Inside the fantastical home and garden of Waiheke artist (and former mermaid) Ann Skelly
Daily swims and barefooted adventures lured this British couple to Aotearoa. When a siren call came a second time from across the sea, they followed — and never looked back.
Words: Cari Johnson Photos: Tessa Chrisp
There is truth in the fabled sightings of Waiheke Island’s purple-finned mermaid. Ann Skelly, a studio painter in Ostend, didn’t intend to become part of local folklore when she hauled her custom-made mermaid tail to a quiet beach, shimmied her toes into the fin, and cast her fantastical alter-ego into the sea.
Nevertheless, children had a sixth sense for spotting her luminescent lower half. Some adults, too. Once, a real-estate agent screeched his car to a halt when a client spotted a fishy nymph out yonder. “Well, I’ll be damned,” said the agent with a twinkle in his eye. “Only on Waiheke.”
Ann’s silicone tail is life-sized, fully swimmable and endured a decade of watery outings (and a few kids’ birthday parties) before the ankle straps snapped. This part-time mermaid is retired — for now.
Ann’s aquatic kit fits a woman who paints seascapes for a living and has had 12 garments accepted by the World of WearableArt (WOW). It’s perhaps not surprising that her first costume entry, Dream Hunter, was a cloak haunted by hand-painted mermaids who appeared trapped inside the cloth. Many whimsical looks have leap-frogged from Ann’s imagination. The favourites include a mossy mermaid bra and Tubular Belle, a gown made from pink file folders selected to appear on billboards, bus stops and a limited-edition label of Brancott Estate wine.
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Her husband, Richard “Skels” Skelly, an athletics-keen man who works for Sport New Zealand, accommodates her exuberant ways. Once, when Ann entered a body-painting competition on a whim, she practised her (gold trophy-winning) jungle painting on his bare back while he watched the rugby.
Skels doesn’t mind that colour has taken over their 82-square-metre home in Ostend, much like the wily wisteria vines in their cottage garden out back. Nor did he ever mind hauling her glittery tail around the island and to their 10-metre yacht for two of her favourite pastimes: mermaiding and sailing.
The tale of how these two met in England is worthy of a sailor’s sea shanty. In the 1970s, both were living in residence halls at Loughborough College. He was a Northern Irish lad studying physical education, and she was an art student from Lancashire. One day Ann answered the door to Skels and his mates, with one intending to woo a girl in her residence hall. (“I was moral support,” says Skels.) Though the girl wasn’t around, the failed courtship led a flustered Ann to invite the boys in for coffee.
Rumour has it Skels was left lovestruck when she signed his leg cast with “to my knight in shining white plaster”.
One summer later, and long after their only date, Skels tracked down Ann at her new flat. “One night, there was a knock on the window. He’d been to almost every house down the street, leaving notes in letterboxes asking if I lived there,” she says. Six months later, the artist and sportsman got married.
If the newlyweds had been told their forever home was to be on a little Antipodean island with some 10,000 residents, they would’ve laughed. Early in their marriage, Skels taught P.E. at the prestigious Haileybury College near London while Ann raised their three children (William, Jenny and Alice). Alice was still a newborn when itchy feet struck. “We started to think, ‘What else?’ We wanted an adventure,” says Ann.
When the couple first moved to Auckland in 1987 with two toddlers and a baby, it was supposed to be for a 12-month teaching exchange Skels had secured at Auckland Grammar.
It took much less time for the jandal-wearing, laid-back Kiwi way to convince them to stay permanently. It starkly contrasted the formalities and traditions that hailed at Haileybury. “We hadn’t realized how formal our life had once been.” They never moved back.
Besides their audible (and inaudible) reactions to a rugby try, Ann and Skels tend to be in sync on most things — especially adventure. Years after becoming bonafide Aucklanders, with a home in Sandringham renovated to the max, Skels came home from work one day with a real-estate brochure for Waiheke Island. Island life had always been in the too-hard basket, more a far-fetched fantasy than practical for a family of five.
In fact, Ann recalls the day they first realized it was habitable. “Look,” she said while on a boat with some friends. “There’s a road and cars. People actually live there!”
Waiheke now offered a curious, (mostly) practical proposition: adventure. So, they put an offer on a house overlooking Pūtiki Bay and were on the return ferry when the vendors accepted their offer. And that was that — they were moving to Waiheke. Skels had been promoted to director of sport at Auckland Grammar and would commute into the city with the kids.
“How do you guys feel about living on Waiheke?” Ann asked their three teenagers that night.
“Yeah, whatever, Mum,” they replied.
“Oh good, because we just bought a house there.”
“Yeah, right, Mum,” they said. Screams of excitement followed shortly after.
There’s something curious about Waiheke that draws creative souls in and never lets them go. Becoming a full-time islander was a turning point for Ann, who is especially grateful for Waiheke Community Art Gallery’s role in helping grow her practice.
Left alone in her home studio while the rest of the family ferried to work and school, she inhaled that salty sea air and exhaled her surroundings with acrylic paint. Over the years, her art has plumbed the ocean’s depths, from its mythical creatures to the birds ashore. She has only recently settled on its surface as her muse.
“I’ve honed my art down to paintings of the sea, even though it’s the most technically difficult. My hands just seem to know what to do,” she says.
Not that Ann has always been studio-bound — this mermaid knows how to cast her net far and wide. Over her career, Ann has illustrated children’s books, created designs for dinnerware, taught art and ceramics and designed all sorts of stationery. She also gained a place in the special-effects department at Wētā Workshop in Wellington, where she and Skels moved for his dream job with New Zealand Rugby in 2005.
Though details of her Wētā projects are kept hush-hush, Ann can reveal that the kingdom of prop design is where she discovered silicone mermaid tails were “a thing”. The couple’s seven-year stint in Wellington was also convenient for the family’s devout attendance at the World of WearableArt Show every spring. But Wellington wasn’t Waiheke, so, with their first grandchild on the way, they hurried back to their forever island. “That was always the deal,” says Skels.
What they have on Waiheke is adventure, however big or small. Three years ago, Ann and Skels downsized from their four-bedroom home in Calais Terrace to a cottage in Ostend, now with a garden and matching studio out back.
The sportsman still travels back and forth to Auckland by ferry for work and, several times a year, commutes by plane to run coaching courses as an accredited master trainer for World Rugby. In his side gig, Skels has been to Japan, Korea, Italy and throughout Oceania and now mostly runs twice-annual courses in Fiji. His creative counterpart is happy to tag along.
“I guess our life is a bit fantastical,” says Ann. “To us, it feels like a fantasy.”
STILL WATERS RUN DEEP
Ann Skelly’s acrylic paintings have evolved from ethereal underwater scenes to landscapes and seascapes. She calls them “semi-realistic”, knowing full well she can get carried away with an overzealous splash or frothiness of seafoam. She uses her own photographs from around the island and on sailing trips as references.
“My work is really about the beauty of the colour. It evokes a lot of emotion. People often say, ‘I could just jump into that painting.’ It’s a pleasure to paint water, so it looks real to people,” she says. Ann’s garden studio in Ostend is open by appointment, and her work can be found at Oneroa’s Upcycle ReDesign Shop and Waiheke Community Art Gallery.
WAIHEKE’S FAIRY GLADE
Over the past three years, the Skellys have transformed their quarter-acre (one hectare) section in Ostend into a whimsical maze of wisteria tunnels, bloom-speckled shrubs and romantic vines. No matter that the bare lawn was half the size of their former Waiheke garden, out went the grass and banana palms and in went a rose arbour and frothy swathes of silvers, greys and greens. Ann and Skels’ garden was one of 10 featuring in the 2022 Waiheke Garden Festival.
Skels is the upcycling mastermind, recently fashioning a greenhouse from stained glass, antique windows and a derelict door. Ann is happiest as head weeder and pruner. “If I can’t find her, I just go to the door and listen for a snip, snip, snip,” says her husband.