As a 16-year-old on a school bus trip, Tim Wilson was profoundly moved seeing the isthmus between Lakes Hāwea and Wānaka. He longed to convey to his classmates the feeling the landscape stirred in him; he wanted them to experience what he was seeing, in the way he was seeing it. And he did. Not right there and then, but over a long and brilliant career as an artist.
When Palmerston North-born Tim passed away in July, aged 65, New Zealand lost one of our most outstanding and original painters. Over a career spanning several decades, the self-taught artist became internationally renowned as a master of light, rendering his landscapes with an ethereal, almost spiritual beauty. While influenced by both Eastern and Western art – Monet, the Hudson River School of painters, Hiroshige and Hokusai – Tim perfected his own, extraordinary technique.
“What was and will always be completely unique about Tim’s paintings is that they are made up of 30-40 layers of transparent glazes layered in such a way that, as light changes, the layers closest to us appear to disappear and we see through the layers beneath. As the subtle hues of daylight change, so too do Tim’s paintings,” explains Rachel Harper-Dibley of the Tim Wilson Gallery in Queenstown.
For Tim, it was always about light, how it shone and danced. He wanted to explore why it made him feel the way it did.
Perhaps just as astounding as his method is the fact he recreated these landscapes from memory and imagination. He remembered everything, says Rachel. “The smell, temperature, what the stones were, how the light changed. He could recall how the energy or ‘spirit of place’ made him feel on every level. Back in the studio, without the aid of photos or sketches, he painted from this place.”
It was this ability to translate his feelings, through oil on Berge linen, that leaves anyone standing before his works similarly moved. Anyone – including the Kennedys.
In 2012, Tim was the only non-American artist invited by Bobby Kennedy Jr to paint an impression of the Hudson River for a fundraising art auction hosted by Sotheby’s in New York. Tim’s painting, On The Hudson, hung alongside works by Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and Jeff Koons. The auction was won by a couple who owns one of the largest private collections in the US. They invited Tim to paint on their private island in the Hamptons and also bought these works for their collection. They dubbed Tim “this century’s Bierstadt” – 19th century American-German painter Albert Bierstadt, one of the founding members of the Hudson River School. The next generation of these painters became some of the founding fathers of the Museum
of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
Tim’s contribution to New Zealand art was also immense. “He has been an inspiration and mentor for many artists, encouraging them to always follow their heart and always to paint,” says Rachel. Tim took not only landscape painting, but the entire genre, to a whole new level. A common conversation in the gallery, says Rachel, is that Tim’s paintings make people see the landscape from a totally new perspective. “We can be out in the landscape and say ‘OMG, look at that; it’s just like a Tim Wilson painting…’”
So the teenage dreamer gazing out of that bus window did indeed make others see through his eyes. “Observing the response of the thousands of people who have been through the gallery in these past 11 years alone, there is no doubt he achieved that mastery,” says Rachel. “His work speaks for itself.”