At 71, Peter Coolbear is part of a growing community at The Learning Connexion (TLC) reconnecting with their creativity after long careers in other industries. We had a chat with the former plant scientist who has rediscovered his love for painting.
Hi Peter. You’ve had a long journey to get to TLC. Tell us a bit about your background.
Born in London, raised in Yorkshire, I emigrated to New Zealand from the UK in 1985 and am married to Kay who’s from Gisborne. We’ve lived in Porirua since 2008. Porirua is definitely home. Our daughter and son-in-law and their five children now live 10 minutes down the road since they came back from the UK in 2014.
I was originally a plant scientist/biochemist and came to New Zealand to lecture at Massey University in Palmerston North. In the mid-nineties I moved into tertiary education management and have worked in various management and governance roles since.
I am now semi- (well, mainly) retired, although I still jointly own a consultancy business for tertiary education and records management with Kay.
So how did you end up at The Learning Connexion?
I’ve always been interested in art, although at the school I went to in England we had to give it up if we wanted to do the second foreign language required by some universities at the time. All the more galling because that second language was Latin.
I’d always said (mainly jokingly) I would go to art school by the time I was 40, but I’m a late developer and other things got in the way. So I was 66 when I enrolled at TLC to do the Certificate as a distance student.
The programme was really engaging, but even better was the flexibility TLC offered when I had to defer my studies when consultancy work in Fiji became much more of a commitment than I had originally expected. Being able to take time out and then come back once I’d had that other adventure meant an enormous amount to me. I remain very grateful indeed.
I completed the Certificate in 2018 and then, last year (2022), decided to carry on with the Level 5 Diploma as a part-time student, mainly because I want to continue to develop my painting and also because doing the programme formally gives me some much-needed discipline to keep working on my art practice. It is surprising how busy you become when you stop working full-time: there are so many distractions!
I am definitely still learning to paint. I now know how to move the paint around, but I am still a ‘tentative marker’. I am trying to loosen up, but keep ending up more precise than I expect – this is a constant challenge.
So painting is your preferred method of creative expression?
Painting and drawing are my thing. I have always been keenly interested in photography and over the years have accumulated a very considerable archive of subjects to paint and draw. Even when I wasn’t actively painting, I was always thinking “I could paint that someday”. Now is someday.
I am interested in landscape and history and gardens: all these influence my choice of subject. My style is quite realistic and I choose subjects with which I have an emotional connection. I often use more than one reference photo to create the final work so that my painting is often deliberately about a sense of place, rather than a straight-forward representation.
I participated in two New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts shows in 2022. One of my paintings actually sold. OK, it was for their fundraiser and the $300 didn’t come to me, but it still counts!
Congrats! Do you have a project you are currently working on?
I tend to have several things on the go at once. Currently, I have been exploring representation of flowers in different cultures and have just started on a set of small flower paintings that I hope will reflect different art traditions (including loosening up a bit!) – early days on this.
Also, I have a two-thirds finished painting of Port O’Warren Bay in Galloway, Scotland – a place where we used to go often when we were kids and where I was lucky enough to revisit over 50 years later in 2019. The view I am trying to paint is an amalgam of two views: you can’t actually see both sides of the bay at once.
Also – and hugely ambitious – I am halfway through a drawing of my Dad’s platoon in the desert during World War 2 – way out of my depth on this one, but that, for me, is what doing a programme like this is all about.
Absolutely. What are some of the things you enjoy most about studying at TLC?
Although nominally a distance student, I do try and attend at least one mains or block class a term. TLC is about half an hours’ drive from where I live (although it’s a much longer journey back with the commuter traffic at the end of the day). So, technically, I am studying by ‘blended delivery’.
While I relish the flexibility of distance study, coming onsite energises me. The quality of the teaching I’ve encountered has been brilliant and really helped me explore different aspects of my practice.
I also very much enjoy the regular contact with my mentor, Dennis Poole. I like to think of myself as pretty self-directed, but he keeps sending me down unexpected pathways which have proved to be challenging and very rewarding.
At the moment, half-way through the Level 5 Diploma, the impetus is definitely provided by being on the programme itself. I am quite disciplined about putting in the hours. Ideas are always bubbling away and you need to make room for the unpredictable.
Have you had any recent highlights or 'wow' moments with your art?
After a session on underpainting by Marc Hill, realising that using a smoky red ground would be an ideal way of progressing the Galloway picture which had been sitting around in my studio for a while.
Another was realising that I could, after all, with a few nudges from Alan Poole, draw a reasonable likeness of one of my grandchildren!
What advice would you give people starting out at The Learning Connexion and wanting to pursue a creative pathway?
I think it’s different for everyone. I’ve been involved, one way or another, with vocational education all my career.
The great feature of TLC is that its approach to education is the most student-centred, I have ever come across. It’s also highly practically focussed. So, my best advice is to actively lever off that.
TLC gives you huge freedom to explore, but once you have some ideas of what you want to do, explore with staff about how you might develop those ideas.
This doesn’t mean being closed to other approaches or foregoing the opportunity to explore other media, but, within the broad constraints of the qualifications offered, TLC gives you the chance to set your own agenda about how to meet the required outcomes. This is a rare gift and opportunity.
How have you transformed during your time at The Learning Connexion?
The ageing educationalist in me thinks ‘transformed’ is an overused word.
So much of education is about fostering the skills and confidence to explore and understand. My TLC experience has been one of exploring a long-held ambition. It is exciting, it’s fulfilling, it’s often quite challenging, but that’s good too.
What's holding you back from your own long-held ambition? Enrol today at TLC to study onsite or from home
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