POR­TRAIT:

The Saturday Paper - - The Week Contents - Sarah Price

She be­gins ev­ery­thing with a draw­ing. She draws to bring her ideas into the world. To think and to see. Paint­ings start as dream­like im­ages, scrib­bled or sketched from a frag­ment of thought or idea. She paints in lay­ers, over time. Asks her­self ques­tions: What should be there? A dif­fer­ent colour? Another shape? She turns her paint­ings up­side down, or views them through a mir­ror, to see in a dif­fer­ent way. There is a clock on the wall of her stu­dio. But she loses time. Hours can pass as min­utes, or min­utes as hours. Time is mostly un­no­ticed. She doesn’t un­der­stand why it some­times goes fast and, other times, slow.

Her stu­dio is in the in­ner west of Syd­ney, on the edge of the WestCon­nex. She has trucks at her door. In­side, she has 270 square me­tres of space. There are bits of her ev­ery­where. On the ta­ble is a bunch of pur­ple flow­ers, held in a jug painted with bur­lesque dancers and her sig­na­ture: Wendy Sharpe. Her oil paint­ings hang in the toi­let and around the stu­dio walls. Draw­ings in gouache are propped on milk crates and easels, her char­coal sketches laid out over ta­bles and chairs. There are her notes and books, sculp­tures and masks, and bits of art she found on the street.

The stu­dio used to be a print­ing fac­tory. The ce­ment floor is now over­laid with worn rugs and spilled paint. Iron rafters on the ceil­ing hold a bed of sil­ver in­su­la­tion, and tubes of flu­o­res­cent light. There are chan­de­liers, hang­ing from chains. Ra­dio Na­tional plays from a speaker. At one end of the room is an hon­our board from a ma­sonic hall, dat­ing back to 1880. A cover of The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly from 1936 hangs in the kitch­enette. The edi­tion is called: The Artist.

Wendy is at her stu­dio every day, “be­cause where else would you want to be?” She says her role as an artist is, at times, to il­lu­mi­nate and pro­voke. In 2014 she painted 39 por­traits of asy­lum seek­ers. The project came from a de­sire to tell the sto­ries we don’t of­ten hear. “Like so many peo­ple I am hor­ri­fied by our ma­jor par­ties’ at­ti­tudes to­wards asy­lum seek­ers and refugees. I thought: ‘What can I do? Th­ese peo­ple are pre­sented to us as ob­jects. We need to see them as peo­ple.’ It’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing to me that an old-fash­ioned skill like draw­ing can be used for a po­lit­i­cal pur­pose or some kind of ad­vo­cacy.”

All the por­traits were drawn from life, in sit­tings that took from two to three hours. The back­ground of every por­trait is de­lib­er­ately blank, to be less in­tru­sive, and em­pha­sise the per­son. “The peo­ple re­ally are from ev­ery­where and look like ev­ery­one,” Wendy says. “They are all ages and they are all types. You have women with head­scarves, African peo­ple, very blonde blue-eyed peo­ple, Asian peo­ple. What­ever you look like, they look like you – which of course they are – they are just peo­ple.” In the cat­a­logue pro­duced for the col­lec­tion, the first por­trait is of a child, Eva. She says: “Some­times I feel like I am Alice in Won­der­land. In my life, most adults are non­sense. I wish I could just wake up one day in a home which is my fam­ily’s, on my bed, sur­rounded by cosy things, and my cat, who I had to leave be­hind … If I were Alice, then Aus­tralia would be my land of won­der.” The ex­hi­bi­tion toured city and re­gional ar­eas, be­fore be­ing sold as sep­a­rate pieces, with all money raised go­ing to the Asy­lum Seek­ers Cen­tre in Syd­ney.

Wendy does not usu­ally draw por­traits. In her own work, she doesn’t put con­straints on her­self as she would for com­mis­sioned pieces. “I’ve done a bil­lion hours of life draw­ing. My work is about peo­ple and it is al­ways fig­u­ra­tive, I’m not an ab­stract painter, but I’m also not a re­al­ist. It is usu­ally what I would call ex­pres­sion­ist, so it’s emo­tive, and I try to im­bue it with my own feel­ings or my own at­ti­tude to some­thing. That means there can be dis­tor­tions of colour and that a lot of it is made up.” In 1996 she won the Archibald Prize for her Self-por­trait – as Diana of Ersk­ineville. She has won the Sul­man Prize, and twice won the Por­tia Geach Me­mo­rial Award.

Her own work is unashamedly sub­jec­tive, she ex­plains. She doesn’t want it to be pho­to­graphic. “I want it to feel that it is my take on what­ever it is. Some­times it is com­pletely made-up – po­etic im­ages that don’t ex­ist any­where – they are my own feel­ings. When I’m do­ing a self-por­trait I re­ally don’t care if it looks like me at all, it is some woman who’s got vaguely my hair­style and who is prob­a­bly be­ing shown as an artist. It’s not a mugshot of me – it is some­thing ei­ther about me, or what is hap­pen­ing to me, or what I want to ex­press.”

On the stu­dio wall is Wendy’s lat­est col­lec­tion, Paris Win­dows, set for ex­hi­bi­tion at Dar­linghurst’s King Street Gallery in Au­gust. Every year she works in Paris, liv­ing in her sixth-floor apart­ment in Mont­martre. “On the sixth floor there is an un­spo­ken rule that you look into ev­ery­one else’s house or apart­ment, and pre­tend you can’t,” she says, laugh­ing. “There’s a whole world on the fifth and sixth floors.” From a dis­tance, she got to know some­thing of the peo­ple liv­ing op­po­site, made up names for them and cre­ated nar­ra­tives around their lives.

“I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in peo­ple and in story.

With my work, I want to take you to a dif­fer­ent place and give you quite a lot of in­for­ma­tion, but not tell you ev­ery­thing. It’s im­por­tant that there is a sense of mys­tery – it is what makes you keep re­turn­ing to it.”

Wendy is in the world of a paint­ing even when not at the easel, she says. “If I sud­denly get a great idea for some­thing, it is be­cause it has been stew­ing in the back of my mind, maybe for years. Some­thing sparks, but it didn’t come out of nowhere.”

She com­pares her process to that of writ­ing: you might de­cide in writ­ing that the be­gin­ning is the end, or that an en­tire sec­tion needs to go. Paint­ing is the same. Most writ­ing is rewrit­ing and most paint­ing is re­paint­ing. You have to edit and make changes. You want it to feel fresh, she ex­plains, like it sort of just hap­pened. That of­ten means de­stroy­ing it, and work­ing it again.

In her large stu­dio, Wendy will work on a paint­ing or a draw­ing for a few hours, or days, then put it aside, and work on some­thing else be­fore go­ing back to it.

“If you are so in it, you can’t see it,” she says. “Like any cre­ative process, if you’ve been do­ing some­thing for a while, you need to stop and step away. Then you can

• come back and say: ‘Ah, now I see.’”

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