Out of adversity

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Pioneer adventurer to paraplegic – and acclaimed artist and proud father.

Before being confined to a wheelchair after a paralysing skiing accident, artist Gus Watson was one of Queenstown’s unofficial adventure sport pioneers.

He lost the use of his legs when he nosedived into a rock beneath the snow at Coronet Peak 29 years ago and dislocated his neck.

But the philosophical Dalefield painter reckons prior to the “fluke” fall, he could easily have suffered even worse injuries – or been killed – due to his daredevil exploits.

In 1974, Watson is believed to have been the first to bring a hang-glider to Queenstown.

He thought nothing of leaping from cliffs and mountainsides while dangling from the shaky contraption, which was stitched together by a pal on his mother’s sewing machine.

Not long after, he also became one of the first in the region to own and fly a microlight plane.

But the DIY kit model had an unfortunate habit of plunging from the sky when its dodgy engine would suddenly cut out.

“Back then I felt I was bulletproof,” Watson says with a grin. “The hang-glider was really pretty dangerous and the microlight was always crashing but luckily nothing too nasty happened.

“After being involved in all the adventure stuff, I somehow broke my neck skiing in what was really a fluke accident.

“I could easily have done the same or worse in a million other ways before then.”

Originally from Invercargill, Watson, 62, took a long and winding road to Queenstown.

He arrived in the resort 35 years ago to start a tourism business after spending time travelling around the United States, Europe and South America.

On his return to New Zealand, he initially took a job spreading sheep skins at a freezing works back in his old Southland home city.

There he hatched a plan to open a museum in Queenstown, telling the story of the Wakatipu goldrush days using state-of-the-art sound and light techniques.

Watson even roped in locally based movie star Sam Neill to provide some of the voice-overs.

It was situated on Beach Street and operated for 12 years before the lease expired and he closed the doors. “I’d seen similar sort of ideas work very well at Madame Tussauds in London and at Disneyland in America.

“The museum was quite popular here and provided me with a living for quite a long time.”

Watson had also long been a keen amateur watercolour painter.

And in 1988 he threw himself into becoming a full-time artist, despite the skiing accident having also left him with limited use of his natural drawing hand.

Spells holidaying in Fiji led him to experiment with exotic colours – and he never looked back.

“I like to joke that a successful painter will be successful not because of his ability, but how thick his skin is.”

Watson sells most of his work from his home-cum-studio in Littles Road and his acclaimed paintings are regularly exhibited all over NZ.

Half of his creations have been snapped up by overseas customers in more than 20 countries and he’s putting the finishing touches to a 2010 calendar.

But Watson believes his greatest achievement is fathering a child following his accident, especially after medics told him he “couldn’t and shouldn’t” be a dad.

He and former wife Suzy never gave up and sought other opinions.

Their determination paid off when five years later they became full biological parents to daughter Millie, conceived with the aid of specialised fertility techniques.

“If I don’t walk again it wouldn’t worry me,” Watson says. “Millie is now 24 and she is my real miracle.”