Wendy Sharpe may be one of Australia’s best-known painters, but this week in Maitland she is also a performance artist.
The 1996 Archibald Prize winner is an artist-in-residence at Maitland Regional Art Gallery.
As Sharpe paints her bold images of humanity directly onto three of the gallery’s walls, spectators gather on both the ground and first floors, taking photos or simply watching a master of colour at work.
“She’s a goddess in the art world,” says Megan Barrass, who has travelled from Port Stephens. “We’re very lucky to have her here.”
And the goddess is working up in the heavens, or, at least, near the gallery ceiling. One work is almost five metres high, and she is creating another image on a wall hovering above the ground floor, so Sharpe’s painting platform is a scissor lift.
A gallery assistant, Edward Milan, is operating the lift’s controls, so Sharpe can concentrate on painting, all the while ignoring the height she’s working at.
“It’s a little bit scary,” Sharpe says. “But I get to paint huge whacking things on these walls.”
While she has created murals and has painted in a gallery in Britain during her acclaimed career, Sharpe says she hasn’t done anything quite like this before.
But when Maitland gallery director Brigette Uren asked the artist if she would create before the public eye, Sharpe jumped at the opportunity.
“This place is really quite special,” Sharpe says of the gallery, adding she loves the historic buildings in Maitland. “I was so shocked by how stunning the architecture is here.”
The works being created during the artist-in-residency is part of a larger exhibition of Sharpe’s works on paper, titled Secrets, which opens on Sunday.
But Sharpe has to finish the three big wall pictures by tonight, as she has to dash back to her Sydney home tomorrow before returning for the opening. So spectators will gather once more today for their last chance to watch Wendy Sharpe paint.
“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.”
When she is not painting high off the floor, or inspecting dozens of her other works being hung and placed on the gallery’s walls, Sharpe stops and chats to onlookers, signs catalogues and poses in selfies, declaring, “This is fun!”.
Melody Jones, who has driven from Lake Macquarie to see Sharpe, agrees.
“It’s mind blowing to have Wendy Sharpe here,” she says, “not just physically, but to have her creating work in front of everyone.”