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Colin Belfit, Living With An Artist

Colin Belfit grew up in 1970s Turangi, amongst a culture of tangata whenua, Italian mining families, and American evangelical Christians. After leaving school, he studied at the Auckland Technical Institute to become a Textile Technician. This was a mistake, as he really wanted to be a musician. Here, he shares his perspective on life with an artist in the house – in this case, outstanding photographer and 2019 Arts Foundation Laureate, Yvonne Todd.

Loading a dishwasher can be difficult enough without someone else cramping your style. Checking that all the dishes have been rinsed thoroughly, arranging items so that no cupped surface will hold water after the cycle finishes, grouping similar items together…for some reason. My background is in computer programming, and my brain demands logic and order.

Living with Yvonne, there are things that just don’t fit within my cognitive parameters, and after twenty eight years together, I’ve found it easier to just accept these anomalies, and make my own adjustments. Whether it’s picking up the peanut butter jar by the lid only to find that the slippery lid has not been screwed on at all, or finding that the rubbish bag has been installed in such a way that it billows with air, and allows only a few small items to be added, it essentially comes down to the day-to-day meeting of “logical mind” and “highly creative mind”.

The flat surfaces in our house, for instance, have a life of their own. No matter how often they’re cleared, they seem to grow new junk by themselves within a few days. I know that having three small boys doesn’t help, but generally this is symptomatic of Yvonne’s haphazard filing system, and her disinterest in boring tasks, like putting things away.

I have always been interested in good design and architecture, and I loved those photos of great architectural houses, with their minimal, ordered interiors. I once bought a book of Julius Shulman photographs; he is responsible for many of those iconic images of pristine mid-century modern houses. There was a picture of him setting up one of his photos, with all of the stuff from the room piled up behind him, exposing how stage-managed these interior photos are, and how unrealistic it is to aspire to this level of perfection. People do live in these houses, and these people do have junk, just like us.

During the 2020 Covid lockdown, Yvonne was commissioned to create a photo essay of our confinement, with our kids, in our house, and it was messy, but there was honesty in the chaos, and there was life. I initially thought to myself that we should tidy the house first, but once I saw the photos, I knew that would have been a mistake. It would have been boring, and art should not be boring.

Self-timer lockdown portrait, 2020

For most of my younger life I had no real interest in art. Contemporary art in particular I found sometimes chaotic, apparently random, and even unnerving. It turned out that I just didn’t understand what art was, or more accurately, should be, and I was missing the point.

Then, living alone in a warehouse space in the city, a few years before I met Yvonne, I found myself growing increasingly weary of the movie and music posters I had on my walls. No matter how much I liked a poster, it would eventually begin to irritate me. So I decided to leave the walls blank, which was a revelation. The posters had been directing my thoughts every time I walked into a room, and I noticed my mind could be still without them.

I didn’t initially make the connection with art until I began living with Yvonne. The art hanging on the walls of our house has a similar effect to the blank walls in my former space. I don’t notice the artworks until I choose to engage with them, and the experience is always different, but never irritating.

Living with Yvonne is certainly not dull. She has a sharp and strange sense of humour that is one of the most important factors in our relationship. Those who enjoy her art can relate to its unsettling sense of the mundane, which seems to have seeped in from another dimension. Besides her broad knowledge of all things art-related, she is well read on many topics, particularly biographies, and has always been a voracious reader. She also has an amazing memory, and I can always rely on her accurate recall.

Life in our house can be very demanding for someone as logically-directed as myself. Many times I’m expected to be involved with Yvonne’s photo shoots, willing or not, and I have occasionally found myself coerced into being the subject of her art. My logic can prove useful to Yvonne though, especially when applied to tasks like assembling the backdrop, or operating the 4x5 view camera for her self-portraits while she barks instructions at me.

Yvonne by Colin; Colin by Yvonne, 2021

Although Yvonne loading the dishwasher incorrectly may exasperate me, my “unique relationship with time” means I’m often late, and this is something that she finds infuriating. Yvonne is motivated by urgency, and I shouldn’t have been surprised when, after many years, I casually asked her why she insisted on placing only one or two items on the left side of the dishwasher cutlery tray, while there was still space available on the right side. Was it artistic expression, or maybe superstition? How deflating for me when it turned out that she only wanted to place the items in the tray without having to pull it right out. What I’d mistaken for a logic deficit all this time was actually Yvonne’s impatience. Creating art is the way she channels her restless thoughts.

Hypertrophic 2, 2020, Hypertrophic 2, 2020 (test shot)

Yvonne Todd