Theo Schoon was born at Kebumen, in Java, Indonesia, in what was then still known as the Dutch East Indies. Schoon had a lifelong fascination with traditional Javanese dance and costume, and in later life often wore Indonesian clothes that he made himself. After leaving Java, he was sent to the Netherlands to be educated, training at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts, where he was exposed to modernism, which became one of the guiding principles of his artistic practice. After working as a photographer in Java, Schoon emigrated to New Zealand with his family, in 1939. In 1941, he studied in Christchurch at the Canterbury University College School of Art, before moving to Wellington.
In 1945, Schoon embarked on his documentation of Maori rock carvings in the South Island, under the aegis of the Department of Internal Affairs. Schoon’s willingness to engage with Maori art and culture, and to incorporate them into his own practice, set a precedent followed by other New Zealand modernists such as Gordon Walters and Colin McCahon. Schoon moved to the North Island in 1949, and photographed mud pools and thermal springs in Rotorua and Taupo in 1950. In 1956-7, Schoon became interested in the traditional Maori art of gourd carving, and began growing and carving his own gourds. He studied the art of gourd carving under master carver Pine Taiapa in 1961. In 1963, Schoon’s efforts in this area were rewarded when his gourds were included in a show of traditional Maori art at Turangawaewae Marae, Ngaruwahia.
In 1965, Schoon mounted a solo exhibition of his work at New Vision gallery, Auckland. This show was something of a manifesto; Schoon included carved gourds, paintings and photographs to present his vision of what New Zealand art should be: a melding of traditional Maori art forms with modernist aesthetics derived from the European tradition. In the 1970s, Schoon turned his attention to jade carving, ultimately travelling to Sydney to pursue this craft. Schoon returned to New Zealand in 1982, but soon went back to Sydney, where he died of emphysema in 1985.