PROFILE

The big heart and busy life of art great Wendy Sharpe

HOME: Archibald winner Wendy Sharpe lives and works in the inner west: 'This is absolutely the best place to be.' Picture: Geoff Jones
HOME: Archibald winner Wendy Sharpe lives and works in the inner west: 'This is absolutely the best place to be.' Picture: Geoff Jones

THE modest brick frontage of Wendy Sharpe's studio in St Peters betrays nothing of the enormousness inside. It is a vast and soaring space that stretches an entire block, her partner, fellow artist Bernard Ollis, taking up the back half of what the couple believes was once a printing firm. They narrowly missed losing part of it to Westconnex, and say it was just chance that they didn't.

It's hard to imagine what could brighten a dull winter day more than stepping into the kaleidoscopic workspace of an artist whose signatures include voluptuous boldness of colour and brush stroke.

Sharpe is busy, the pandemic having dinted none of the demand for the prolific and acclaimed artist who also stands as one of Australia's most awarded. On the drizzly day that Inner West Review visits, pre-lockdown, she is selecting the paint colours to take to the Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst, where she will be painting a large-scale mural depicting family stories and displacement from her ancestral Ukrainian hometown (which sadly, it turns out, the public will never get to see).

AT WORK: Sharpe in her St Peters studio. Picture: Geoff Jones

AT WORK: Sharpe in her St Peters studio. Picture: Geoff Jones

Returned artworks from a just finished joint exhibition at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery with photographer Steven Cavanagh are in boxes, ready to be unpacked. She has also just wound up an exhibition in Melbourne, Pandora's Box, the latest of more than 70 solo shows she has held in Australia and internationally during her four decades-long career.

And there have been Archibald Prize goings-on: she attended the announcement of the winner of the prize's 100th instalment - among the finalists was a portrait of Sharpe by her friend Dagmar Cyrulla - as well as the opening of the Salon des Refuses exhibition for which Sharpe's own 2021 entry was selected and is in the running for the People's Choice Award, to be announced on September 23.

"I'm always doing a hell of a lot and I am pleased; I am lucky that I am always doing lots of different things at the same time, some of them immediate and others bubbling away in the background."

It is more than a first-world problem to complain about not being able to go to Paris. But I do miss it, I am a very restless person, and I am obsessed with travel. Absolutely obsessed.

At this time of year, Sharpe and Ollis would in normal times just as likely be in Paris, where they spend about a third of a typical year living and working in their Montmartre apartment. They were about to head there as COVID-19 breached Australian shores last year. A month in Sicily was also booked, as well as a joint exhibition of the couple's work in Shanghai, now on hold.

But Sharpe, warm and welcoming in paint-splattered jumper and jeans, offering tea and Chinese wafer chocolates out of an embossed red tin, is in no way having a whinge.

"It is more than a first-world problem to complain about not being able to go to Paris," she says, hyper aware of those in Australia who have lost jobs and can't afford their rent due to COVID-19.

GODDESS: Sharpe with her 1996 Achibald-winning self-portrait Diana of Erskineville at the opening of the Archie 100 exhibition, which will tour the country.

GODDESS: Sharpe with her 1996 Achibald-winning self-portrait Diana of Erskineville at the opening of the Archie 100 exhibition, which will tour the country.

"But I do miss it, I am a very restless person, and I am obsessed with travel. Absolutely obsessed."

In place of travelling last year, Sharpe painted the 100th mural in the Inner West Council's Perfect Match public art and graffiti prevention program, celebrating "women's empowerment" along the fence of a Camperdown family home.

On a wall of Marrickville Metro's new Smidmore St extension, Sharpe herself features, giant-like, in a mural painted by Fintan McGee to represent local women working in industry and the arts.

Sharpe loves Paris, but she loves Sydney's inner west too. Growing up on the northern beaches as an only child to British-born parents, Marjorie and Alan Sharpe, she felt like a fish out of water. "I didn't really fit in," she says. "By now I know what I am, and I am very urban. Sydney is quite quiet but I love a noisy, crazy, crowded city with heaps of things going on, and different cultures and nationalities - it is more diverse in the inner west."

FAMILY EPIC: The artist at the Sydney Jewish Musuem, painting a 40-metre mural, Where is the Little Street, which never opened to the public due to the pandemic lockdown.

FAMILY EPIC: The artist at the Sydney Jewish Musuem, painting a 40-metre mural, Where is the Little Street, which never opened to the public due to the pandemic lockdown.

Sharpe has been living in Erskineville since the late 1980s, when it was one of the cheapest places to buy a house. "My joke is that it was all Chiko rolls and Kraft cheese slices, whereas now it's all quinoa and wasabi peas," she says.

"It has changed incredibly. It was obviously a very working class area when I moved here - the family next to me raised greyhounds and there was a butcher shop down the road, which is now a very groovy café, where the butcher was a bookie as well - people would go in there to buy sausages and place a bet."

The self-portrait that in 1996 won Sharpe the Archibald Prize was called Diana of Erskineville, a deliberate irony given the rank unlikelihood of then "daggy" Erskineville being home to a goddess.

I am pleased it won. It is a really good painting of a beloved and wonderful man.

These days, the joke is lost because Diana might well live here, given how expensive the real estate now is. Sharpe still wouldn't live anywhere else in Sydney. "This is absolutely the best place to be in my view."

Sharpe was only the fifth woman to win the Archibald Prize since its inception in 1921, and the first to have done it with a self-portrait. Even today, only 10 women have won the prize, and they are the subjects of just 17 winning portraits.

Perhaps the Art Gallery of NSW trustees were trying to make a point for the Prize's then 75th anniversary, because Sharpe's painting was in stark contrast to the preceding parade of mostly white male winners, the early decades especially being dominated by so many "men in three-piece suits judged by men in three-piece suits", as Sharpe describes it.

STREET ART: In Camperdown, Sharpe painted the 100th mural of the Inner West Council's Perfect Match program. Picture: Geoff Jones

STREET ART: In Camperdown, Sharpe painted the 100th mural of the Inner West Council's Perfect Match program. Picture: Geoff Jones

The vivid and sensual Diana of Erskineville depicted a modern young woman with thongs on her feet, green bra on show, and attitude to burn. 'Diana' didn't know it then, but three years later she'd be donning full khaki and heading to a crisis zone as the Australian Army's Official Artist in East Timor.

"I got a hell of a lot of publicity - everyone does when they win [the Archibald] - but I got a little more," she says.

"I almost think the Archibald is the only thing that gets any kind of publicity in the visual arts. No one has heard of anything else except the Archibald so as an artist who wins you appear to come from nowhere, even though you haven't."

TRAVEL OBSESSION: Wendy Sharpe and Bernard Ollis at Persepolis in Iran.

TRAVEL OBSESSION: Wendy Sharpe and Bernard Ollis at Persepolis in Iran.

In its centenary year there is gender parity among the finalists which were to have been on show until September 26 at the Art Gallery of NSW (you can instead immerse yourself in the exhibition online), and more female sitters than male. But the prize went to a white man's portrait of another white man, albeit with no three-piece-suits in sight but rather a bright pink sweater draped over the shoulders of the 100-year-old subject, artist Guy Warren.

Sharpe says she thought on the day that while Peter Wegner's painting was clearly a contender, it probably wouldn't win because of the political nature of the Archibald and the optics in a year such as 2021 of going down its traditional gender path.

But the quality of the portrait, and the high esteem in which Warren is held, saved it from controversy, Sharpe believes, as did the judges' singling out for highly commendeds of two paintings by and of women.

FAVOURITE: Sharpe's 2021 Archibald entry, Taylor Fontaine and the Magda Szubanskis.

FAVOURITE: Sharpe's 2021 Archibald entry, Taylor Fontaine and the Magda Szubanskis.

"I am pleased it won. It is a really good painting of a beloved and wonderful man, a man who is 100 and right now would be painting, and who is completely together and interested in what is happening right now, but can also tell you stories from the 1930s and 1940s which is amazing," Sharpe says.

Being an experienced hand at the Archibald game, she is not disappointed that her own 2021 entry - unlike her portrait of Magda Szubanski which last year became her 7th Archibald finalist - was relegated to the Salon Des Refuses. With 1000 entries from which the AGNSW trustees pick finalist contenders as the portraits are paraded past them, she believes there's a degree of chance in being selected at all.

BONJOUR, PARIS: Sharpe on the balcony of her and Ollis's Montmartre apartment.

BONJOUR, PARIS: Sharpe on the balcony of her and Ollis's Montmartre apartment.

And like any Archibald year, she says there are some really good paintings among the 52 2021 finalists, and some "really terrible paintings - some shockers - but that is the nature of it".

Of her entry Taylor Fontaine and the Magda Szubanskis, depicting the eponymous lip-synching group led by a bearded, hairy-chested drag queen who perform at Erskineveille's legendary Imperial Hotel, she says: "It's a better painting than some of the ones I've done that have been in."

The four members of the group came to Sharpe's studio to be photographed and sketched, "which was very funny because there were people outside doing roadwork seeing really full-on spangly drag queens in high heels, like a scene from Priscilla, all coming in here.

"I think it is probably my favourite portrait in a way, because it was a challenge to do - It was difficult to get four people into a portrait - and it worked."

Meanwhile, Diana of Erskineville is back in the limelight as one of the 100 portraits in the Archie 100 exhibition, which will tour the nation after being curated through a painstaking search for missing finalists and winners to mark the centenary of the 'prize that stops the nation'.

BEACH DAYS: Sharpe with her parents, Marjorie and Alan, in Manly in the 1980s.

BEACH DAYS: Sharpe with her parents, Marjorie and Alan, in Manly in the 1980s.

Diana belongs to a private collector on the North Shore who generously loaned it for what could be a couple of years as the exhibition travels around the nation.

"It is a large painting, more than two metres high, so I lent the owner another painting to replace it so she doesn't have a big space left on her wall," Sharpe says.

All these years later, she is still pleased with Diana: "I think it is a good painting and I am glad that it won."

Sharpe's 16-page CV of exhibitions, scholarships, awards, major commissions, residencies, permanent collections and media, will continue to grow. At 61, she has no plans to slow down.

PAINTING HISTORY: A few years after her Archibald win, Sharpe was appointed the Australian Army's Official War Artist in East Timor.

PAINTING HISTORY: A few years after her Archibald win, Sharpe was appointed the Australian Army's Official War Artist in East Timor.

It's a sure bet that she will continue to paint people, not landscapes - "Don't destroy them, but I am not interested in painting a tree - I want a story about people."

She will also continue through her art to raise awareness and money for important causes. Just before COVID hit, she was in Ethiopia to draw patients of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, meeting its Australian co-founder Dr Catherine Hamlin not long before her death at the age of 96. The resulting portraits were auctioned off to raise money for the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation in its mission to treat women who have suffered the devastating childbirth injury of obstetric fistula.

When we visit, Sharpe is working on a series of drawings for an exhibition to raise money for Lou's Place, a shelter in Potts Point for women escaping domestic violence, as well as working towards regular exhibitions of her work, because an artist has to make a living after all.

"All those charity projects, I don't want money from those, I hate the idea of that but I also do need to have money."

MYSTERY: Sharpe in her artworks likes to leave room for the viewer to decide what is going on. Picture: Geoff Jones

MYSTERY: Sharpe in her artworks likes to leave room for the viewer to decide what is going on. Picture: Geoff Jones

And somehow, after a lifetime of drawing and painting and nearly 40 years since her graduation with a BA in Visual Arts from the City Art Institute, the inspiration keeps coming.

"Things always come out of other things and there tends to be themes that people return to a lot," she says.

"With my themes, a lot of it is the juxtaposition between the real and the imagined, I realise now - when you have been doing it long enough you can sort of see what you are trying to do.

"My paintings are not abstract, you can tell what it is, but what is going on is up to you and I think that makes it much more interesting - there needs to be a bit of room for you to put yourself in there, your own background and ideas.

"To me, if something is a bit mysterious, you keep returning to it - you have an idea of what it is about but it is still debatable. It's like a movie where it doesn't always neatly tie up in a bow at the end."

Take a virtual tour of the 2021 Archibald Prize exhibition here

Take a virtual tour of the Archie 100 here

WENDY'S INNER WEST

Favourite café: So many .. our nearest is Naked Brew, also Foodcraft Espresso and Flowerdrum.

Restaurant: There areso many within a short walk. Dehli O Dehli, Thai Pothong, Pashas, Parkview hotel Alexandria - we often go and eat in restaurants at the south end of Newtown on the way home from the studio.

Walk: To the studio, which I do everyday from Erskineville to St Peters, mostly avoding main roads - it takes around 25-30 minutes.

Pub: The Rose of Australia

Place of beauty: Sydney Park

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