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Not easing up on the easel: Thomas Brown has no plans to retire

Specialising in realism, veteran artist Thomas Brown’s produced a stunning body of work
that’s held in collections around the world. He chats to PHILIP CHANDLER, whom he’s painted, about his well-travelled past and how he celebrates his birthdays

Renowned as a Queenstown artist for almost 40 years, Thomas Brown’s also one of the resort’s most interesting characters.

For a start, he has an amazing gallery — a former Speargrass Flat cheese factory dating back to 1912, which he’s worked in and successfully exhibited from for almost 30 years.

Its white interior and acoustics are familiar to classical music buffs attending concerts there, along with wedding parties using it as a venue.

Contrary to many artistic types, Brown’s outgoing with a sense of humour reflected in his art, has a neat collection of classic vehicles and loves sport.

Recently turned 75, he’s traditionally celebrated birthdays with his ‘‘awesome sixsome’’ — skiing, golfing, fishing, tennis, sailing and mountain biking on the one day.

What’s just as interesting is the path he, and latterly Elizabeth, his wife of almost 46 years, took to get here.

Raised in Montana, in the United States, amongst the snowy Rocky Mountains, ‘‘I was a sports guy, I wasn’t really an artist’’.

His dad painted as a hobby, and he went along to his art classes where the instructor, ‘‘a
very brilliant man’’, Hall Diteman, took him under his wing.

‘‘That was where I really gained an insight into realism, so the realism thing was in my blood, and it still is.’’

Brown says in Montana ‘‘it was sort of against the law to leave — nobody went anywhere’’.

He broke the mould, discovering Europe and becoming a ski instructor, firstly in Austria.

Back in the US, he smashed his left leg ‘‘in about six or nine pieces’’ when hitting a tree doing skiing flips and aerials.

He did a masters in painting and drawing ‘‘on a leg and a half’’.

Finally fixed after about two years, he went back to Europe and ‘‘barged’’ his way into studying at Paris’ famous Louvre Museum.

From there he underwent missions travelling the world, living cheaply by selling his paintings or bartending.

He met his English wife-to-be, Elizabeth, in Sydney, in ’73.

Soon after they moved to Queenstown, initially living here for a year-and-a-half.

After that, while Elizabeth returned to England for a while, Brown continued his adventures, even being rescued at sea near Samoa.

‘‘About six years since I left Montana I go back and just realise the kids don’t want to hear my stories.’’

He and Elizabeth then travelled to Europe, even taking mules over the Italian Alps, and also lived in the West Indies before resettling in Queenstown, this time permanently, in ’82.

He opened his first gallery, in Arrowtown, ‘‘but we realised after a while we’re not shopkeepers’’, he says.

After a stint bartending at what’s now Arthurs Point’s Swiss-Belresort Coronet Peak, they opened a gallery in their nearby rental digs.

They then rented at Speargrass Flat’s Thurlby Domain before buying the cheese factory, which had latterly housed a plumbing firm, then Glenorchy sculptor Dan Kelly’s studio, in
1992.

From there, Brown’s painted commissions for luminaries like the US’ Gordon and Ann Getty, former US TV talk show host David Letterman, German fashion designer and filmmaker Willy Bogner, and a Tongan king, but he’s also painted many pieces for charity.

Though renowned for portraiture and landscapes, he’s hard to typecast, he believes: ‘‘There’s 15 different artists in [my gallery].’’

With his body getting ‘‘too old’’ for some of his sporting pursuits, he’s finding himself painting day and night.

‘‘I never want to retire, I never hope my brushes get dry — I’d really like to think you’re
painting inside your coffin.’’

scoop@scene.co.nz