John Parson - Spitting Image

4 minutes read
Posted 28 March, 2024
thumbnail ice skating at Grail copy

John ice skating on the lake at Grail Springs Wellness Centre in Ontario where he worked as resident artist for 10 years

It was 1977 when an extremely talented, young wanderlust artist from Canada discovered the sleepy tourist town of Queenstown. It would be more than 30 years before portrait artist John Parson – a seasonal summer icon in Queenstown Mall, finally parted ways with the town he still calls ‘home’.

Raised in Toronto in a lower middle-class suburb, John’s mother was a British war bride and talented painter who inspired his creativity. A sporty kid – ice hockey, baseball and basketball, John had a clean and wholesome upbringing, and was a teenager through the Beatlemania of the 60s. “My dad wanted me to be Prime Minister, but I wanted to grow my hair long, so I ran away to Art College,” he grins. Ontario College of Art and Design was one of the best and he worked hard, graduating with honours and a travel scholarship which took him all over the world.

“I’d been fascinated with the speed and accuracy of the portrait artists at art fairs in Ontario and how they pulled that off in about 40 minutes.”

He worked for them through college, then set off to Mexico, Paris, Trafalgar Square in London, painting in the busy city streets and taking travel breaks in the likes of India, surviving on what he sold. “I was a suburban kid. It was exciting. I felt you had to live your life before you started making masterpieces.”

That he did, becoming one of the fastest, quality portrait artists in the world in his day – his mirror image works pride of place in family lounges and corporate offices all over the world.

“I’ve been very blessed. I’ve never had a lot of extra money, but, most importantly, I wouldn’t swap my art, adventures, travels, and experiences for anything.”

After six years of travel and painting John followed a Kiwi girl back to NZ and while touring through the country, he discovered Queenstown during the peak summer of 1976. “I made a killing and thought, I want to live in this place! Queenstown really spoke to me. It was beautiful and felt right in my soul. I’ve always considered it home although I couldn’t afford to go back now,” John, now semi-retired in Nelson, says.

After those initial painting days, John took up summer residence outside the Mall supermarket from 1978, but not before battling the then Queenstown Borough Council to gain a concession to paint there. “They were mostly retailers in the Mall then and everyone wanted to keep it sterile and boring, but I fought the council. I said, ‘Let’s make it like Europe with cafes and artists.’ Retailers like Les McAndrew were wonderful. The supermarket owners were great and didn’t mind at all.”

Eventually the council allowed two tenders – John, and a fruit stall. Large crowds would gather to watch as he swiftly transformed a blank canvas into a genius masterpiece in record time. “I was the only free show in town.”

They were long hot days, trying to educate his subjects to be able see their own portrait, relax, stay still, and bring out their personality, while sitting in front of a mob of people.

Pastel caricatures became his thing most winters through the 80s – usually of local identities like dentist John Molloy. “They were fun, took longer, and brought a lot of smiles.”

By now a first-time skier, he’d hang out in Eichardt’s Pub where he won the local body-painting contest – his subject bearing Superman on his front and a nude woman on his back.

“John Mann commissioned me to paint the old boys - Eichardt’s regulars he’d have propped up on the bar. I did a few for Chas at the radio station, his staff, and others.”

John often spent winters back in Toronto visiting his parents – one short stay turning into 15 years after a brush with cancer, then special time nursing his parents well into their 90s. “I came back in 2011 for our son’s uni graduation. I realised it was time to give away my Mall painting when a lady holding a baby said, ‘He did mine when I was four!’” John smiles.

He not only left his creative stamp on the walls of local homes, but John became a proficient lawn bowler after discovering the sport in Queenstown Gardens. He represented Central Otago in the 80s and 90s, placing third nationally in the Champion Singles.

At 77 he’s just entered an auto-portrait of himself in the Adam Portraiture Awards in the National Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

But for John the greatest satisfaction comes from hearing that some of the local kids, who watched the magic of his art in Queenstown, have become successful artists.

“To me that means a lot. Maybe that’s my Queenstown legacy.”

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A large crowd gathered, as they did every day, to watch John, seated centre, do his stuff in Queenstown Mall back in the day


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