Philip Woollaston

Philip is a multi-talented friend who has a wide interest in all the arts especially the visual arts. His father, Toss Woollaston, was one of New Zealand's most famous artists and Philip actually trained as a restorer in order to be able to rescue works of his father's. That was just one of his many trainings. He studied physics and in that capacity came to Linwood High School, where we first met. In order to build a house (out of rammed earth bricks) he was confronted with building regulations and so entered local politics (Collingwood). Shortly after we left New Zealand he entered national politics and rose from rank and file to Minister of the Environment in the Labour Government and then became the New Zealand representative at the United Nations in Nairobi (where we met again for an unforgettable holiday with safari). When his term finished he returned to Nelson, New Zealand, became mayor, and bought land for wine production, something which he did very successfully until his retirement.

Philip enjoying a sculpture by Luginbühl at the Zurich Kunsthaus
Philip enjoying a sculpture by Luginbühl at the Zurich Kunsthaus
I first met Kit Powell over 40 years ago when, as a trainee physics teacher, I joined the high school where he taught in Christchurch, NZ. At first sight I was intimidated by his size and strength (Kit was probably the tallest person I had met at that time) but when he spoke I was surprised by his light voice and gentle manner. And I soon found that, rather than the brash rugby player or basketballer I had assumed at first sight, Kit is one of the most cultured and sensitive people I know. It soon became apparent that his love of the humanities exceeded that of many who were teaching them alongside us.
As our friendship grew I found in him more surprising contradictions. An obvious one was that, though employed principally as a mathematics teacher, Kit's contribution to the school was far greater in the areas of music and drama. With several other talented teachers he inspired students to write, produce and perform an annual musical drama of a scale and standard unheard of at secondary school level. Under Kit's leadership students composed and performed the music (and sometimes invented unconventional ‘instruments’ for the purpose).
I think all Kit's friends are aware of his perseverance - sometimes to the point of stubbornness. One of his stubbornly held beliefs is that everyone is capable of musical expression at some level. He applied this belief to me, despite my accounts of regular rejection by music teachers and choirmasters as being unmusical beyond any redemption. To my delight and pride he eventually had me perform (not well, but without totally disgracing myself) in a small choir of students and staff which he assembled to sing excerpts from his opera The Fisherman and his Wife, though after one brief ‘season’ involving two or three performances we both felt the point had been adequately made! That he managed to make me sing in tune at all is a testament to his great talent as a teacher.”
Another of Kit's unusual qualities is that, despite his passionate support for many causes connected with the arts and the environment, he rarely raises his voice in argument, preferring gentler (and usually more effective) forms of persuasion. Indeed, I can recall seeing him give way to anger in a conventional way only once. Arriving at school one day (late as was often the case) he found that a favourite tree had been cut down, without warning, by contractors hired to extend a building. Kit burst into the staff room red-faced and angry, interrupted the principal's staff meeting without apology and demanded to know who was responsible. No amount of explanation or excuse from the principal could placate him. It was a complete victory for Kit - apart from the unfortunate fact that the tree had already been felled.
Although it is over 36 years since we lived in the same city, our friendship endures. I remember with pleasure visits in both directions. Kit and Brigitte staying with Chan and me when we briefly lived in Kenya, his DAT recorder an essential piece of safari equipment, taping everything from the din of tinsmiths in the Jua Kali market to the chirping of crickets in the evening. I remember too our safari together into the Masai Mara and Serengeti National Parks and the baboons which broke into our tent to steal the precious supply of Basler Laeckerli. And also their incomparable hospitality on many occasions when I travelled through Zurich en route to meetings in Geneva (and was introduced to the wonderful sculptures of Giacometti, Luginbuehl and Tinguely in the Zurich Kunsthaus) and again when Chan and I visited them in Eglisau on our trip round the world in 2000 (and a bottle of ancient ‘sipping rum’ magically disappeared!). We have enjoyed too, their infrequent and all too brief visits to us in New Zealand, usually coinciding with performances of Kit's music.
Kit's friendship has enriched my life in many ways. I am a particularly bad correspondent and I am grateful for Kit's perseverance, that gentle stubbornness with which he has insisted on our keeping in touch and keeping the friendship active, however far apart we might be living. Now that he has reached the grand age of 75 we might not go on tent safaris any more (though the Powell tent is still in our garage in New Zealand) but there are many adventures of the mind and the eye and ear to come, and I hope more bottles of wine to share.
Philip Woollaston, Nelson New Zealand