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Interview: John Gillies talks about Portrait of a War Artist

During his time at the Otago University Medical School, John Gillies was conscripted for National Military Service and served in the Combined Services Medical Company in South Vietnam between 1969 and 1970. During his tour of duty and in his spare time, John painted portraits of Vietnamese civilians and military personnel, some of whom were patients in the hospitals in which he worked. During his long medical career, John maintained an active art interest, exhibiting regularly since the late 70s.

In 1989, he established the New Zealand Association of Artist Doctors to foster creative activities among doctors. His first book, In My Chair, featured sixty-four portraits of Cantabrians, while his most recent, Skippers Canyon (published in 2023), is a beautiful collection of paintings and sketches interspersed with personal and historical notes that mark John’s frequent journeys to this remarkable part of Aotearoa New Zealand. John talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Portrait of a War Artist.

At age twenty, I was conscripted for Compulsory Military Training, but having gained entry into medical school, I was assigned to the Otago University Medical Company (OUMC). As I’d finished my fourth year of medical training, I was offered the chance to serve in South Vietnam with the Combined Services Medical Team and saw this as a unique opportunity to not only further my professional medical experience but also explore my life-long interest in art.

Portrait of a War Artist is a record of my four unforgettable months of active service between 1969 and 1970. The book features ten portraits of Vietnamese people who were either patients or members of the civilian population with whom I came in contact. Also, it includes twenty drawings done on the spot and twenty-seven photographs, some of which may have been considered illegal from a security point of view, although I wasn’t aware of that at the time!

What inspired you to write the book?

It seemed to me that the personal and medical experiences of working in a war zone such as South Vietnam were unique. One day, while introducing myself as a member of a class of te reo Māori students at the University of Canterbury just before the Covid 19 lockdown, I glanced around the room and realised that, being half a century older than anyone present, it would be highly unlikely that anyone had experienced what I had seen or had been required to do at such a relatively young age.

Furthermore, travellers returning from holiday in Vietnam were now telling me about the friendliness of the people they had met, although they were cautioned not to mention the war. Imagining that this would only pique their curiosity, I decided it was now time to go into print.

How did you select the art and photographs to include in the book?

I selected all ten portraits because they represented the patients we treated, as well as the civilian population with whom we came into contact and whose lives were so violently disrupted by the conflict. I also selected the photographs and drawings because I considered them relevant to the narrative of the chapters they accompanied.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

Most of the book was written shortly after my return from active service in 1970. I submitted it to A.H. & A. W. Reid for publication but as they had just published Letters from a Vietnam Hospital by Peter Eccles-Smith, they were reluctant to proceed. Therefore, my manuscript remained in storage in our attic until the time was right to reconsider publication. In writing the book, I felt that there had to be a balance between the distress of tending the sick and wounded and the somewhat lighter moments in which we were involved. On one hand, we were faced with battle casualties presenting with just about every form of human mutilation imaginable but on the other, there were moments which seemed to us to oscillate between the hilarious and the absurd


What did you enjoy most about writing Portrait of a War Artist?

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the book was recalling the many and varied experiences we had while working with both the New Zealand military and civilian teams in Bồng Sơn and Quy Nhon, respectively, being located in the more northerly coastal districts of South Vietnam, and also with the Australians in the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1ALSG) in Vũng Tàu, close to the Mekong Delta. Despite our being medical students at the time, we were given the responsibilities of resident house surgeons and although these were very demanding, we knew that the experience would be invaluable for our future medical careers.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your book?

It is my hope that all readers, whether ex-service people, members of the general reading public or young readers, will be able to share the many unique experiences I had as if they too were part of the action. I hope they all will become aware of the power of self-expression, whether by art, writing, or the combination of both.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

When my publisher, Quentin Wilson, showed me the first copy of Portrait of a War Artist, I actually felt stunned. Maybe it was the shock of realising that fifty-four years of preparation had finally come to fruition. I thanked him profoundly and then contacted my editor, Jane McKenzie, to thank her for her patience and professional guidance and finally, perhaps more importantly, I thanked my wife, Jenny, for all her support and encouragement, without which this work might never have seen the light of day.

What favourite book have you read so far this year and why?

My favourite book this year so far is Send for the Artist by Paul Harrison and published by Random House Ltd, 1995. The author describes the life of the official RNZAF artist Maurice Conly who trained as a pilot but suffered burst eardrums and was about to be discharged when they found out about his artistic skills and appointed him as their official artist. Conly was seconded by the army general staff as their Vietnam War artist. In early 1969, Conly spent a month in South Vietnam visiting Bồng Sơn and Nui Dat as part of his “mainly exploratory” mission. His paintings included scenes from a Bồng Sơn dispensary, including a surgical procedure, and from the fire support bases at Nui Dat.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

During my time in Bồng Sơn I did a sketch of my driver who tragically, was killed by an explosive device three days after we parted company. This sketch was not available at the time of publication of Portrait of a War Artist but has now been located, restored and photocopied and will be made ready for use should the book be reprinted. In the meantime, I will continue to supply my galleries in Queenstown, Wānaka, Dunedin, Christchurch and Culverden with oil paintings from my favourite localities in Central Otago using the technique I developed with my palette knife in order to give them the texture and definition that I believe define my work.





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