When Helen Klisser During left her home near New York for New Zealand in late 2019 for her annual visit to see family, like all of us, she could never have foreseen what lay ahead. Armed with two suitcases, the Kiwi-born photojournalist and art advocate came for the summer and never left. With the holiday-turned-homecoming, a North Shore family picture decades in the painting was complete.
Helen knows she could not have walked into a nicer neighbourhood. Her newly acquired patch adjacent to Takapuna Beach is a beautiful coastal walk away from her parents’ home and a far cry from the USA she left behind. Her new neighbourhood has proved to be an urban utopia during the pandemic. “I’ve been blown away by the kindness and the ingenuity of this local community,” she says. A street WhatsApp group, dog walking by young neighbours, sharing of fresh baking, a burgeoning neighbourhood orchard, Helen’s list of evidence of a caring community goes on.
Her father Johan and Janna Klisser met in New Zealand and emigrated from Holland in the 1950s. They have been married for over 65 years and have lived life together including creating one of NZ’s great brands – Vogel’s bread. They are very grateful to be together at the age of 95 and 92 and to be surrounded by their four children and their families.
“The family is delighted I’ve finally come home,” Helen smiles. “It’s absolutely wonderful being so close to my parents.” She bakes bread for them almost every day and is grateful to have been here ‘in a bubble’ with them during lockdown. She has two sons – Max and Zach. Max works for Kiwibank and has recently bought a house with his partner in Birkenhead Point with his partner Eleanor. Zach and his fiancée Cara still live in Connecticut, where Helen was previously based.
A period of 33 years living in the USA - mainly in Connecticut and working in and around New York - separates Helen’s Kiwi childhood years and her life now. Born and raised in Auckland, she was a talented athlete; part of the New Zealand ski team and a former Sportswoman of the Year at Auckland University, where she studied art history. Her ski career ended when she broke her back in a downhill race in Switzerland. She spent three months in hospital and defied doctors when she went on to race again, coming runner up in the national championships in her first race back when statistically she should never have walked again. “When you have been so close to the edge, you appreciate it all so much more,” she says. A Humpty Dumpty ornament in her art-adorned home is a reminder of how life can crack.
In one of her many concurrent roles, working as the ambassador for AUT has enabled Helen to shout about New Zealand on a world stage. She has been behind several global art success stories, such as the projection of melting ice caps installation on the United Nations buildings in New York, and her work as a photojournalist has seen her capture moments of tragedy and hope. Rwanda, Malawi, Congo, El Salvador and Nicaragua have provided backdrops to her work, their people the subjects. An assignment to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010 has a special place in her heart, and her home, with framed images taken on disposable cameras by children living in hardship, telling stories from her walls.
“It’s important to me to be involved in projects that pull together teams of creative minds working in search of the betterment of our environment; how we can make it a fairer, safer place for everyone.”
Helen hosted another Helen, former Prime Minister Helen Clark, in New York, for a guided tour of the city’s leading art galleries and museums, which developed into a friendship that endured. “In fact, it was Helen who suggested I stay in New Zealand following the outbreak of the pandemic. She warned me it might be too hard to get back here if I left in 2020. I’m very glad I stayed.”
Her home has reminders of the many other famous figures she has worked alongside, from politicians to painters, actors to architects, all over the world. Connecting people – be it through art, or with a personal introduction gives Helen great joy. “I love taking pictures. To me, a photograph is a receipt of time. I love documenting life in that way.
“There’s no greater gift than a good introduction,” she says. “The gift of introducing someone to another person so they both go on to grow a relationship is a wonderful thing. It means they each share a part of you that is woven into them and their new relationship somehow.”
Helen wears a silver bangle, made from smelted gun parts. Her efforts to contribute to a decrease in gun violence in the USA led to the formation of a cross-sector arts initiative, #UNLOAD, alongside Mary Himes, wife of US Congressman Jim Himes. The pair brought together lawmakers, doctors, prisoners, shooting survivors, children of gun crime victims, rappers, reverends and more to open conversations and work towards solutions.
Despite the ongoing tragic gun violence around the world, Helen doesn’t believe people are powerless to effect change and, to her, it’s important that apathy is countered at every turn. “We were working with children who has lost parents in shootings and who were afraid to go to school. We were asking how do we get rid of semi-automatic weapons? We were getting people with very different opinions around the table to talk. If you simply think you can’t do anything, that’s pretty depressing to me.”
Her beloved dog, Pip, quenched her thirst for a canine companion this year, coming from a farm near her parents’ merino-producing sheep station in the Mackenzie Basin. Helen’s 11 year-old neighbour volunteered to walk the German short-haired pointer following Helen’s recent hip replacement operation and previous double dislocation. As might be expected from someone who fully recovered from a near fatal ski-ing accident and was raised by a Holocaust survivor, the operation proved more of an inconvenience than a major life event.
Helen hardly stands still for a second – literally and metaphorically – sharing the back stories to her many artworks with passion and pride as she flits from piece to piece. And the list of projects she is involved with is immense. From consulting on the proposed waterfront museum in Auckland with Sir Bob Harvey to the planned MoART complex bordering Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, a collection of advisory roles and board memberships, a popular new Art Café blog, and high-end ‘Arts Safari’ tours for serious art collectors – this is a taste of what now occupies her daily life. She is ably assisted by a locally based Oxford University graduate Laura Cheftel to help manage her professional affairs.
The dining delights on her doorstep make Helen fizz – new café Kinship being the closest, Kyo-Ya Japanese being another favourite local, which she often frequents with neighbours. Bien Sushi is a regular stop for lunch, Botticelli is another winner for dinner, as is Tokyo Bay, and she adores The Engine Room in Northcote Point, as well as The Bridgeway cinema opposite. “There are so many incredible local places to mention, such as Takapuna Boating Club. I think that place is wonderful. And I can’t forget Takapuna Beach Café. That really is the emerald in Takapuna’s crown.”
The Booklover in Milford in her favourite store and she relies on the artistic talents of Franca Logan at Florienne to keep her supplied in fresh flowers for her dining table. Arts-wise, she is pleased to have the Bruce Mason Centre ‘gem’ nearby and has a particular soft spot for Northart in Northcote.
“New Zealand has amazing artists and architects and really celebrates this. Chances are, when you go into a doctor’s surgery for example, you’ll see pieces of art on the wall. That wouldn’t be the case in the States."
Her home has more art than many galleries. From the figurative to the photographic, the abstract to the avant-garde. Helen is a collector and a connector. A row of her own black and white framed photographs depicting candid NYC moments serve as a powerful pointer towards her past. And although now far away from the fast pace and short shift of Manhattan, surrounded by ‘delightful’ neighbours and lots of local love, these pictures act as a reminder of that Big Apple energy and that life, everywhere, goes on.