As Donna wanders around the house, a southerly swell crashes on the foreshore, visible like a framed artwork through vertical windows. Donna has spent about 30 years gazing at that view every day, and says she never gets tired of it.

The couple were renting a house in Hataitai when they bought the triangular site overlooking the rugged beach in 1989. They bowled the cottage and called in a friend, designer Euan McKechnie, to sketch their new home. He designed a house with strong lines, and a metal staircase striding up the middle. Donna has added circular shapes where she can – circular art works, round mirrors, clocks, and circle pull-outs in the cabinetry – to contrast with the rectilinear character of the house. Similarly, in the living room, sofas in the living room add splashes of lime green and orange against the charcoal and white walls.

From the moment they step in the door, art and objects greet visitors. A curtain of fabric designed by Scott shields a cupboard holding coats and shoes near the entrance way. The whole house feels curated, a living gallery.

Donna has turned the garage into a reception area for visitors to her exhibitions. Behind it, she has converted Scott’s painting studio into Three Eyes Gallery, where she holds a new exhibition on behalf of a local artist every month. When Capital visited, she was about to open a show of the work of Massey student graduates. She explained that Scott had wanted to put a container out the front to house exhibitions, “but I’ve got all this space so that’s what I decided to do.’’

Simple everyday objects are arranged like art works. A handful of rocks from the beach are dotted along a windowsill. Donna has arranged kete bags, some bought and some gifted, on a wall. In the former garage, her garden tools hang on a wall like an art installation.

The upper storey had an open-plan space where Scott and Donna had their offices. During the renovation, Donna erected a wall down the middle to hang Scott’s framed paintings and to divide up the area. “I added the walls and Scott’s paintings fitted perfectly.’’

Splashes of orange in Scott’s paintings match the hues in the skinny Matai floorboards. “The floor is quite stripey. I like the way the wood warms everything up. When Scott’s paintings went up, everything seemed to work.’’

Donna’s studio where she does illustration work for the Film Commission and mentors Massey University interns, is off to one side. A small sitting room with bookshelves is down the back in the place of Scott’s former office. Tar jugs Scott collected over the years (they used to be used by road workers) are arranged along the bookshelf. “He found one in a foundry. He got one chromed and collected the others.’’

Donna’s bedroom at the back of the house is simple and calm, painted charcoal and white, with art and objects that all hold special meaning for her displayed on a table: a pine cone, one of Scott’s bottle sculptures, and a pottery bowl add texture and contribute to the sense of calm. Art hangs on all the walls. Much of it is by friends of Donna and Scott, including an oar by Leanne Culy, a photograph by Brian Culy, and an art work by the late Fane Flaws.

A second bedroom on the ground floor was occupied by Donna’s nephew for a couple of years. Both bedrooms overlook the garden filled with natives, which are like living sculptures of different shapes, hues, and textures.

Six years ago, a new kitchen was needed after a water pipe burst. “I love my kitchen. The old kitchen was the same dimensions but it didn’t seem to work.’’

In the living area, a memory wall displays some of Scott’s favourite things and mementoes of the time when he was ill – the rings he wore, a toy he had as a child, a hospital band, and a patch of fabric from his jeans are among the dozens of items Donna has arranged.

She points to a weapon which Scott wasn’t allowed as a child. “Scott always loved toys Everything here has a story.” Was it hard having the memories of his illness on display? “Yes, that’s why the house couldn’t stay exactly the same. But everything he loved is here,’’ she says. “I’ve always had Scott’s art around me and I’m proud of him. Now I want the art work to speak in a fairly neutral kind
of space.’’


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