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Bread and roses

Middle management in a large Connecticut bakery wasn't Helen Klisser During's dream job, but she knew what she was doing—priming for her return to Godzone and her parent's company, Vogel's. But when Vogel's was suddenly sold, she reinvented her future as curator and art advisor to New York's elite. By Mitchell Hall.

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Portraits by Nick Ruechel

Middle management in a large Connecticut bakery wasn’t Helen Klisser During’s dream job, but she knew what she was doing—priming for her return to Godzone and her parents’ company, Vogel’s. When Vogel’s was suddenly sold, however, she reinvented her future as curator and art advisor to New York’s elite.

In 1976, Helen Klisser was 18 years old and a member of the New Zealand ski team. She lost control racing at 120km/h down a steep slope in Switzerland, smashing into the mountainside and fracturing her spine. She was in a hospital bed for three months and retired from the team.

Four years after what should have been a career-ending injury, Klisser entered the New Zealand National Skiing Championship on a whim as the last seed. She won the first run of the giant slalom and finished runner-up in the championship. The eldest of four siblings has bloody-minded grit and passion imprinted in her DNA.

During those four years Klisser attended the University of Auckland, studying art history and English literature. While there she met a brilliant boy named Matthew During who was studying to be a neuroscientist. Both were very keen on the outdoors and shared an interest in classical music and the opera. At one point during their courtship Klisser considered studying film at NYU, and spent three “glorious” weeks there in 1979; imagine the decadence of New York’s Studio 54 at that time compared with Muldoon’s New Zealand. But Klisser didn’t want to part from During for two years. She decided to return to New Zealand and work as a sales rep for her parents’ bakery, Vogel’s Bread.

Klisser was very comfortable with the family business and pictured herself working with her parents till the end of her days. As a child she and her siblings would spend days in the bakery “working in the dispatch, taking bread off the belt ... we grew up learning about bread, talking about bread and sex and politics. As a little kid when my father was delivering bread I would be in the front seat; I really knew the bread business inside out.”

But the marketing? Not so much. So she sat in on a course at Lincoln for four months, and embarked on an MBA back at the University of Auckland. A year into it, she married During and a year after that he was awarded a two-year fellowship at prestigious Boston university MIT.

Klisser During decided to approach the distributor for the major bakery in the US’s north-east, Pepperidge Farm, and she was offered a marketing position. “This was great,” she thought. “We could maybe get Vogels there.” But it turned out the position wasn’t in Boston; there were only sales positions available there. Depsite her lack of sales experience, she begged for a job and got one. Klisser During really took to sales, but Pepperidge founder Margaret Rudkin asked her to reconsider the marketing role in Connecticut, promising to introduce her husband to people at Yale University. Shortly thereafter During became an associate professor of neurosurgery at Yale and they settled into a quiet, leafy Connecticut suburb. Nestled between New York and Massachusetts, Connecticut’s population of 3.4 million boasts the highest per capita income and median household income in the US. The young couple felt they had the world at their feet.

That comfortable idyll was abruptly broken. In 1990, after five years with Pepperidge Farm and while pregnant with her second son Zach, Klisser During’s parents called with big news: they’d sold Vogel’s to Goodman Fielder Wattie.

“And I was shocked. I had always assumed I would go back into the family business—that’s why I was at Pepperidge Farm. I resigned from there two weeks later, because there was no way I was staying in middle management corporate America. I’d learned a lot, but the culture had changed radically since I’d been there, and seeing as I wasn’t going into the bakery business I wasn’t going to tread water—end of story.” Time for a change in direction.

“My passion was always in the arts. Very luckily as a kid we’d go back to Holland to visit my grandmother every year. We’d spend time in Amsterdam and visit the Van Gogh museum, other museums, always running around and looking at works you couldn’t see in New Zealand.”

Still reeling from her parents’ bombshell, Klisser During met a woman called Kim Tyler who made prints of fine art: David Hockney, Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein. Inspired by her new friend, Klisser During immediately started brokering these limited-edition prints in her hometown of Westport, Connecticut. “I put a little ad in the paper selling blue-chip prints, trying to attract New Yorkers that had migrated ... it was of a Roy Lichtenstein baby with its mouth wide open screaming. That’s how I started my first little business, as an art advisor.”

Klisser During admits she “came in through the back door into art advisory” but it wasn’t long before she was taken under the wing of Knight Landesman, publisher of major art journal Artforum Magazine, who had been to New Zealand and loved it. Every week he would invite Klisser During to a lunch or a dinner with gallerists, artists, international curators and writers in New York. “I very, very quickly got to know the New York art scene,” she says.

The first time Klisser During went to bid for art, at the venerable Christies auction house, she didn’t get very far. In fact, she couldn’t even get into the main room. Thinking fast, she called her father whose best friend happened to run Christies in Amsterdam. Before she knew it, she was in and had committed a six-figure sum for a piece. She was quite overwhelmed. “It was a lot of money at that point!”

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The first time Klisser During went to bid for art, at the venerable Christies auction house, she didn’t get very far. If fact, she couldn’t even get into the main room

Early this year Klisser During accepted the position of director of visual arts at Connecticut’s Westport Arts Center. She also regularly travels the world advising collectors and buying art on behalf of clients in New Zealand, Connecticut and New York, as well as curating exhibitions. Her first exhibition at the Westport Arts Center, titled The Divine Comedy in homage to the poet Dante, was a celebration of comic book art. Klisser During spent months curating a selection of works from acclaimed New Yorker comic artist Roz Chast, alongside subversive and seminal comic artist Robert Crumb of Fritz The Cat fame.

I visited Klisser During on the night of the opening. There was an after-party at her home where it seemed like literally everyone from the opening had been transported, including the mayor. Wine and food flowed freely and Chast said a few words though sadly Crumb was absent. He’d just finished an amazing hardcover tome fully illustrating the Book of Genesis from the Bible.

Klisser During invited us to stay the night rather than take a late train back to Manhattan. Her two-storey white colonial home set on a verdant half-acre gives a good indication as to why clients feel comfortable giving her their money. There are dark wood floors, flowers, books spanning art, religion, literature, politics, poetry and design, and the white walls are proudly adorned with modern art, Ramones posters, blown-up photography and eye-catching prints. Her home is deceptively large, stylish and comfortable, but she notes its modesty in comparison with some of the palatial mansions close by. There are oil, tech and finance billionaires nestled around Connecticut with houses the size of hospitals; what’s more staggering is that many of these are mere holiday homes.

One of Klisser During’s wealthier New Zealand clients is a prominent businessman and major art collector with a sculpture farm north of Auckland that is visible in satellite photography. Acting on his behalf, she has been involved in adding magnificent contemporary sculptures from Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt and most recently Floating Mountain of Immortals, a stunning floating island by Zhan Wang constructed of stainless steel.

Klisser During is grounded enough that her position of relative privilege is not lost on her, and it’s no doubt part of what drives her creative charity work. When Haiti’s earthquake struck in January 2010, she had only just started as director at the Westport Arts Center. The Save The Children headquarters was right next door so she went to ask if the Arts Center could do anything, offering its space for fundraising. Inspired by the Kids With Cameras programme from Born Into Brothels, a 2004 documentary about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta who were given cameras to document their lives, Klisser During flew to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in April with 50 cameras for a project she called Resilience through the Rubble. She asked orphans to take pictures for two days, describing the love of looking, the joy of capturing a moment and the importance of documenting time. On her return, Helen Clark asked to use the photos for the UN development fund. You can buy an image through the program for $250, all of which goes directly to the Haitian orphanage Carma (which is comprised of two tents) and support a child for a year through school. Klisser During is also involved in a much bigger, more ambitious public art project that will launch in mid-2011. Details are yet to be released but she says it will involve “iconic images of New York” and will benefit children, albeit on a much larger scale. For 2012 she is working on curating a public art exhibition in Manhattan for the Tara Oceans Project, a non-profit programme directed by Etienne Bourgois, CEO of French fashion brand Agnès B.

“In the art world you meet all these incredible people,” says Klisser During, “and for me I think my calling card in life is just bringing people together.”

You really can’t understand this driven woman until you understand a little about her family and their business, and it’s a story worth telling. Her father Johan Klisser grew up in Holland during the 30s when Nazi troops abruptly interrupted his childhood. His family quickly cottoned on to the fate of Jewish people under the Third Reich, and conspired to put 12-year-old Johan into hiding with an Amsterdam neighbour in a block of apartments, much like Anne Frank. Johann’s little brother Leo was not so fortunate—aged seven, he was just too young and unpredictable to be hidden. Johan’s father, mother and brother were found hiding in the countryside and taken by train to infamous prison camp Auschwitz. It wasn’t until the war was over Johan learned his entire family had perished.

Aged 16 by then, he was meant to be adopted but instead joined the Dutch army and went to Indonesia, spending three years as a gopher. A year after his return to Holland, he and a friend bought a one-way ticket around the world. That’s how he eventually found himself in New Zealand. Stepping ashore in around 1950 with little education, no family and no job, he had four pounds in his pocket—roughly five or six hundred dollars in today’s currency. He was introduced to Dr Max Reizenstein, who offered him a job. Reizenstein was a German Jewish immigrant who missed coarse German-style breads, so had started baking German wholemeal rye bread for his family and a few friends before establishing a small bakery in Ponsonby, Auckland. His combination of barley, oats and rye was a unique alternative to the only choice available at the time, Tip Top white bread.

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Vogel’s grew from a tiny little shoe-box bakery with no one supporting them. Quality was essential to my father and mother’s mission. And that’s why I’m driven, I want them to be proud of me

Displaying the first stirrings of an entreprenurial spirit, Johan decided he wanted a a loaf of bread sculpted on top of his little delivery van, and was told there was a Dutch sculptor living in Auckland who could do it. “So my father visits this Dutch sculptor, and the first loaf of bread looked like a coffin,” says Klisser During.

“At the time my mother Janna—who is also Dutch, from Rotterdam—was visiting her cousin who was married to the sculptor, and my parents met at the sculptor’s workshop. Neither were planning to live in New Zealand.” From all accounts they’ve been joined at the hip ever since.

Reizenstein gave Johan a penny commission for every extra loaf of bread he sold. “Then after two or three years they stopped paying him the commission,” recalls Klisser During. “I don’t know why. So my father quit.”

The two Dutch immigrants got married, started their own bakery, Klisser’s Farmhouse Bakeries in Howick, and bought out Reizenstein. Johan made the dough, baked and delivered the bread, while Janna ran the books and did everything else. It was a tiny bakery above another shop.

“They worked very hard and they did it in a very small, small way. Then in 1964 my father got the franchise for Vogel’s bread, which they had come across in Australia. Dr Alfred Vogel was a Swiss botanist who won an international nutrition prize in 1956 for the most nutritious bread and started licensing it.” There were no added fats or sugars in Vogel’s, it was low sodium and high fibre—and this was years before these qualities were marketed as desirable in food.

“Dad had adapted the recipe a bit using Dr Reizenstein’s wet dough and very long fermentation, and it became a big hit. It was very grainy and also delicious. It’s very different to the Australian Vogel’s, or the English Vogel’s. For years you couldn’t slice it because it was too wet; the blades wouldn’t go through it.”

The Klissers were able to franchise Vogels back to Germany, and tried in Singapore but it didn’t take off like it did in New Zealand, where it became a cultural icon. “I dropped off Vogel’s bread for Helen Clark”, says Klisser During. “All sorts of people are crazy about Vogels bread. Every expat, it’s one of the things we miss along with Pohutukawa trees, beautiful beaches ... some decent bread!” (It’s almost impossible to find decent bread in many American supermarkets—food coloring is even added to white bread to make it brown, along with other additives, preservatives and sugar.)

“So they grew from a tiny little shoe-box bakery, with no one supporting them—no mother or father, not a dollar anywhere. Klissers made a variety of bread including hamburger buns, hotdog rolls, wholeweat bread, rye bread, Jewish bread and so on. There were no preservatives and it all went through a natural fermentation process. Obviously all the ingredients were the best ingredients. Quality was essential to my father and mother’s mission.

“And that’s why I’m driven, I want them to be proud of me. I think my parents believe it would be a much easier lifestyle in New Zealand, and Dad did insist that I go back to New Zealand when I was divorced, because it was shocking to have a two-year-old and a four-year-old and be alone. It was very hard, but I was just determined to make it. And it takes a long time to make it. So you weigh each day and just give it your best, and have fun with it. You don’t know what tomorrow might bring.”

Today Johan has an MBE and he and Janna own a 14,000-hectare station in the South Island’s McKenzie country with sheep, cattle, deer and Icelandic horses. They bought it in 1991 when it was in receivership, using the proceeds of their Vogel’s sale to Goodman Fielder Wattie. Continuing their culture of quality first, they’ve won environmental awards and continue to work hard. They have a farm manager and a staff of about ten, with a little one-room school-house for the kids of the staff to attend, along with a small test vineyard where there’s pinot noir and pinot gris. Naturally, Klisser During designed the bottle label.

Mitchell Hall is a New York– based freelance writer