Luke Sciberras and Guy Maestri | Going Bush

Not collaborators, in many senses just fellow travellers, but most certainly the best of mates. The creative relationship between these two artists – one based in the city, the other the bush – feeds both in different ways. One prefers to work outdoors, the other is happiest in his studio in the city. And yet they still manage to spend a lot of time together, companionably and productively.

Luke Sciberras and Guy Maestri have a phrase they reserve for those awkward moments when one of them reveals a work in progress and the other is dubious of its merit.

“The phrase is ‘there it is’,” Maestri says, making it sound like more of a passing compliment than a mate’s warning that a canvas is going pear-shaped. No hurt, no deflation – just a simple code understood by both artists. The story is emblematic of the trust and respect that has grown between Maestri and Sciberras since they became very close friends eight years ago.

Theirs is not just any old mateship. The two artists regularly stay at each other’s places, and go away together on painting trips that have opened their eyes to entirely new ways of making art. Both men say the relationship is a treasured and vital part of their separate artistic lives.

“It’s very, very important just to know – when we’re working in our studios in the isolation that we inflict upon ourselves – that ultimately we’ve got each other to spur each other on,” Sciberras says. “We bring out the very best in each other. I certainly feel that.”

“It’s made a huge difference to have that sort of support,” Maestri says. “I’ve always had lots of friends and family, but this has been a different thing altogether, because it’s a lot to do with our support and growth as artists, which is something I haven’t had before, really.”

There’s certainly no chance of them living in each other’s pockets. They live a four-hour drive apart. Maestri has lived for 10 years in the inner Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, and Sciberras moved to the historic rural village of Hill End, 278km north-west of Sydney, in 2002. In spite of the distance, they get together every week or so.

“You’ve got to believe in your own work. But it is valuable to know that I have my contemporaries to critique my work, and that has knocked it up to another level.”
Luke Sciberras

Just before his last exhibition, Maestri practically lived at Sciberras’ place for six months so he could immerse himself in the ravaged, post-mining landscape of the old gold town.

When the two are apart, they constantly exchange photographs of what they’re working on. Artist Ben Quilty is very much part of the friendship, and joins in this exchange of works in progress. Honesty is the name of the game, and can be a little more direct when they’re not actually together.

“Sometimes you think you might be on the edge of what is your best painting ever,” Sciberras says. “You half think to yourself, ‘am I kidding myself?’ And they say, ‘You’re a joke. Wake up, Scribbler’.”

“And we say, ‘thank God you showed us that rubbish’,” Maestri says. (This exchange is followed by raucous laughter. The two artists have evolved a hilarious banter, usually at each other’s expense.)

Artistic advice from within the group is heeded, but not always followed. “I just tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Sciberras says. “You’ve got to believe in your own work. But it is extremely valuable to me to know that I have my contemporaries to critique my work, and that has knocked it up to another level.”

Both Sciberras and Maestri are dedicated to their studio practices. Sciberras loves painting out of doors, while Maestri says he battles with it and prefers his studio. Sciberras draws on his memories of a place for months and even years, but Maestri paints on the spot and rarely finishes a landscape in the studio.

Maestri is having a “love affair” with his studio, which is several kilometres from his home. In an industrial precinct of Marrickville, it is light, quiet and fitted out by Maestri with a well-equipped framing workshop, an exposed-beam kitchen with distant city views and a painter’s retreat, complete with lounges, bookshelves and a bed behind wooden louvre blinds.

Sciberras can see his studio – a small, deconsecrated stone church – from his front verandah. The church is Hill End picturesque, complete with kangaroos loafing in the front paddock at dusk.

While Sciberras’ studio is all creative chaos, Maestri’s is orderly. This is echoed in their characters. Maestri is the straight man to the louder, more ebullient Sciberras. Jokes and stories are batted back and forth between them, Maestri often rolling his eyes and telling Sciberras, “don’t be an idiot”.

These are certainly differences between the two artists. But there are many similarities. Maestri is 40 and Sciberras is 39. Both attended the National Art School in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, and were taught by many of the same tutors, including Euan Macleod, Wendy Sharpe, Aida Tomescu and the late John Peart. Olsen Irwin Gallery in Sydney has represented both of them for years. And, coincidentally, they both experienced family break-up at the age of four. In spite of these commonalities, their friendship did not flourish from the first meeting. Years before they became mates, Maestri would go to look at Sciberras’ exhibitions before he even knew who Sciberras was. “I used to think, ‘who’s that gregarious man with the Fedora hat?’,” Maestri jokes.

Sciberras enjoyed Maestri’s work too, and in about 2004 he suggested they go bush and make some paintings. “He said, ‘oh yes, what a nice idea’, and then it never happened until 2007,” Sciberras says.

That was the year of Maestri’s struggle with plein air painting – the obstacle that turned an acquaintance into a true bond. “That was a pivotal moment for me because those two (Sciberras and Quilty) took me out into the bush and said, ‘this is what you need to do; you need to work out in the field’, because I was flailing,” Maestri says.

Sciberras and Quilty decided that Maestri needed to stand in front of the landscape and wrestle it into submission. So they all gathered at Sciberras’ place and went bush. “We plonked him in the bush like a ghost ship and said, ‘righto, go for your life’,” Sciberras says.

Maestri says, “I think they just observed and knew that that’s what I needed. I hadn’t even thought of going back into the bush since art school. Art school was something (where) you went plein air painting when you were learning, and I never thought of it beyond that. It actually set me on a path, because I was all over the shop.”

“Those two (Sciberras and Quilty) took me out into the bush and said, ‘this is what you need to do; you need to work out in the field’.”
Guy Maestri

Although the event was a turning point in the friendship, and in Maestri’s work, the two artists did not travel together until 2011 when they went to Mutawintji National Park in far-western NSW.

Now they travel regularly. They go every year to Wilcannia in north-western NSW, where their artist friend Jonathan Throsby manages a vast sheep station. They’ve flown over Lake Eyre with John Olsen. They have camped on the homelands of indigenous people, which changed their lives. And last year they joined the Artist Profile painting trip to Gallipoli. “We travel together very well. We seem to just fit into a nice little metronome pace with each other,” Sciberras says.

Their 2012 trip from Darwin to Alice Springs through the Tanami Desert turned out to be vital for both of them. “That was an amazing, incredible revelation of a trip to me – to us – because we spent a great deal of time with the Aboriginal people in their communities of Lajamanu and Yuendumu,” Sciberras says.

“We were able to see and then understand at first hand the spiritual connection the people have with the land, and their painterly response to it. And how they live and who they are, and the fun they have and their singing, dancing, chanting. (It was a) constant almost evangelical devotion to their spirituality, which was non-stop, they almost talked of nothing else. That was something I’d never seen before,” adds Sciberras.

Maestri says the trip was “a privilege and an education”. They met indigenous people who had never seen a white person until they were about 12 years old. They included Lily Hargreaves Nungarrayi and Rosie Tasman Napurrurla. “They can remember seeing the tracks of the Land Cruisers in the sand for the first time, thinking that was a great serpent,” Sciberras recalls.

The artists still speak animatedly about what they witnessed on that important trip – the way the indigenous people worked incessantly and without hesitation. “They put it down without squinting or squaring up, using their thumbs or underpainting. It just comes straight out. They never stop painting. They never push the painting back like we do, and sit in our seagrass chairs and look at art books and stare paintings out,” Sciberras says.

Both artists felt the indigenous artists were expressly educating them, and both were humbled. “It almost made you feel a little bit like we’re going to places like that and just superficially documenting, without any real understanding of where we were,” Maestri says.

Sciberras counters: “But that’s what we learned about our understanding of the landscape – that there’s more than just the ‘look and put’ visual representation of the landscape. It just gave another whole tender, almost tribal, layer to our approach to the landscape.”

For Maestri, the experience has led to his latest ongoing series of still lives which have their roots in the landscape, although they are not literally representative of it. The still lives are of dead native animals such as koalas and parrots. Mostly road kill, they are elegantly painted and are eloquent of man’s environmental impact. “They’re not landscape paintings, but they’re a documentation or understanding of

what’s in a place, what’s there, how the place is affected by human beings, how we use the land, how it’s degraded or affected, what feral things are there,” Maestri says. “It’s about a place but it’s not …”

Sciberras finishes the sentence: “… of a place”.

“Yeah,” Maestri says.

This living education built on the atelier style education they received at the National Art School (NAS). Even though they are close in age, they did not cross paths at the school.

Sciberras enrolled at NAS one year after leaving high school, and left in 1997. Maestri did not enrol until 2000. After leaving high school he had completed a boat-building apprenticeship at Pittwater in Sydney’s northern beaches. At NAS, he did an honours year and was then awarded a scholarship to Paris. Sciberras, however, flunked the NAS. “They failed me,” he recalls. “It was my fault, because I destroyed all my work in the middle of the year. I was always off working for people in their studios. I was never at art school. I mean, I was there, but I lived at Palm Beach and I was always late and then I never did any work because I was always schmoozing around, smoking cigarettes in the courtyard.”

“You were a bum,” Maestri jokes.

“I wasn’t a bum,” Sciberras counters. “I was very driven. I was very enthusiastic and ambitious to meet as many artists as I could. It was a bad time to be there because it was exactly in the transition between it being a TAFE and an independent art school. So it was very political and it was all turbulent times. So I was off working in people’s studios, which was my own art education.”

It’s easy to imagine the young Sciberras entertaining everyone at art school. Maestri, being somewhat undemonstrative, is the perfect foil.

“We travel together very well. We seem to just fit into a nice little metronome pace with each other.”
Luke Sciberras

A key to Maestri’s personality is his comment that he is grateful to his boatbuilding trade for instilling a work ethic which he now brings to his life as an artist.

“He’s very energetic,” Sciberras says. “I have a very shy side, a sort of sensitive, fearful side, which I hide with bravado and confidence that I’m sure is quite obvious, and he’s a very good antidote to my preposterous side. But my gregarious side is totally non-stop, consistently constant. That’s why I love living here because it gives me the time and the space to get my work done, without which I’m just a neurotic, idiot mess.”

Paradoxically, given the ongoing struggle he says he has with plein air painting, it’s Maestri who loves painting alone in the bush. “Even if it’s just a kilometre down the road, nobody knows I’m there and it’s when I feel the most liberated and at peace,” he says. “But that’s when you can give the work the time it needs. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you have to resolve something because people are around.”

Sciberras, on the other hand, finds it “disconcerting” to be painting out in the bush utterly alone. He prefers the quiet sociability of being part of a posse of artist buddies.

You might think Sciberras, living way out in Hill End, would be more solitary than Maestri. But it isn’t so. Artists’ residencies in the old miners’ cottages of Hill End bring a constant flow of new creative people. Many artists have moved to Hill End, including Bill Moseley who, coincidentally, was one of Maestri’s boat-building teachers before going to the NAS himself. Then there’s Sciberras’ famous open door policy and wonderful cooking, both of which make his quaint home a hub for artistic wayfarers.

As mentioined earlier, both Maestri and Sciberras were four years old when their parents separated. Maestri was born in Mudgee before moving with his Italian family to acreage in the Port Macquarie hinterland. At age 13, he moved with his father and brother to his grandmother’s home in Castle Cove in Sydney. He drew compulsively as a child, but never realised that art could be a career. He was 25 when he finally found his way to the NAS after completing a summer school at the Julian Ashton Art School.

Sciberras, of Maltese/Ukrainian heritage, grew up in Campbelltown. He moved to Wedderburn with his mother and stepfather, and became close friends with Elisabeth Cummings, John Peart and the other Wedderburn artists. Sciberras immersed himself in the artistic milieu of Wedderburn. During his “gap year” after school, Elisabeth Cummings taught him to draw. The following year, he enrolled in the National Art School.

Unlike Maestri, Sciberras doesn’t remember drawing as a very young child. But art became his favourite subject at high school, and a welcome retreat. “I hid in the high school art room all the time,” he says. “I had a fantastic art teacher who gave me the key to the art room. I hid in there during the lunch breaks because I never wanted to socialise.”

Both Maestri and Sciberras found their calling at art school. Now their extraordinarily close friendship, of which Ben Quilty is an important part, has furthered their sense of security.
“I’ve got so much uncertainty about what I do,” Maestri says. “I’ve taken a lot of notice of their input, and it’s been so important to get me to a stage where I feel like I’m sort of sailing on my own and understanding myself a bit more. So I need that influence. It’s been really important.”

EXHIBITION
Guy Maestri
Olsen Irwin Gallery
26 August – 13 September, 2015

www.olsenirwin.com
www.scottliveseygalleries.com
www.janmurphygallery.com.au

Courtesy the artists and Olsen Irwin Gallery, Scott Livesey Galleries, Jan Murphy Gallery