Acclaimed artist Wendy Sharpe leaves her mark on Maitland gallery

LIFE FRAGMENTS: Wendy Sharpe watching dozens of her works on paper being arranged and displayed on a wall for her exhibition, “Secrets”. Pictures: Simone De PeakIN her long and celebratedcareer as an artist, Wendy Sharpe has gone to the farthest corners of the world and even deep into a conflict zoneto paint. Now she is reaching new heights in the name of her art.
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Sharpe is suspended in space above Maitland Regional Art Gallery’s ground floor, as she paintsdirectly onto a wall.The artist is standing on a scissor lift, which has been raised about six metres. She is staring intently ahead, guiding the brush across the wall. Sharpe may be fearless in pursuing painting subjects, but she’s not that keen on looking below.

“It’s a little bit scary,” Sharpe says later. “But I get to paint huge whacking things on these walls.

“And I don’t look straight down.”

Workingon a scissor lift brings other challenges. There’s no stepping back to check the image, and the artist has to prepare great dollops of paint on a palette before hopping onto the lift. What’s more, she has had to “relinquish” control of the lift to gallery assistant Edward Milan.

HIGH CULTURE: Wendy Sharpe, right, with assistant Edward Milan, on a lift. Picture: Simone De Peak

More than painting on the gallery wall, Sharpe is paintingthe gallery on the wall. She is depictingthe majestic century-old building that houses the gallery. As the building takes shape in paint, Sharpe lifts her brush off the wall and turns.

“Starting to recognise it?,” she asks.

Sharpe is addressing a cluster of onlookers standing on the first floor. Just like anyone performing at heights, she has drawn a crowd. But it’s not just the thrill of the high-flying creative act that keeps the spectators, it is the rare opportunity to watch afamousartist at work.

“She’s a goddess in the art world,” says Megan Barrass, herself an artist. She has travelled from Port Stephens to meet Sharpe and observe her painting.

“The opportunity here, it just doesn’t happen usually. We’re very lucky to have her here.”

Wendy Sharpe paints the gallery building on the gallery’s wall, as spectators watch on. Picture: Scott Bevan

Wendy Sharpe is one of ’s best-knownpainters. The art “goddess”won ’s highest-profileartaward, the Archibald Prize, for her Self Portrait –as Diana of Erskineville. It is one of a string of awards Sharpe has won.

In 1999, she was appointed an official artist by the n War Memorial to depict the n troops’ efforts to restore peace in East Timor. She has set up temporary studiosand painted in places ancient and remote, from Egypt and India toAntarctica.

These days, she and her artistpartner Bernard Ollis also spend a lot of time working in Paris. So more than the world being her oyster, it has been Wendy Sharpe’s muse.

The plan to have Sharpe as an artist-in-residence at Maitland was hatched a couple of years ago, when the gallery’s director, Brigette Uren, met with the painter.

While Sharpe has created murals and painted inside galleries before, what has beenforming on the walls, and the interest it has been creating, pushes beyond what Uren imagined.

“It’s so exciting to see the gallery like this,” Uren says, as she looks out at the spectators.

“I love the performative aspect of it, and to experience a leading n artist first-hand would have an immeasurable impact on the audience.”

Wendy Sharpe working on her Maitland version of “Red Dress”. Picture: Simone De Peak

In her three days as artist-in-residence in Maitland, Sharpe has painted a string of large images on the gallery’s walls.One painting is a version of her self-portrait,Red Dress.Only in this image, which is almost five metres high and more than three metres wide, Sharpe acknowledges the Hunter with a pattern of grapes on the dress, and, in the background, she has paintedthe Maitland railway signal box. She photographed the building when she arrived by train from Sydney on Sunday.

“It’s such a distinctive building,” Sharpe says. The artist shows me a historic photo she was given. The photowas taken during the1955 flood that ravaged the city, and it depicts asignal box sittinglike an island amid surgingwaters. That signal boxwas washed away, replaced by the building Sharpe has depictedon the gallery wall.

On another wall, high above the ground floor, she has painted three figures carrying a building. It is her tribute to what she has seen around Maitland, with its grand heritagestructures.

“I was so shocked by how stunning the architecture is here,” Sharpe says.

Wendy Sharpe working on the scissor lift in Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Picture: Simone De Peak

Yet perhaps her favourite building is the gallery itself, not just for the architecture but for what is happening inside it. She calls the gallery “such a special place”. It is why she accepted the artist-in-residency.

“Coming to a place like this, I can do whatever I want, and I’m supported,” Sharpe explains. “And this gallery is helping create an art precinct. As I’m walking along this main street, I see other shops starting as art galleries. So it’s becoming more of a special place.”

Director Brigette Uren says Sharpe’s presence in the gallery displaysa strongconnection between a city-based artist who works at the highest levels anda region that loves exploring new ideas.

“I consider Maitland people very generous in how inquisitive they are, in wanting to find out more,” Uren says. “And it’s in that spirit Wendy works;she is very generous. So I think that makes it amatch fromheaven.”

Dozens of Wendy Sharpe works on paper form part of the Secrets exhibition at Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Picture: Simone De Peak

Wendy Sharpe has descended from the artistic heavens near the gallery’s ceiling to inspect aninstallation. For the paintings she’s doing on the walls are part of a larger exhibition of her work in the gallery, titledSecrets. The exhibition reflects the diversityof her career, from the places she has visitedto her residency with Circus Oz.

Dozens of Sharpe’sworks on paper are being arranged and fastened onto one wall by three gallery volunteers. The images range from quickly drawn sketches, capturing a thought or a moment before it driftsaway, through to fine watercolour paintings.

The images depict fragments of exotic scenes,love in all its connotations, burlesqueperformers bathed in light,and silhouettes under a night sky. There are sketchesof strangers, and self-portraits.

Each image stuck on the wall is brimmingwith life of some sort. But the sum of these parts is a lung-tearing cheer for the beauty of humanity, and for the joy of life itself.

“It’s a fun thing to do,” Sharpe says, smiling, as she watches the volunteers sift through her images strewn acrossthe floor. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Dozens of Wendy Sharpe works on paper form part of the Secrets exhibition at Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Picture: Simone De Peak

I notice a few images have been drawn on bar coasters, collected on her travels. “Yes,” she responds.“The publicans of Maitland should lockaway their coasters!”

“This is about things you don’t normally get to see,” Sharpesays of the wall of images.“There are dreams or ideas you don’t pursue, and there are works you could frame.

“I’m often asked about a painting, ‘Where didyou get the idea from?’. Well, this is a bit of a clue to that.”

So this exhibition, as the title suggests, is letting the viewer in on a secret. We learn howan artist thinks and works.

“It’s very rare to see this,” says the exhibition’s curator, Kim Blunt.“You see an artist in situ, making decisions, making art, and feeling comfortable about it.

“It says a lot about Wendy that we get to see her practice in its entirety. It’s the result of many parts.”

When the exhibition is over, Sharpe’s wall imageswill be painted over, a thought that makes Kim Blunt wince: “It’s going to be a weird sensation, painting over the work.”

POPULAR: Wendy Sharpe signs a catalogue for fan and art teacher Alita Knaggs. Picture: Simone De Peak

When she’s not painting on the walls or inspecting works being hung, Sharpe is talking to spectators.

She is wearing a spattered apron, and her arms are blotched with a burgundy paint.But that hardly dissuades onlookers, who line up for selfies oranautograph.

“She’s got a big fan club, actually,” says Alita Knaggs, an art teacher from Fingal Bay, who has just secured an autograph on a catalogue.

“I’ve been teaching Wendy to my students this year.”

The artist herself is preparing to climb back onto the scissor lift. There is a wall image to be painted. She turns back to the onlookers, smiles and hollers, “Come to the opening on Sunday!”

Wendy Sharpe at Maitland Regional Art Gallery. Picture: Simone De Peak

Alita Knaggs nods and watches Wendy prepare to ascend once more. Not that Sharpe can climb any higher in her eyes.

“This is the first time I’ve met her,” Knaggs says. “And she stands up to her reputation.”

Secrets.Maitland Regional Art Gallery until August 19. Official opening with Wendy Sharpe, from11am, Sunday.

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