Travels with my art
Diana Simmonds talks to painter Wendy Sharpe about how her experiences abroad have influenced her work
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.marsgallery.com.au.
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