Trav­els with my art

Diana Sim­monds talks to painter Wendy Sharpe about how her ex­pe­ri­ences abroad have in­flu­enced her work

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

WENDY Sharpe is an artist for whom travel is part of her art and art is cen­tral to her travel. So much so that her lat­est solo ex­hi­bi­tion at MARS Gallery in Port Mel­bourne is sim­ply ti­tled Travel and fea­tures work from trips to In­dia, Egypt, Morocco and her beloved Paris.

Over cof­fee and bis­cuits in her in­ner-Syd­ney Ersk­ineville kitchen, which is hung with paint­ings and filled with Sharpe trea­sures (fair­ground china, Mex­i­can Day of the Dead fig­ures, beau­ti­fully gar­ish 1940s brica-brac), the artist talks with pas­sion and plea­sure of her ad­ven­tures with paint­brushes and air­line tick­ets.

‘‘ I was very lucky to get the art gallery stu­dio in Paris,’’ she tells me. The stu­dio is the Dr Denise Hickey Memo­rial Stu­dio, ad­min­is­tered by the Art Gallery of NSW and sit­u­ated at the Cite In­ter­na­tionale des Arts. Sharpe’s first visit to Paris, in 1986, was the beginning of a long love af­fair.

‘‘ I’m still learn­ing French twice a week,’’ she grins. ‘‘ I al­ways want to go back. It’s so beau­ti­ful . . . corny but true. There’s so much art and it’s all there for you. I like to sit some­where and just look, or walk.’’

Ear­lier this year, Sharpe had an un­usual op­por­tu­nity: to take up an artist’s res­i­dency at the Aus­tralian em­bassy in Cairo. She jumped at it.

‘‘ It’s a huge man­sion in Cairo with a huge stu­dio on the roof and the Bowk­ers (for­mer am­bas­sador Robert and his wife Jenny) were so kind. Jenny is a quilt­maker, you know, and she un­der­stood what I was af­ter. They took me around and could in­ter­pret cul­tural and so­cial things that I didn’t have a clue about. It meant I could go to places with them and meet peo­ple.’’

One des­ti­na­tion in Cairo re­sulted in an im­por­tant work: a panoramic view of a day in a pave­ment cafe, with all its comings and goings viewed si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

‘‘ Be­cause of Jenny I was able to go there and spend all day just watch­ing and draw­ing. They were kind and nice, even though it’s not nor­mal for a woman to do that. What was in­ter­est­ing was to not only draw what it looks like but how it works, in time, and how peo­ple use it.’’

Sharpe did much the same thing on a trip to Jaisalmer in In­dia’s Ra­jasthan where, to avoid the has­sles of the streets, she viewed the scene from an up­stairs bal­cony.

‘‘ I watched th­ese women sell­ing and buy­ing saris and fab­ric. It wasn’t just the colours that drew me in but the rit­ual of it. They bartered and had con­ver­sa­tions for ages and ages. Again I was watch­ing how the mar­ket square func­tioned. I re­mem­ber so much more of the square, with its cows wan­der­ing through, than the palaces of Ra­jasthan.’’

An­other work in the Trav­els ex­hi­bi­tion is an evoca­tive paint­ing of the spooky torch­light pa­rades of Se­m­ana Santa, or Holy Week, in Granada, Spain. The robed and hooded fig­ures carry the pa­sos , or lit­ters, bear­ing stat­ues of the Vir­gin and Christ through the streets, fol­lowed by women in black man­til­las and gowns. ‘‘ They go on all night,’’ Sharpe says. ‘‘ And I was there, looking and looking, then go­ing back to draw from mem­ory. I like those odd de­tails that make it real and you have to do them while they’re still fresh in your mind.’’

She likens the Granada ex­pe­ri­ence to the some­what creepy Mex­i­can skele­ton fig­ures hang­ing on the kitchen win­dow frame.

‘‘ I’ve not ac­tu­ally been to Mex­ico yet. I re­ally want to, but I bought th­ese in (the Syd­ney sub­urb of) New­town. The Granada thing was like that: it’s real, it’s not for tourists. There is pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive in it. You think of the In­qui­si­tion, it’s quite scary.’’

Sharpe’s work from far-flung places is not as fa­mil­iar to Aus­tralian view­ers as her ex­u­ber­ant self-por­traits and other award-winning works. She has gar­nered many prizes and awards, in­clud­ing the Archibald and the Sul­man and the Por­tia Geach por­trait prize (twice), as well as re­ceiv­ing both the Marten Be­quest and Mercedes Benz trav­el­ling art schol­ar­ships.

But one over­seas trip did make head­lines when the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial ap­pointed her an of­fi­cial war artist in East Ti­mor. ‘‘ I went in 1999 and it was a great hon­our,’’ she says. ‘‘ I be­gan to imag­ine what I was sup­posed to do but then re­alised it had to be my ex­pe­ri­ence of a spe­cific place and time. Not pho­to­re­al­ist, but re­ally to do what I usu­ally do.’’

She was taken aback by how the in­fra­struc­ture of the lit­tle trop­i­cal par­adise had been so thor­oughly de­stroyed by the for­mer colonis­ers in the run-up to in­de­pen­dence, as well as by the heat and how hard the Aus­tralian troops worked.

‘‘ I did the same, ob­vi­ously not work­ing as hard as they did, but I drew all day. I’d never had any­thing to do with the mil­i­tary so I was fas­ci­nated by things like cam­ou­flage and sand­bags. It was all new to me. Be­ing an out­sider to East Ti­mor and the army was ac­tu­ally re­ally good. Pi­casso said ‘ see it like a child and freshly’, and that’s re­ally true. See­ing ev­ery­thing is part of be­ing alive.’’

Sharpe grew up on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches when, she re­calls, koalas were com­mon­place in back­yards. ‘‘ And of course we just took it for granted. It was noth­ing spe­cial. You don’t re­alise how lit­tle you know, how much you take for granted. When I won a schol­ar­ship to New York, I was stay­ing in a youth hos­tel and peo­ple were ask­ing me ques­tions about Aus­tralia and I didn’t know a lot about my own coun­try. I didn’t un­der­stand what was dif­fer­ent or or­di­nary.’’

Since then Sharpe’s eyes have rarely been closed to the world about her. ‘‘ I am so ob­sessed with travel but I’m not sure why,’’ she says as she con­tem­plates her next trip, which will be to Italy. ‘‘ I like to keep a sort of vis­ual di­ary, a nar­ra­tive of the mo­ment. Ba­nal things: street signs, odd cor­ners or sights.’’

She opens a Mole­sk­ine note­book and its pages fold out like a con­certina file; each de­picts a thought-like sketch, a glimpse of a mo­ment. ‘‘ We no­tice things abroad be­cause they’re not fa­mil­iar to us and, of course, we mis­in­ter­pret them so eas­ily. I saw th­ese flower gar­lands and I thought it must be an of­fer­ing to a lo­cal god, but no, it wasn’t a god, it was some­thing to

Egyp­tianTem­ple do with the lo­cal foot­ball team winning a match.’’

When she packs for an over­seas trip, Sharpe tries to be min­i­mal and, of course, has to in­clude her paint­ing and draw­ing gear. I try not to take too many clothes, but al­ways do. I’m go­ing to try for one pair of shoes this time.’’ She holds up a foot shod in a soft black shoe dec­o­rated with black span­gles. ‘‘ It’s a sort of glam­our sneaker,’’ she beams. I’m hop­ing they’ll do for walk­ing and any­thing else that hap­pens. For work I take gouache, crayons, brushes and pa­per. When I went to Morocco, I did pas­tels and oils in the stu­dio. Gouache is good when you’re out be­cause it dries fast and you can pile them up; it’s prac­ti­cal. Pas­tels are a bug­ger. I love the smudgy soft lines, trou­ble is you can smudge them when you don’t mean to.’’

The other thing, of course, is that she never knows what she’s go­ing to find or want to do. I re­alise that I ap­proach travel rather like I ap­proach my work,’’ Sharpe says. I try to do without pre­con­ceived ideas of what I’m go­ing to find and do. Where I’m go­ing to be. You just never know what might hap­pen. Per­haps that’s why I’m ob­sessed with travel and paint­ing.’’


Wendy Sharpe’s ex­hi­bi­tion Travel is at the MARS Gallery, 418 Bay St, Port Mel­bourne, un­til Oc­to­ber 19. More: (03) 9681 8425; www.mars­

Pic­tures: Wendy Sharpe/MARS Gallery

Rooftops of Paris: Like many a painter be­fore her, Aus­tralian artist Wendy Sharpe finds in­spi­ra­tion in the French cap­i­tal

A day in the life: Sharpe with

(oil on linen screen), painted af­ter vis­it­ing Cairo

Tea time: Camel traders, Egypt (2008)

An eye for the ex­otic: Sharpe at work in In­dia

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