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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: John Gillies talks about Skippers Canyon


John Gillies attended the Otago University Medical School. He graduated MB, ChB in 1972 and a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in 1981, becoming clinical director of respiratory medicine for the Canterbury District Health Board. During his medical career, John maintained an active art interest and in 1977 held his first exhibition at Abernethy’s Gallery in Dunedin. Many exhibitions followed with a sell-out at the Village Bygones in Christchurch in 1994. John has conducted master classes in palette knife painting in Christchurch, Ashburton, Oamaru and Brisbane and was invited as judge for the Ashburton Society of Arts annual exhibition in 2013. John’s art has appeared as feature articles in The Artist (UK), The Australian Artist and in Artist’s Palette. John talks to NZ Booklovers about his newly released book.


Tell us a little about Skippers Canyon.

Located in the Queenstown backcountry with access from the road to Coronet Peak, Skippers Canyon is a vast scenic gorge carved out by the mighty Shotover River in its course from Lochnagar at its headwaters in the Southern Alps to Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown.

What inspired you to create this book?

My love affair with Skippers Canyon started on my honeymoon, about half a century ago. My wife was terrified of heights, so I knew that I would need to go it alone, something I did some forty years later. I was so impressed with the scenic beauty of the landscape, especially from Campbells Saddle, that instinctively, I knew that this would become my tūrangawaewae, my spiritual home. Then, following discussion with family and friends, I became aware that few had ventured into this scenic wonderland. With this in mind, I decided to create a book of my paintings collected over the last decade in the hope that all Kiwis would put Skippers Canyon on their bucket list.


What research was involved?

As part of my research, I read the excellent books already published about the historic details of Skippers Canyon and have referred the reader to these under the heading “further reading” at the end of my book. What I wanted to do was provide a brief résumé of those historical details that I felt were relevant to the scenes I had chosen. I have included articles about farmers, who were the first settlers in the area, about the discovery of gold with the subsequent gold rush, and about the methods used to extract the gold, particularly sluicing, which produced the visual characteristics of the landscape that we now recognise so clearly and which I find to be so attractive from an artist’s viewpoint.


What was your routine or process when creating this book?

Firstly, I needed to collect sufficient paintings to tell the story I had in mind. I then decided to assemble these as if the viewer were on a journey through the canyon, making sure that mountains, river and buildings were represented as a progressive sequence. I decided to include the rough preliminary sketches as these seemed to complement the finished paintings. Finally, I needed to match the artwork with the narrative so that the reader would feel part of this artistic journey.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I would choose Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A Major, Op. 92, II Allegretto, for its ebullience and optimism.


What did you enjoy most about producing Skippers Canyon?

The most enjoyable aspect of producing Skippers Canyon was the experience of physically being in the canyon in mid-winter conditions and to bear witness to the changing moods of this scenic wonderland in the company of a driver whose skill and experience were nothing short of masterful!


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

When my publisher showed me the first copy of Skippers Canyon, I must have appeared like a stunned mullet. However, when the reality finally kicked in, I contacted my editor, Jane McKenzie, to thank her for her patience and professional guidance, and my publisher, Quentin Wilson, to plead that I was only the painter and that he as producer of the book, was the true artist, something he quietly rejected as “rubbish”!


What is the favourite book you have read this year and why?

My favourite book this year was entitled: Two Years Too Long – A “Nasho” in Vietnam, by Geoff Pederson, published by Peacock Publications 2004. The author described his experiences as a conscripted national serviceman in the Australian Armed Services 1969–1970 and served a one-year tour of duty as an ambulance driver in the First Australian support Group (1ALSG) in Vũng Tàu, South Vietnam. Although we never met, I served in the same place during my own four-month tour of duty with the New Zealand Combined Medical Services Team and so I could relate very well to what he had written.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

From a very young age, I always wanted to be a war artist. That opportunity arose when, as a fifth-year medical student and member of the Otago University Medical Company (OUMC), I was offered the chance to join the New Zealand Combined Services Medical Team for a four-month tour of duty in South Vietnam between 1969 and 1970. During that time, I collected 10 portraits of Vietnamese people, drawings done on location and text prompted by my frequent letters home. However, as public opinion about New Zealand’s involvement in the war at that time was divided, this information lay dormant in my attic for nearly half a century. Now, with renewed interest in Vietnam, I have resurrected my drawings and paintings and written a new book, Passport to Manhood – a young man’s wartime experience, which is due for publication in early 2024.


Quentin Wilson Publishing



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