Apollo Magazine

In the studio with… Wendy Sharpe

The artist has all she needs in her capacious studio in Sydney, where her artist partner, some audiobooks and a Mexican papier-mâché skeleton keep her company

Wendy Sharpe in her studio. Photo: John Fotiadis; courtesy Wendy Sharpe

For more than 40 years, Wendy Sharpe has been creating richly coloured figurative works that explore a wide variety of themes, from love, femininity and identity to the rights of asylum seekers in Australia. Though best known for her playful narrative paintings, Sharpe also works with other mediums, such as ceramics and drawing. She is one of Australia’s most influential artists, having been the subject of some 70 solo exhibitions internationally, and in 2023 was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the visual arts. Her latest exhibition, ‘Spellbound, is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 11 August. Sharpe will be in residence at the gallery regularly, working in a space that partly recreates her Sydney studio.

Trapped in an Allegory of My Own Making (2024), Wendy Sharpe. Photo: John Fotiadis; © the artist

Where is your studio?

I’m incredibly lucky to have a dream studio – the sort of studio you see in movies and think, ‘That doesn’t exist!’ It’s a huge warehouse in Inner West Sydney, close to the city in what was once a working-class, industrial area. It’s a wonderful location, about a half-hour walk from my house.

How would you describe the atmosphere where you work?

It’s a very simple rectangular space. In the centre of the studio is a drawing table; at one end there’s a painting table; at another there’s a whole lot of acrylic paint on the floor. There’s a pile of drawings somewhere else… there’s all sorts of things. I have a 20-metre-long wall that holds a lot of the paintings that will be in the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition – it’s a fabulous thing to see a whole load of works together rather than one at a time. I’m here every day – I just love it and I’m barely ever at home.

My partner Bernard Ollis [who is also an artist] and I have a small apartment in Paris, which is fantastic. Unlike here, we only have a table each for our work, which is great but it means you work in a different way and can’t have so much stuff around – you simply don’t have the space.

Is there anything that frustrates you about your studio?

Right now, it’s about to start raining again, and it does leak a little bit in a few places, but I’ve got a few buckets here so that’s not really a problem. It gets pretty cold in here in winter, but we’re talking Sydney winter, so it’s not that bad. I’ve got space for storage and racks – it’s pretty much as good as it gets.

Four Last Songs (2022), Wendy Sharpe. Photo: John Fotiadis; © the artist

Do you have a specific studio routine?

I usually come straight after breakfast. I’m here by 10 or 10:30 am and I leave about 6 or 6:30 pm in the evening, so I’m here all day, every day – if I’m not here, it’s because I’m doing something else that’s connected. Because I’m lucky enough to have so much space, it means I don’t ever really need a break – if I need to clear my head I can just move on to something else.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

I listen to audiobooks a lot. It depends on what I’m doing. If you’re composing something and in a very strategic place, you can’t listen to a story at the same time because it mucks up the mind. But I do love listening to stories, even though I know I’m only half paying attention. Sometimes I listen to music, but it’s more audiobooks or nothing at the moment.

What’s the most unusual object in your studio?

In a corner is a Mexican papier-mâché Day of the Dead skeleton wearing a bowler hat that belonged to one of my friend’s grandfathers. There are a few strange things in here, but that probably wins the award.

Infinite Possibilities (2024), Wendy Sharpe. Photo: John Fotiadis; © the artist

What’s the most well-thumbed book in your studio?

I’ve just been looking at a book called Fairground Art. In ‘Spellbound’, there is a wheel of fortune which I’ve made to be like something you’d see at a fairground, so I was looking through that book. I’ve had it for quite a long time and it’s a wonderful resource.

Who is the most unusual visitor you’ve ever had?

I once painted a drag comedy group of men and women called the Magda Szubanskis, named after a very famous Australian comedian. [In the painting] they’re all dressed in full-on drag. They were dolled up to the max when they arrived at the front door and there were workmen across the road looking at this group with full make-up, incredibly high shoes and incredibly sparkly everything, standing there in fishnet stockings and coming through the door. That was a funny one, and they were just fantastic to paint.

Six First Lines (2021), Wendy Sharpe. Photo: John Fotiadis; © the artist

As told to Lucy Waterson.

‘Spellbound’ is at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until 11 August.

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