Renowned New Zealand artist Tim Wilson died last week leaving behind a legacy of landscape artwork capturing some of New Zealand's most beautiful scenery, much of it now overseas. Jane Phare looks back on his life.
He kept it a secret from most of us, even his mother. Dying from terminal cancer was an inconvenience - a bother that, in the end, got in the way of what he wanted to do most – paint and spend time with his beloved husband, Vaj Ekanayake.
It was in 2012 when Tim was diagnosed with thyroid cancer – a rare and aggressive form. Difficult to treat. "Trust me to get some weird f***ing cancer," he joked to friends.
He was given less than a year to live. Tim was having none of it.
Eight years later he was still fighting, still painting – managing just 20 minutes a day – still living and loving. He survived all those extra years on a cocktail of determination, cancer drugs, including Keytruda, and endless rounds of radiation therapy at Auckland Radiation Oncology.
The team at ARO became like family he was there so often. It was there that Tim, preparing to have more treatment, instead called Vaj into the room. He lay for a while holding Vaj's hand, and died peacefully, aged 65.
Just the day before, they'd been driving along Ponsonby Rd on their way to ARO when Tim spotted a green jacket, with flashes of orange, on display in the window of Fifth Avenue Menswear.
Between his tears, Vaj laughs about this. "Tim wanted to take me shopping. He wanted to buy me that jacket. I told him no thank you, I have so many jackets."
When Tim's inner circle rang his huge circle of friends with the news of Tim's death, they were shocked, unaware he had been so ill.
No one would have guessed two years ago when he married Vaj, his partner for the past 17 years, and celebrated at the home of their long-time friend Auckland businesswoman Annette Presley. He looked so joyous and well on his wedding day, he and Vaj in bright blue suits and lilac ties.
I only found out by accident he had cancer in the summer of 2014. I was diagnosed with breast cancer the year before and, after a mastectomy, months of chemotherapy misery and baldness, I went to Mercy Radiology to start six weeks of radiation.
I was nervous when I walked into the waiting room. And then, there was Tim with his beaming smile and bear hug. "Darling," he exclaimed (he called everyone darling or darls), "what are you doing here?" just as I was asking him the same question. So we swapped war stories but as I recall he didn't tell me his real story.
He brushed his off, just some annoying little thing in his thyroid that needed a zap. All under control. He didn't tell me he was living on borrowed time, that there was no chance of recovery.
The tumours never left him alone. Two years ago he lost the sight in his right eye but he kept painting. Last year when he had a large tumour removed from his right arm, he kept painting with his left hand. He was still painting the week before he died.
Tim didn't even tell his mum, Joanie, he was terminally ill. She died four years ago never knowing her son would not be far behind.
My hair grew back and I got on with life. When I inquired about Tim's health he shrugged it off with an "all good" so in the end I didn't ask anymore. I thought it had left him alone. In blissful ignorance, I sent an email the day Tim died. "Dear Tim and Vaj," I wrote, "I hope you are both blooming."
His eight-year fight to squeeze just a little more out of life, paint a little more, spend a little more time with Vaj, eat another Bluff oyster, drink a little more champagne – his favourite tipple – was over.
He loved the outdoors, that majestic South Island scenery he wanted to capture on canvas. Years ago he'd hire a helicopter to fly into remote parts of Fiordland to paint stunning parts of the country that New Zealanders would otherwise never see.
He took photos and made sketches but in later years he used his memory and his imagination. He became the Master of Light, experimenting with translucent pigments and layers upon layers of paint. Some of his works took years to complete.
He and Vaj moved to Queenstown in 2009 to be nearer to the scenery he so loved. They opened the Tim Wilson Gallery in the town centre and it was there I used to take visitors during regular trips to Queenstown. "Can you do the lights please," I'd ask whoever was on duty in the gallery.
Tim's huge oil canvases on the walls, impressions of Fiordland or Doubtful Sound, would glow, the lights reflecting off the layers of paint, and as the lights dimmed so would the mood of the paintings. It was like magic; it never failed to impress my visitors.
Five years ago an Abu Dhabi prince walked into the gallery and paid $575,000 for one of Tim's paintings, Summer Rains in Doubtful Sound. Tim made the news; it was a record price paid for a painting by a living New Zealand artist. Shania Twain, members of the Kennedy clan and wealthy art collectors have bought his work.
New Zealanders loved his work too. The International Art Centre does brisk business selling second-hand Wilson paintings at their collectible auctions, and in the seven weeks before Tim's death, the Tim Wilson Gallery sold more than $1 million of artwork mostly to Kiwis.
His late father, Bill, who died in the late 80s, would have been proud. He was so excited when he saw Tim's first exhibition of landscape paintings he predicted that one day they would sell for $1000 each. The self-taught artist from New Plymouth would make good.
Extraordinary, Tim said when he heard of the gallery's sales in the weeks before his death. It was his favourite word and he used it a lot. He'd be chuffed to know that all those who knew him thought of him as extraordinary.
When you were around Tim, larger-than-life memories were made, those ones that shine brightly like a diamond in a blur of dullness.
Here's one. Back in the 90s, Tim lived in a two-storey villa in St Marys Bay with a wondrous tropical garden out the back. He'd throw extravagant dinner parties, bringing together an eclectic mix of guests and serving up a multi-course banquet.
I arrived late one night because of a pre-arranged concert by which time all the guests had finished dinner and were hopelessly drunk. As the only one sober, I was tasked with overseeing the preparation of two enormous chocolate logs baked earlier in the day, laid out in Tim's art studio among the easels and paints.
We used clean paintbrushes to plaster big bowls of chocolate ganache and whipped cream in the right places. I thought this was marvellous. One of the very drunk guests tottered in wearing very high stiletto heels, determined to help. Several times she nearly face-planted into the chocolate.
So I had to multitask, sprinkling raspberries over the ganache with one hand and holding my lurching helper firmly away with the other. Tim laughed. He thought it was all marvellous too.
He loved the opera. He could sing well himself, once touring with the New Plymouth Operatic Society with Angela Ayers. There were opera singer friends at the banquet that night; they stood up one at a time and burst into song.
The doors were flung wide open on this summer night and the neighbours on the back boundaries yelled through the tropical garden for us to "Shut the f*** up." So much laughter, so much music, so much whipped cream. That was Tim, a creator of vivid memories.
Annette Presley laughs at the memory of when they first got to know each other in the 80s. Tim was a struggling artist living near a North Shore Beach.
"He says I wafted into his house in a cloud of chardonnay and Versace and never left. It's true. I never left. He was so dynamic."
It was Annette who bought a falconing trip on the Hudson River at a charity auction in Auckland in 2011, attended by environmental attorney and master falconer Robert Kennedy Jnr, son of New York senator Bobby Kennedy and nephew of JFK.
She invited Tim to go to New York with her. While watching the falcons on the Hudson River, Bobby Jnr looked at some of Tim's work on his iPhone. He immediately recognised the similarity between Tim's impressionist work and the Hudson River School style of painting Bobby so much admired and collected.
He asked Tim to contribute a painting to a prestigious collection of American artwork due to be auctioned to raise funds for the Waterkeeper Alliance, an umbrella group for water protection activists including the Hudson Riverkeepers.
Tim's painting fetched a record price and opened doors to the American market. The man who bought Tim's painting, a wealthy private collector of Hudson River School artwork, gave him an open invitation to paint on his private island in The Hamptons where he spent a month. Two years later he donated another Hudson River painting to the same cause.
He was a generous man, to friends, struggling artists and charities. For the past 35 years, he donated a painting to raise funds for Auckland Hospice, and requests to help other charities never stopped. Charities including Shine, Lifeline, Child Cancer, Kidz First, KidsCan, Bone Marrow Cancer Trust, the Child Cancer Foundation, Annette's charity Elicit – The Dream Academy, all benefited from his donated artwork.
He took artists under his wing, mentoring, encouraging and sharing gallery space with them. Close friend and artist Anita May Blanchett met Tim in the late 90s and later worked at the Tim Wilson Gallery where her paintings are exhibited.
"I'll never forget the day he invited me to paint with him. I was a struggling artist eating peas and lentils and rice. He asked me for lunch and asked would I like duck or snapper?"
Working so closely with Tim, Anita knew how very ill he was. "He would never talk about how sick he was. He would only ever talk about what we were going to do and what the future held."
When I spoke to Tim on the phone a few weeks ago, he told me of plans to invite clients up to the stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house he and Vaj built high on Queenstown Hill, a masterpiece that was featured in NZ Life & Leisure magazine.
The plan was for clients to see the house and watch Tim at work in his art studio, its floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over Lake Wakatipu, and the mountains. He must have known, deep down, that this was never going to happen.
It was in this studio space, surrounded by his paintings, that Tim liked to be. It was there that he lay this week, dressed in his blue wedding suit, ready for the final farewell.
• A private ceremony – at which there will be opera singing – will be held in Queenstown tomorrow. A link will be available on affinityfunerals from Monday.