Living With Art: Wendy Sharpe

Wendy Sharpe has held over sixty solo exhibitions around Australia and internationally. As 3:33 Art Projects near our third anniversary since we launched The Clayton Utz Art Partnership with leading Australian law firm, Clayton Utz, which featured Wendy Sharpe in 2017 we reflect on the privilege, and joy, in connecting new audiences to art.

Sharpe’s daily practice is diverse, from TV to public art, she is interested in all kinds of drawing, painting and image making that will connect with viewers who wouldn’t usually find themselves in an art gallery. We caught up with the artist, whose robust creative energy and drive is matched by a fantastical practice that celebrates society, and women. Wendy Sharpe is one of Australia’s most awarded artists. She has received the Sulman Prize, two travelling Scholarships, The Portia Geach Memorial Award (twice), The Archibald Prize, and many others. She has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize six times. Sharpe is represented by King Street on William Gallery, Sydney, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, Linton & Kay Galleries, Perth, Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin and Falls Gallery, Wentworth Falls.

Wendy Sharpe in her studio

You recently participated in a TV show airing on SBS called ‘Life Drawing Live’ where Australian celebrities learn to draw from life. Can you tell us about the experience?

It was wonderful to have Life Drawing shown on television in a way that is both entertaining and informative. Although I have been filmed many times before, a pre-record is nothing like 2 hours absolutely live – pretty scary! Luckily it all went well and we got great feedback.

What inspired your new mural in Sydney? 

I am excited to have the opportunity to paint a large-scale mural in Newtown this month, an area where I have lived and worked for 30 years. The theme Women’s Empowerment is close to my heart and, what much of my work is about! It is great to be part of the Inner West Council’s excellent innovative Perfect Match Program, for Public Art. I have designed a mural that is not an illustration and not didactic but is open-ended and poetic. The viewer is encouraged to bring their own experience and interpretation. The imagery is linked with the quote  ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’ – Audre Lorde.

Wendy Sharpe, installation at Clayton Utz, Sydney, 2017

I know you’ve been having some kooky dreams (as I think we all have!), how have these manifest in your work both in your compositions and also what mediums you’re drawn to?

During this extraordinary period of isolation and social distancing, I have been fascinated by the psychological impact on individuals. Especially the collective unconsciousness, ‘Quarantine Dreams’, with so many people having dreams about loss of agency, and being unable to achieve something, anxiety suppressed during the day.

I have painted several folding artist books Dreams in Dark Times and The Book of Recurring Dreams. These are long-form books in gouache. One of these was acquired by the State Library of NSW and will be on exhibition there from 24 September. More work on this theme will be part of my exhibition GHOSTS filling the whole of Mosman Art Gallery Sydney 5 December to 25 January. It will include drawing installations/works on paper, large-scale wall paintings, and an installation of lights with painted dream imagery, which can have both personal and universal relevance.

What was your inspiration for the upcoming show MAGIC at King Street Gallery on William, on view 29 September to 24 October?

Originally, I thought this exhibition would be about stage magicians or ghosts, people creating something out of nothing, but as I worked, I realised it was actually about creativity. The juxtaposition of the real and the imagined has always been present in my work. We all live in the coinciding worlds of our imagination and the everyday with its emails, electricity bills and supermarkets. As an artist this is particularly true. You must be able to enter your own labyrinth of infinite possibilities, yet not get lost in there, and never fully lose hold of the string that will lead you back out.

Ideas appear to come “out of thin air ” but they are the result and reward from years of work and linking seemingly unconnected concepts in different ways, memory, play and experimentation. It is impossible to create something new without daring to explore unfamiliar territory and taking risks.

This exhibition comprises of major oil paintings and a collection of small-framed works that are like vignettes or private fragments of poetry. I bought most of these antique frames from flea markets in Paris. They are like artefacts, full of poignant unknown histories, silent and resonant; perhaps once a much-loved picture on someone’s wall, a wedding gift, a family heirloom, a secret treasure. I have added a new narrative while still retaining a feeling of mystery and possibilities. The suite of large oil paintings depict someone whose inner life is made visible, surrounding them with open-ended dreamlike images. The paintings are simultaneously about past and future, the invisible and tangible. There are no limits to the possible meanings of each painting. Not one answer. I am not interested in the obvious or straightforward. The viewers are invited to bring their own interpretation.

There are endless possibilities, like creativity itself. ‘The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery’ Francis Bacon.

Wendy Sharpe, Magda Szubanski, Comedy and Tragedy, 2020

You’ve painted Magda Szubanski for the 2020 Archibald Prize. How did you choose your subject and what symbolism, colour and approach, in general, have you used to capture her essence?

I have always admired Magda Szubanski; her humour, intelligence, activism. I loved her autobiography Reckoning. I am never interested in simply painting a mere likeness, and thought it would be a cliché to paint Magda as her much loved comic character Sharon Strzelecki, she is Sharon, but she is so much more.

During an intense discussion in my studio, Magda told me of her favourite painting by 19th-century Polish artist Jan Matejko. It depicts a famous Polish court jester, he is shown as the only person at a royal ball who is troubled by the news that the Russians have captured Smolensk. This made me decide, I would paint Magda as Sharon, not as a comic character but instead haunted by her family background with her Father’s traumatic WWII experiences. The flaming buildings behind her represent this. They are like a backdrop, deliberately unclear if they are real or imagined. They also represent all kinds of disasters that have surrounded us for the last few years. The painting is called Magda Szubanski, Comedy and Tragedy – might be too weird for the Archibald!


Wendy Sharpe is represented by King Street on William Gallery, Sydney, Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane, Linton & Kay Galleries, Perth, Michael Reid, Sydney and Berlin and Falls Gallery, Wentworth Falls.

This article is presented in collaboration with 3:33 Art Projects