In 1937, Don Peebles left school at the age of 15, to work as a telegram deliverer in Wellington. In 1941 he joined the New Zealand Army, and served in the Pacific, the Middle East and Italy between 1943-45. Peebles had his first formal art training in Florence, while waiting to be demobilised. Upon returning to New Zealand, Peebles continued to study art at night, at the Wellington Technical College Art School. Rebelling against the Wellington establishment’s resistance to modernism, Peebles travelled to Australia in 1951 to study at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. Here, he was introduced to the continental modernism of Cezanne, Picasso and Braque, returning to New Zealand in 1953 a fully-committed disciple of the modernist style.
Peebles’ first solo show, held at Wellington’s Architectural Centre Gallery in 1954, was met with frank incomprehension by some reviewers; even in 1954, New Zealand’s critical voices were not yet ready to engage with the legacy of cubism. During the late 1950s, Peebles produced his first essays in fully abstract painting, the Wellington Series, for which he was awarded the Association of New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship Award—the first abstract artist to be awarded an art endowment in New Zealand. Peebles used the money to travel to London, where he was strongly influenced by the Constructionist Victor Pasmore, who inspired him to create a series of austere, architecturally influenced wooden relief works. Beginning in the late 1970s, Peebles began to produce the works for which he is perhaps best known, large folded canvas constructions which sit on the boundary between painting and sculpture. Peebles taught at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts from 1965-84.