by Frances Adank
This Christchurch couple happily manage the unlikely blend of a passion for painting and the hard facts of everyday family life.
Clare Reilly and Max Podstolski are a Christchurch couple with a shared passion for painting. They're presently preparing for a joint exhibition in their old hometown, Wellington, in June.
The pair met at an artists' studio since demolished under the capital's cablecar, early in 1976. With a group of other budding, young artists they exhibited at the Antipodes Gallery before leaving family and friends for the South Island, hitchhiking 2 packs containing all their worldly goods.
They were married later that year on an auspicious looking date 9/8/76 in a less than auspicious style.
"We only knew 2 people in Christchurch well at that time, so they were our witnesses. We walked out in the afternoon, in the rain, to the Registry Office and 15 minutes later, we were married," Max says.
"One of our witnesses took 5 photographs, we had a cake at a coffee bar in the Square and went home to our flat," Clare says. The flat had no telephone so there were no calls of congratulation from the North Island.
Looking at Max and Clare today, in their old inner-city home with its numerous bedrooms, living room, painting rooms, every corner housing a piece of furniture, objets d'art on every shelf, paintings dotting the walls like stamps on first-day covers, you can see that they have put down their roots in Christchurch.
Their sons Marcel, 4, and Kazimir, 18 months, have made their own contributions to this busy, much-loved home, which manages to look orderly, even in the heart of "Duplo-land", Marcel's bedroom.
Max says he and Clare made a commitment both to each other and to art when they met. "We met through art, fell in love and made a commitment to each other and to an individualistic approach to art and painting. Because we made that commitment, we are still keeping on at it," he says.
"In the early days, it was quite tough because we were working quite closely together and our styles were quite similar," Clare says.
One reviewer of an early joint exhibition commented that it was hard to tell Clare's work from Max's. Since then, the pair have developed in quite separate directions. "We both started out being sort of anti-intellectual, the 2 of us against the art establishment," Max says. "But our attitudes have changed with circumstances."
Both painters work in oils and Max also uses acrylics. They both seem to specialize in clear, clean edges and bold colours, but the content of their work is completely different Max's is more cerebral, while Clare's work is more representational.
"I have a fairly romantic approach to my paintings," Clare says. "I love landscapes houses, hills, gardens, cats, birds." She has also done an occasional portrait of her children or a commissioned work.
"The images I make are the ones I like looking at. If, in the original, there were some rubbish bins, then I might replace them with flowers.
"I'm not into negative, or strong political images. I want to work to make people feel good about themselves and get a positive message from it."
Key influences on Clare's work have been a couple of 3-month trips to Europe, in 1975 and 1986, with her parents. Italian landscapes made a strong impression on her and still appear in some of her latest work.
In sharp contrast, Max says: "My stuff comes from a different place altogether. It's more intellectual in that it's not (literally) descriptive, it's inventive and simultaneously traditionalist and modernist."
Understandably perhaps, Clare's work, which is more easily accessible to the general public, is more popular. Max's paintings more recently based on "the grid" as an ordering device generate more obscure reviews, indigestible to most lay readers unaware of the differences between modernist and post-modernist.
Despite the lack of formal fine arts training, the couple are prodigious painters who thrive on what they do.
"There's always this excitement in the house when we are painting," Clare says. The couple use each other as sounding boards for new directions in their painting, althought tact is often necessary, Max cautions.
"The feedback, advice and the encouragement are
really important," Clare says.
But getting on with "other commitments" is rather hard to avoid, faced with 2 boisterous preschoolers. So how do they get time to paint? "Max is very organized," Clare says. He sets the alarm for 5am each day "to get everything done that I want to do in the day". Clare tries to have an early morning swim at a nearby pool around 6am and says she tries hard "not to do the housework".
"Marcel goes to his Montessori pre-school at 9 o'clock, Kazimir goes down for his morning sleep around 9.30 and I have the breakfast dishes and the mimimum possible housework completed before then. I try to get in 2 hours painting before Kazimir wakes up and we pick up Marcel for lunch."
Max, meanwhile, puts in an 8-hour day at the University of Canterbury as a librarian, cataloguing art books, and paints in the evenings once Marcel is asleep, and at weekends. "We try to balance things between our individual interests and our family home," Max says. "Neither of us has the attitude that art is the be-all and end-all. It's always a question of juggling priorities. If I have an exhibition coming up, I won't have time for the classical guitar."
Clare and Max both love music and playing instruments Clare has just taken up the piano she's inherited from her parents. Somehow, she manages to fit in music and swimming lessons for the boys as well.
Before Marcel was born, Clare was a manager at Smiths City, working a 50-60 hour week and painting very little. "Your thought processes are almost totally involved with that sort of job," she says. "Whereas I find that caring for the children lets me strike a happy medium. My painting is always humming away in my mind, even though there's no point actually trying to paint while the boys are around or, at least, while Kazimir is so young."
In all, Clare worked for Smiths City for 11 years, rising from a part-time clerical position, to managerial ranks. "I swore the day I went for the interview that I would only stay until I had found something better." But in the meantime, the couple bought their house and Clare's income paid for the mortgage and supported them while Max did the final years of his political science degree.
In 1987, Smiths City offered Clare a promotion to Nelson to manage 3 new branches. She weighed up the long weeks, travelling and part-time university papers already occupying so much of her time and decided not to go. "I felt I was in deep enough at that stage and I didn't want to go any further down that path. I really wanted children and I wanted to paint, so my career took a fork in that direction."
"For years, I was not that keen on having children," Max admits. "But we have 2 great boys and they have added so much to our lives."
Max's job pays the bills at present. Ironically, a librarian was never on his list of things-to-be. "My father taught at the library school in Wellington so I decided I was never going to be a librarian," says Max. "But when I eventually finished my degree after years of doing clerical work I found soul-destroying I thought, what am I going to do and the answer hit me: librarian."
The family moved to Wellington for a year in 1989 while Max did his library diploma, then returned to their Christchurch home when he landed his art book cataloguing job in 1990. (Wellingtonians can see Clare Reilly and Max Podstolski's work from June 2-21, at the Merilyn Savill Gallery and Clare's work is also on show in May at Artistic Expressions in Christchurch.)
The 2-storey, neglected house which Clare and Max bought for $20,000, in 1980 (a cheap house even then), is now a much gentrified, recently painted, courtyarded and landscaped inner-city gem.
Aside from additional bathroom facilities, an extended kitchen and an upstairs deck off Clare's studio, the house is true to its 1919 design.
The kitchen extension has a story behind it. In 1981, Clare painted a house in Merivale that she admired and later left a note in the letterbox inviting the owner to see the work at her exhibition. In exchange for the painting of his home, the owner an architect helped Clare design her home's new kitchen/bathroom/laundry area.